“The root meaning of teshuvah is return to God, or to Judaism, in the inclusive sense of embracing in faith, thought, and deed.
On the simplest, most literal level, the possibility of return can only exist for someone who was once “there,” such as an adult who retains childhood memories or other recollections of Jewish life.
But is it not possible for someone to return who was never “there,” who has no memories of a Jewish way of life, for whom Judaism is not a personal but a historical or biological heritage, or no more than’an epithet that gives him a certain meaningless identity?
The answer is unequivocally in the affirmative, for — on the more profound level—repentance as return reaches beyond such personal configurations.
It is indeed a return to Judaism, but not to the external framework, not to the religious norms that man seeks to understand or to integrate into, with their clear-cut formulae, directives, actions, rituals.
It is a return to one’s own paradigm, to the prototype of the Jewish person.
Intellectually, this paradigm may be perceived as a historical reality to which one is personally related, but beyond this is the memory of the essential archetype that is a part of the soul structure of the individual Jew.
In spite of the vast range of ways in which a Jew can alienate himself from his past and express himself in foreign cultural forms, he nevertheless retains a metaphysically, almost genetically, imprinted image of his Jewishness.
To use a metaphor from the world of botany:
A change of climate, soil, or other physical conditions can induce marked alterations in the form and the functioning of a plant, and even the adoption of characteristics of other species and genera, but the unique paradigm or prototype persists.”
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz