The past half decade in America, ever since the breakout of Hashtag #MeToo, there has been a paradigm shift in accountability, responsibility, and apology. At no time in American history have we as a society watched a huge swath of powerful individuals in politics, media, and business fall from grace for their actions and simultaneously seek a path back to being accepted once more into society. Some have done it properly, but most have done it poorly, or not at all. Listen to the way Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg summarized it:
“Owning the harm caused means that it must actually be owned fully, entirely. Many of the public statements offered by famous men in the first year after #MeToo broke offer a master class in how to fail at this. Their slippery apologies offered to the press could, at best, be considered to be part of the first step of repentance, except that they didn’t begin to take ownership of their actions - not Kevin Spacey’s bet hedging language - ‘If I did behave then as he describes’, not Garrison Keillor’s whining about how being named as an abuser has impacted his work, not Matt Lauer’s moaning about how the revelation that he assaulted women hurt his family, not Mario Batali’s focus on how his predatory behavior will be received by his fans, not Charlie Rose’s minimizing of the complaints against him, not Bill O’Reilly’s blaming of God, and not Louis C.K.s speculation about what the victims might have thought. These perfunctory, narcissistic public statements didn’t center their victims, didn’t name comprehensively and clearly what the men had done, and didn’t address their bad behavior without justifying it or making excuses. There are other ways to do it.”
These words come from Danya Ruttenberg’s new book, On Repentance and Repair. The origin story of the book is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Danya is the chief rabbi of twitter, and, full disclosure, a friend of mine from back in rabbinical school. When I say ‘chief rabbi of twitter’, I really mean it. Danya has 164,000 followers on twitter. England’s chief rabbi, by comparison, has 28K followers. During the beginnings of #MeToo, Danya began to tweet about differentiating between ‘repentance’, ‘forgiveness’, and ‘atonement’. Her explanations became a viral sensation, and led to a Washington Post op-ed and a couple of interviews on NPR. And everyone was asking the same questions: “What can Judaism tell us about the right ways and the wrong ways to apologize when we have made mistakes.” Danya’s book then spends 202 meticulously researched pages exploring a huge variety of questions.
The first questions it answers, for an intended audience primarily of non-Jews, are regarding the steps back from causing someone else harm. And the amazing thing is - you have all learned this. We talk about the teshuvah process every single year, and our primary text for the steps to teshuvah - return - is from Maimonides. In his hilchot teshuvah, Maimonides goes through the steps, in simplified language.
Step 1 is to name and own the harm.
Step 2 is starting to change.
Step 3 is to make restitution and accept the consequences of one’s actions
Step 4 is apology.
And step 5 is making different choices.
Again, you all have heard this before, many times and likely from many different rabbis, but the message is ultimately the same each year. But I want us to think about how a non-Jew hearing this for the first time might interpret it. America, or at least the perception of a broad swath of the American public, struggles with all of these steps,
starting with step 1 - naming and owning harm. The non-apology apology usually starts with a non-committal non-recognition of the harm done. The above-mentioned non-apology PR statement by Kevin Spacey is the exemplar of this entire genre - he states ‘If I did behave as the alleged victim describes.’ What in the heck is that?!? Is this a dodge because a person has forgotten that they did something bad? Because they were drunk? And if they were drunk, doesn’t the acceptance of fault need to begin with ‘I cannot account for my actions because I drank too much, and that’s bad, and I accept that I did wrong.’
To me, this response is one concocted not by a person who feels contrite, or even a public relations firm trying to do damage control of a valuable client. As the son of a lawyer and the nephew of three lawyers, this reads like something produced by a law firm that might shunt off guilt in case these matters ultimately end up in court. While starting the sentence with ‘if I did behave’ might keep your words from being used against you by a plaintiff, it also completely invalidates the claim of the person that you have harmed. Nothing can take place until a person recognizes what it was that they did which was harmful.
The most frequently heard version of this non-acknowledgement of harm done which feigns recognition of error is the phrase ‘I’m sorry that you were offended.’ These are words I would advise as your spiritual advisor that you should excise from your vocabulary. Moreover, if you hear someone use these words, you should either raise an eyebrow, or put a hand on the person next to you’s shoulder, and if you are particularly close with the person that said it, look at them and say ‘Bubbelah, don’t go there.’ The reason is this - if Dave is offended by something Sally said, and Sally is the one that said the harmful thing, then Sally is the offender, not Dave.
I’ll give three examples, all three that have happened to me - two in which I was the offender, and one when I was the one that received harm. Many years ago the phrase ‘gypped’ was a standard of American colloquial language, and so was the expression of being an ‘Indian giver’. We now know that both these terms are racial in nature, and racist - gypped derives from Gypsy, and Indian giver implies that Native Americans are untrustworthy in negotiations, which is realistically the opposite of the historical truth of US-Native relations in the 19th century. But at some point, I had to be told that these terms were racist. So in two separate moments several years apart, the specifics of which are lost in my memory, I used those two terms nonchalantly in conversation. And someone wise to the linguistic roots of those phrases - gyp and indian giver, told me they were inappropriate. And I apologized and expressed that I did not know it meant that and resolved not to use those terms anymore. Around the same era - the late 90s, when I was in college, someone at my university was expressing that they’d scored a bargain in negotiating, and said ‘yeah, I really Jewed them down’, not knowing that I was Jewish, or that the term itself was racist. Another person we were with said ‘Dude, you can’t say that, that’s super racist,’ and then explained it, and they apologized, although not to me specifically, since I wasn’t the one that objected. But all three had a satisfactory resolution, simply because the locus of responsibility was on the offender, not the offended person. The reply ‘I didn’t know, but now I do, and I won’t do that again’ was the right way to resolve it. However, growing up a boy at summer camp or a guy in a fraternity, all manner of degrading and insulting invective was used in my presence, often discarded or discounted with the phrase ‘oh, man, I was only kidding.’ Again, this is not owning the harm. The words we say have power, and we need to own them. Sure, that can be trying sometimes - I think I police my own thoughts a lot more than I used to, and I still say ‘I’m sorry’ with frequency. But this is part of the path of being your best self.
I wanted also to note step 3 - making restitution and accepting consequences - in the context of the broader American acceptance of the lesson of this book ‘On Repentance and Repair.’ On page 40, Rabbi Ruttenberg notes the well-known case from a decade ago of Barry Freundel, a rabbi in the Washington DC area who filmed women getting undressed going to the mikvah, the ritual bath. He issued an apology and acknowledged wrongdoing. Because of the statute of limitations, although over a hundred women had been victimized, only a small number of cases were eligible for prosecution. However - quote “as one of his victims noted, his words were profoundly undermined by his actions, which included appeals for a lighter sentence based on the claim that he had committed a single crime. Because he shortcutted the ‘accepting consequences’ phase by trying to find loopholes that would circumvent accepting responsibility for all the harm he caused, his teshuvah is not real teshuvah, and thus he never merited to have his victims forgive him.
I don’t want to get too hung up in the mechanics of sin and repentance as if it were a mathematical formula or a machine that needs repair. When your refrigerator is broken, you find the offending part, remove it, and put in a functioning part. Teshuvah and return don’t work this way. If someone causes harm, the repair for the harm is not instantaneous. The real hard work of teshuvah is step 5 - making different choices. This is another way to say that you’ve demonstrated that you’ve changed.
Last year, I spoke of the Lifer Bakery, a bakery in San Francisco staffed entirely by formerly incarcerated persons - not because it’s some sort of social services organization or a 501c3 with a charitable mission. It’s just a bakery run by a Jewish guy that believes in second chances. Every day an employee wakes up and decides to knead dough instead of committing a felony, they demonstrate step 5 - making different choices than the ones that cause others harm. But it’s an every day thing. And those who have done wrong become a little more trustworthy and a little more deserving each day they make the right choices, the different choice, from the ones that got them into the state of error in the first place.
Personal self-improvement is a big part of Yom Kippur - we resolve to take the errors of the past year - the greed, the laziness, the small-mindedness, the gossip, the lust, the selfishness - and repent them, and in reflecting and repenting, hoping to do better for the next year. But we must also consider a question I have approached in past years regarding how the greater collective of society finds teshuvah for an act with awful consequences. I spoke several years ago about Germany’s attempts to rectify the wrongs of the Holocaust, while in comparison, Poland, who bore some culpability for atrocities in World War II against the Jews, stands idly by. We as a nation are still wrestling with our role in slavery, and what we did to the indigenous peoples of this country. Rabbi Ruttenberg’s book brings up the example of Canada’s apology to its native people in 2011 for generations of abusive residential schools that decimated their Native youth. However, this was concurrent with Canada’s exploration of gas and oil drilling and pipelines in protected lands - at one point 94 of 105 oil and gas projects were on Native Canadian lands. Does an official governmental apology matter if the behavior that caused the harm - the disregard for Native peoples as poor and powerless and therefore victimiz-able - has not changed? It’s actual sort of worse - an apology in one hand with the demonstration of doing more harm with the other. Of this, Maimonides wrote ‘Anyone who verbalizes his confession without resolving in his heart to abandon [sin] can be compared to [a person] who immerses himself [in a mikvah] while [holding the carcass of] a lizard in his hand. His immersion will not be of avail until he casts away the carcass.’ (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:3)
But this is not the end of the story. Ruttenberg also takes a look at two other nations that have been and are currently embarking in the process of teshuvah from unspeakable atrocities. Germany, or specifically West Germany, began to take account for the atrocities of the Holocaust in 1949, but slowly, and with great reluctance. Only with the Adolf Eichman trial in 1961 and student protests in 1968 did Germany truly put sufficient effort into its guilt in nearly eliminating Jews and Jewish culture from the entire European continent. That process of teshuvah is not over. Germany will continue to wrestle with its history for generations. Similarly there is the case of South Africa, which attempted to address the wrongdoing of the apartheid generation with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Formed in 1995, the TRC attempted to gather testimony, allow for restitution, and grant amnesty. While the TRC accomplished much, many of the desired taxes on perpetrators and payments for victims were never implemented, and many of the leaders of systematic violence against blacks in South Africa neither admitted to wrongdoing nor received any consequences for their malicious deeds. As Ruttenberg writes “The repentance did not happen, and neither did the profound, and profoundly hoped for social transformation.” She quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who in 2014 wrote “The commission played a magnificent role in facilitating the telling of a story of the true horrors of apartheid. I believe truth is central to any healing process, because in order to forgive, one needs to know whom one is forgiving, and why.[He continues] But healing is a process. How we deal with the truth after its telling defines the success of the process.” I see it the same way - we are constantly moving in a direction towards right, and away from wrong. One error, one apology, one reconciliation, one failure, one rebound at a time.
We make mistakes, we correct them. Our nation makes mistakes, we press it to correct them too. Maimonides, in his formulation of the preamble to the ashamnu bagadnu prayer writes that the text should read:
שֶׁאֵין אָנוּ עַזֵּי פָנִים וּקְשֵׁי עֹרֶף שֶׁנֹּאמַר לְפָנֶיךָ צַדִּיקִים אֲנַחְנוּ וְלֹא חָטָאנוּ אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ וַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ חטאנו
‘We would not be insolent or stiff necked enough to say before you ‘we are righteous and have not sinned’ for we and our ancestors have sinned.’
Maimonides implies in this language that the sins of our ancestors are upon us to atone for, and to rectify. Interesting side note: if you go looking for this language in our machzor, the Harlow edition, it isn’t there. Harlow chose a variant of the text by another rabbi which uses ‘aval anachnu chatanu’ - we have sinned, not we and our ancestors have sinned. I don’t know why that choice was made, because I do think most rabbis would agree that we all live in the shadow of the actions of those that lived before us, both in our families and in our nations, and although I don’t directly need to atone for the wrongs of my grandparents, neither am I blameless or permitted to be a bystander to an unequal system or society that they set in place.
Ultimately, the message of the High Holidays for the individuals is deceptive. We are told to come here to get atonement from God for our sins - that this day, that these prayers, that this fast, that our presence, that our contritions, that our resolutions, bring about cosmic realignment that wipes the slate clean and allows us to enter into the 11th day of Tishrei, 5783, blameless, cleansed, new, and whole. This is true. And also it is not true. We are new tomorrow because of our resolve to change, but the resolve to change isn’t a moment or a rebirth. It’s every day, every moment.
And of course, if you need a little inspiration as to why you are here - why you need to do teshuvah - it’s because it is incredibly holy and transcendent. We grow and improve from it, and God delights in that growth and improvement. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, known as the Kedushat Levi, writes:
ובאמת זה הוא תענוג גדול להבורא ברוך הוא כשהנצוצות יש להם עליות למשל כשהבן הרחוק בא אל אביו אז יש לאב יותר תענוג כמבואר ברבותינו ז"ל (סנהדרין צט.) במקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין כו'
‘In truth, something that greatly delights the Creator, blessed be, is that the Divine Sparks are raised up by human beings through their action. This is compared to a far away child, who comes home to their parent, and that parent is more joyous than anything. This is like our sages say ‘ In the place where baalei teshuvah - masters of repentance and return stand, even the completely righteous cannot not stand.’ It is holier to be imperfect and in the process of self-improvement than it is to be perfect and flawless.
The message of Yom Kippur and of doing teshuvah is that we commit to working on ourselves, and also to zooming out a little wider - to working within our families, to working on our communities that we live in, and our nation and our world. We must keep working on ourselves, doing the work, of doing things, doing them imperfectly, finding the ways in which what we did created harm, taking responsibility, repairing and restoring the damage, and doing it differently in the future, in our words and our actions.