In a few day’s time millions of Jews will gather in synagogues across the globe praying for forgiveness.
We have sinned throughout the year. Sinned against God. Sinned against our fellow humans. And sinned against our values. But once a year we congregate, vocalizing our wrongdoings in heartfelt repentance (or at least paying lip service to the idea) with the foundational theology that God is inherently forgiving.
We cannot take the importance of this idea and tradition for granted.
For anyone following the news of the past couple of weeks they will certainly have heard of Canada’s Justin Trudeau and his blackface scandal, particularly relevant as Trudeau is soon up for re-election. Beginning with the surfacing of pictures at an Arabian Nights themed party, it has now been discovered that Trudeau has worn blackface several times (he himself had said he lost count), seemingly most recently at this 2001 party.
Now it is not my desire to discuss blackface or the racist history of the action. My assumption is that blackface is indefensibly racist and everyone, especially now in 2019, should have an understanding of the issue.
What I do wish to discuss, however, is this essential Jewish idea of repentance and forgiveness and the urgent need of applying it on an international level.
Are there actions that are fundamentally irredeemable, the consequences of which should immediately disqualify a person from forgiveness? Are there standards that we can pinpoint as being sufficient to secure forgiveness from a society? And, finally, in a society where identity politics is becoming the dominant mode of political communication how can we make sure that our standards are being applied equally across the board?
It seems like we don’t even have a vocabulary in the West to deal with these issues. Some may immediately blurt out that the criminal justice system is in place for exactly this reason but there are a whole host of reasons as to why it is woefully insufficient. For one, our criminal justice system is fundamentally broken, with systemic inequality pervasive throughout. And, even if one disagrees with that previous statement, the way that our society treats ex-cons hardly rings of forgiveness. In virtual all categories of well being and potential personal growth ex-cons are stymied at one level or another. Put bluntly, prison seems more like punishment for the sake of punishment rather than punishment for the sake of forgiveness.
There is then the fact that many of these actions deemed negative in our society are not punishable in any legal way. While blackface is obviously reprehensible, it is not punishable by law, nor should it be. The consequence of this, however, is that the repercussions for these types of actions are predominantly social with no checks or balances on that punishment. As “cancel culture” becomes increasingly ubiquitous we must begin to evaluate its limitations, consequences, and effectiveness.
For thousands of years before the term cancel culture was coined, Jewish thinkers and philosophers were engaged in vigorous debate surrounding all the questions delineated above. From the paradigmatic Yonah ben Amitai (Jonah son of truth) who, when asked by God to tell the Assyrian city of Ninveh to repent, refused because he didn’t believe they were worthy, all the way to the fierce debate within nascent Israel surrounding the receiving of reparations from post-Nazi Germany - this question of forgiveness has been at the center of Jewish discussion.
Perhaps the best known source discussing the parameters of repentance is Maimonides' book the “Laws of T’shuvah.” Here, Maimonides discusses a multi-step process of stopping, regretting, verbalizing, and subsequently take steps to undo a wrong action. Then, the pinnacle of repentance arrives when one is placed in a similar situation and doesn’t fall prey to the same immoral action.
The Judaic conversation and legal discussion surrounding repentance is one that needs to be injected into the public sphere. We have thousands of years of conversation and language carefully crafted to both ensure that actions deemed wrong go unrepeated but the perpetrators can (usually) easily return to their previous standing within society
These steps will allow us to differentiate between Trudeau with his sincere apology, especially given his years of public service as a progressive, and others who haven’t even seemed to internalize the need to start a process of repentance for actions in their youth. The crux of the problem is that in lieu of a societal system and public conversation of forgiveness, there is really no way to decipher the difference in magnitude between these actions as an outside observer. In the wake of the recent Trudeau scandal a close female friend remarked to me that from the amount of coverage Tradeau was receiving from this immature racist act 18 years ago, one which he clearly has made up for over his years, you might have thought that he was the perpetrator of a sexual assault a year ago.
Justin Tradeau has done T’shuvah. The fact that journalists everywhere are bashing the Prime Minister for this 18 year old racist act, instead of lauding and raising Trudeau up as a paragon of repentance, displays one of the major faults of our society. It implies that repentance and forgiveness is futile and opens the door for truly repulsive people in politics, as the majority of people suffer from outrage fatigue and stop caring.
Voiltare famous said that “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”
As Judaism has always recognized the fundamental imperfection but inherent goodness of people - perhaps it is time to apply Jewish values and its discussion of repentance to this national conversation.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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Sometimes, when I sin, I know it’s because I have not fully explored the deepest meaning possible of what lies at the heart of the transgression, yet at the same time, it also draws me closer to HaShem, because I realize how weak I am before HaShem; my pride is taken from me in that lowly state. Rabbi Nachman said something about one having to begin again and again. I find that by having to return to the beginning, I gain a deeper insight into the nature of the matter, yet feel this is paradoxical, for I also need to not return to that sin. Any advice please?
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