A friend of mine was publicly canceled. He deserved it and he knew it. He spent a year working with a rabbi and a therapist, during which time he tried to track down those he had hurt and apologize to them, often more than once. We can’t see inside one another’s hearts, but I believe in the sincerity of his change.
What I sometimes wonder — both in my role as a rabbi myself and as a denizen of our broader culture of accountability — is how my friend, or any one of us, can find a path back from shame to acceptance.
To answer the question, I turn to my religious tradition, which is predicated on the perhaps unfashionable belief that people can change. It’s a tenet that is especially on my mind as we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on which Jews fast, pray and ask forgiveness of one another and of God. Not everyone observes this holiday, of course. But in its practices, I believe there is wisdom that can help all of us navigate the sometimes unforgiving nature of our contemporary culture.
There will always be things we cannot fully forgive and people who do not deserve to be restored to good reputation. And forgiving someone does not necessarily mean readmitting that person to your life. In most cases, however, Jewish teachings insist that fair judgment does not require damnation. Judaism, like many other world religions, maintains that human beings are capable of transformation. For example, one of the figures of the Talmud, Resh Lakish, began as a bandit and became one of the greatest rabbis of the age. His conversion was fueled by the belief of another rabbi, Johanan, who saw potential in him. The more we believe in judging by potential, that what people do is not the sum of who they can be, the more likely we are to create a society that can help people move past shame.
Judaism offers a series of ideas and guidelines for how to cope with offense and foster forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, it’s traditional to wear white, not only because white shows the slightest stain, but to remind us of the shrouds in which we will one day be buried. We do not have forever; we must struggle to right our souls now.
If you have caused offense or harm, Yom Kippur does not magically buy you absolution. But the traditions surrounding the day do offer guidance for seeking forgiveness. First, you must apologize to those you’ve hurt, sincerely, as many as three times. The apology should not come weighed down with justification, but rather should acknowledge the other person’s hurt and express sincere regret.
Second, serious, sustained reflection is required to try to change who you are. The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, also means return. To repent is to return to what once was, what became hidden through coarseness or impulse. It is also to return to God and to the community. But slow, careful restoration takes time. The one who is sorry today and expects to stride right back, unblemished, is naïve or conniving.
Third, you must change your ways. The sage Maimonides teaches that one who says to himself, “I’ll sin and then, repent” cannot be forgiven. Sorrow is not a strategy. It is a vulnerability and it is a promise.
And what if you are the one who has been hurt? Jewish tradition urges us to consider why it is so hard to forgive. There is a savage self-righteousness to public shaming. If I forgive you, truly forgive you, then I must restore moral parity; I am no better than you. Accepting that steals the satisfactions of resentment, but it is essential: Jewish law insists that once someone has been forgiven, you must never remind the person of that fact. To do so is to re-establish a hierarchy that true forgiveness disavows.
To forgive also forswears vengeance. When I have been hurt, I wish to see you hurt. There is both a personal and an abstract desire for justice: People who do bad things should be punished, and especially people who do bad things to me. We rarely admit to ourselves how often this desire to punish wrongdoing is a personal impulse in moralistic clothing.
It’s also worth noting that anger at others, even when merited, can be personally destructive. In the Bible, the words “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) are preceded by “you shall not bear a grudge.” As has been aptly said, to bear a grudge is to drink poison hoping the other person will die. It gnaws away at us, embittering the life of the hater. Forgiving your neighbors is one way of loving them, and learning to love yourself.
Public shame is a powerful and sometimes necessary punishment. In the case of my friend, it made him realize that the trigger for his anger was in him, not in the conduct of others. But it can also be brutal, and I believe that too often, lifetimes are remembered by their worst moments, and complex personalities reduced to their basest elements.
On Yom Kippur, as Jews all over the world confess our sins, we will beat our chests, a sort of spiritual defibrillator to get our hearts beating anew. The liturgy asks of the “court on high” permission to pray with those who sin.
And who among us is exempt from that group? I stand each year with a congregation of people who have hurt one another, families and friends and strangers and co-workers. Like my friend, all of us seek to be forgiven — for we are imperfect and striving and in need of love.