It’s the beginning of the annual season of repentance, and once again rabbis around the world are searching for ways to make the old themes new again — often to teach the Jewish holidays’ age-old message of atonement through current-day examples.
This Rosh Hashanah, those examples are hard to find.
“I looked and looked,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, of Northwest Washington’s Adas Israel. “In almost every one of my sermons, I’m actually using examples of, basically, ways public leaders have gone astray. I was trying to be more positive, to think of someone I feel really exemplifies what atonement really looks like.”
It’s a common dilemma.
“It’s really hard. It’s really difficult to come up with examples of public figures who have done what we would call full teshuva,” said Rabbi Shira Stutman, using the Hebrew word for the process of making good on atonement. “To have political leaders in this day and age, leaders of all sorts, who are so proud of being unrepentant in any way, shape or form only adds to the problem.”
But in an age of shamelessness and “alternative facts,” when so many seem to take pride in not backing down even if they’re wrong, some rabbis are teaching their congregations this year that there are still role models to look to.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who became a rabbi after beginning his public life as a civil rights activist more than 50 years ago, will draw from history when he co-leads services at Montgomery County synagogue Am Kolel’s Rosh Hashanah retreat. His example of repentance? Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and The Washington Post in 1971.
“Ellsberg was working in the Pentagon, and his responsibility was to work out how to target Soviet cities for nuclear destruction, killing millions, tens of millions of people. That was his job. Along the way, in the late ’60s, he got sent to Vietnam and began to see what was happening there,” said Waskow, who plans to read a section during his sermon from Ellsberg’s own reflections about how he decided to take action to expose government secrets about the war. “Given what he was doing before, it was sure teshuva! … I think Ellsberg set a kind of model or example, of if you’re confronted with real evil, this is what you can do about it.”
Many rabbis are looking to the #MeToo movement for examples of atonement, both sincere and botched. In an essay for The Washington Post, rabbi and author Danya Ruttenberg said many of the famous men who lost their jobs in the past year when their sexual misconduct was reported have failed to follow the Jewish principles for repentance. Their apologies have focused on themselves, not their victims; they haven’t made amends to their victims; they have tried to lessen or avoid the consequences of their sins.
But the wave of public apologies from men exposed in the #MeToo movement also has offered examples of repenting done right, which some rabbis are using as fodder for sermons this year. Rabbi Daniel Brenner will focus his sermon in New York on the #MeToo movement. He is highlighting Dan Harmon, the creator of the TV shows “Community” and “Rick and Morty,” as an exemplar of atonement.
In Harmon’s case, writer Megan Ganz, whom he harassed, initially said in painful Twitter posts that she wasn’t ready to forgive Harmon for his behavior, which had left her unable to trust men later in her career. Then Harmon apologized, in detail, on a podcast. And Ganz tweeted that at last he had truly owned up to his mistakes. She called it “a masterclass in How to Apologize.”
Many are still looking for examples like that, and worrying about the effect on the public of a dearth of examples of how to apologize — starting at the top.
“People who I’ve heard say nice things about the president say, ‘Well, he says what he thinks.’ I understand how people can appreciate that sentiment,” Stutman said. “But beyond saying what you think is thinking about what the repercussions are of what you say — one of the goals of teshuva. If you have someone whose main source of pride is just saying whatever needs to be said in the first place and not thinking, reflecting after you say it, it’s not that we go nowhere. It’s that we go backwards as a country.”
Holtzblatt also said that she sees an “incredibly destructive” tendency to cover up shameful actions rather than express regret for them “at the highest levels of office.” Instead, she’s turning to members of her own congregation as exemplars of atonement, including a family supporting a relative in the grip of addiction. In striving to support their relative, other members of the family also have been coming to grips with ways in which they acted wrongly in the past.
When that family shares, in small learning groups at the synagogue, ways in which they have failed to support each other and are now striving to be better, they provide a far better example of repentance than our national leaders do, Holtzblatt said.
At Temple Micah in Northwest Washington, Rabbi Daniel Zemel said it isn’t yet time to talk about examples of atonement in the United States, even if the calendar says it’s the Jewish season for it. He is preaching this Rosh Hashanah on the problem of white nationalism in America. Countries can repent for their national sins, he said; Germany as a country made public reparations for the atrocities of the Holocaust, while Americans are still fiercely locked in debates about whether to take down our Confederate statues.
“I’m not doing anything with any modern-day atonement with anything I’m doing this year. We’re at a pretty low place, that’s what I think,” Zemel said. Instead, he’ll ask congregants to focus on a prayer in the High Holy Day liturgy called “Hayom T’amtzeinu,” which asks, “Today, strengthen us! Today, bless us! Today, exalt us!”
“I think the Jewish message in this moment is now’s the time to stick to our resolve more than anything else. If Judaism teaches us anything, it’s what to love and what to fight against to the very, very end,” he said. So he’ll use the words of the prayer. “Hayom t’amtzeinu. Today, we are going to strengthen our resolve. … Today, enlarge us. Make us feel a sense of the holiness of what it will mean to be a civic-minded, passionately ethical American who’s standing up for what’s right.”
Tomorrow, maybe, we’ll be able to point to more evidence of atonement.