Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins Wednesday night. This is the season during which Jews make tshuvah — engage in the work of repentance and repair — for all we’ve done wrong in the past year. Tshuvah isn’t just about saying sorry; it’s really about healing wrongs, to whatever extent that might be possible.
And it’s that part about healing wrongs that makes this cultural moment in the United States so unsurprising. The rise of white nationalism, the election of a man who campaigned and governs on a platform of racist fearmongering, even the fact of Confederate statues serving as a political lighting rod — it’s all the product of tshuvah left undone.
Maimonides, the great 12th century philosopher and sage, defines complete tshuvah as that which happens when a person has the opportunity to commit the same sin as he had in the past, but does not — he makes a different choice the second time around. How could it be that you might return to the exact situation in which you had previously screwed up? Who gets an instant replay like that? My rabbi, Alan Lew, used to explain Maimonides thusly: “If you haven’t done the work of tshuvah in any kind of serious way, you’ll get back there.” That is, without the necessary soul-searching and growth, you will undoubtedly manage to find yourself in some variation of the same situation over and over and over again.
Our country is in that position. The Christian writer Jim Wallis has famously described racism as America’s “original sin.” Our country has never done tshuvah for its many racist wrongs — particularly those committed against black and indigenous people. There has been no real introspection by those who hold institutional power, no formal apologies made to those enslaved or their descendants. There has been, on an official level, no display of curiosity about whether restitution is needed and what that might possibly look like. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has introduced the bill that’s now known as H.R. 40 (the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act”) in Congress every single year for the last 28 years. It establishes a commission to study and develop reparation proposals that would “examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present” and make recommendations for solutions. Not to hand out money, just to study and make recommendations; implementation would be an entirely optional step outside the scope of the bill. Conyers’s bill has never even made it to the House floor.
We have never done the work of tshuvah as a country, and so we continue to find opportunities to commit the same sins, again and again and again. We went from slavery to lynchings, from Jim Crow to redlining to mass incarceration and challenges to voting rights. From the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee to the Dakota Access Pipeline.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it:
To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy … is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying …. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt …. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken.
There are several steps to making tshuvah: You have to acknowledge what you did wrong (no matter whether it was intentional). You have to take actions to correct the mistake, or to make amends, if possible. And you need to invest some time working out how things can be different next time.
Can an entire nation make tshuvah? One needs only look to Germany’s behavior over the past 70 or so years to know that it is, at the very least, possible to do some of the work at a national level. They have taken full responsibility for the Holocaust, issued formal apologies, paid over 66 billion euros in reparations payments, built memorials to the victims of atrocities — in sharp contrast to the veneration of Confederate slaveholders here — and are committed to being different, now. Everything from their attitude toward military engagement to the language in their textbooks is influenced by the knowledge that to become different, they need to behave differently.
There is much discussion in Maimonides’s “Laws of Tshuvah” and elsewhere in Jewish literature about whether or not someone who has committed an atrocity can ever do complete tshuvah — particularly in a situation in which true amends can never be made. Meaningful restitution can never be made to Nat Turner, Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, or 500 years’ worth of other human lives. But whether the United States — or Germany, for that matter — can, or should, ever be forgiven by our victims or their descendants isn’t the question. The work should be done not to attain absolution, but because it is the only moral way forward.
I don’t have a lot of hope that those with the greatest power in our federal government will be undertaking a tshuvah process for the sins of American racism any time soon. It’s much more likely that new wounds will be created in the coming months, new traumas, an entrenching of some oppressive systems and perhaps even the creation of new ones. We continue to arrive to the same place, again and again. But Maimonides reminds us that the gates of tshuvah are always open — we can become baalei tshuva, penitents, even on the day of our death. Perhaps one day our country will be ready to interrupt the cycle of injury and injustice on an institutional level. Until then, well, the rest of us have plenty of work to do.