Since the #MeToo movement exploded almost a year ago, our culture has been grappling with questions about what repentance and redemption should look like in the context of sexual misconduct. A great many men have been named as perpetrators and suffered almost unprecedented professional consequences for it. Yet not even a full year later, many of the accused whose careers initially seemed ruined are angling for comebacks, including Mario Batali, Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, Garrison Keillor and Kevin Spacey . Matt Lauer told some fans in late August, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back on TV,” despite allegations of an extreme and rampant pattern of sexual harassment. Louis C.K. performed a couple of weeks ago at a comedy club, his first gig since admitting that he had forced a number of women to watch him masturbate.
Are these men sorry? Should they be forgiven? More to the point, perhaps, who has the right to forgive them?
For such questions, sometimes you need a rabbi. Judaism has thousands of years of scholarship on forgiveness and atonement; this is the season when Jews traditionally make tshuvah — engaging in a process of repentance and repair for all we’ve done wrong this past year. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins Sunday night, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, follows 10 days later. And the classical Jewish categories of “repentance,” “forgiveness” and “atonement” might be able to offer some insight to Jews and non-Jews alike.
The Jewish tradition teaches that repentance is really hard work, in contrast to the glib and easy way these accused perpetrators are seeking cheap forgiveness from popular culture. America is often perilously quick to welcome comebacks, in part because we don’t really know what it means to atone.
According to Jewish law, though, the most critical factor is repentance, tshuvah — the work that a person who has done harm must undertake. There are specific steps: The bad actor must own the harm perpetrated, ideally publicly. Then they must do the hard internal work to become the kind of person who does not harm in this way — which is a massive undertaking, demanding tremendous introspection and confrontation of unpleasant aspects of the self. Then they must make restitution for harm done, in whatever way that might be possible. Then — and only then — they must apologize sincerely to the victim. Lastly, the next time they are confronted with the opportunity to commit a similar misdeed, they must make a different, better choice.
Forgiveness is up to the victim and the victim alone. Atonement is up to God. As such, a conversation about sexual predators attempting to return to the public eye should begin with the question of whether they have made real, earnest tshuvah.
The perfunctory public apologies that we have so often seen in the wake of allegations could, at best, be considered part of the first step toward repentance, taking ownership of the harm done. But they must reflect a genuine ownership of all actions taken — not “if I did behave then as he describes ,” as Spacey said; not complaining about the impact on their work (Keillor), fans (Batali) or family (Lauer), with minimal focus on the victims; not minimizing the complaints as Rose did, blaming God as O’Reilly did or guessing what the victims might have thought, as C.K.’s initial statement last year did. Issuing such superficial and narcissistic public statements is the only thing that any of the above-named men have done to signal any sort of repentance process, at least publicly.
Even if these men had taken full responsibility in their statements, a few months away from the spotlight isn’t long to be gone, given all the inner work that must be done. We’ve seen few indications that these accused perpetrators have gone directly to those they have harmed to make restitution — financial or otherwise — amends or apologies. Their interest in jumping back into the spotlight at the first opportunity raises suspicions about where their focus might really be.
What would indicate that their tshuvah was in earnest? A shift in priorities, an investment of their wealth or time into work protecting victims of assault and harassment or creating policies that would better prevent abuse. They would be stepping away from the ego-stroking, power-holding limelight that makes abuse so easy to perpetrate in the first place.
We would see something like the work of Rabbi Yosef Blau, who, after understanding his complicity in enabling a sexual abuser to continue his work as both a high school principal and youth group leader, has dedicated much of his life and work to advocating for victims of sexual assault. Or we might see real commitment to preventing harm in the future. Shira Berkovits, founder of Sacred Spaces , told me of a Christian man she once met who was incarcerated after raping his nephew. As he was preparing to be released, he wrote to churches telling them what he had done and asking for permission to pray there. For, he said, “I can’t be safe and the people around me can’t be safe unless we talk about the real risk” — the abuse that he knows he’s capable of committing.
He owned the harm he had done and asked for help from prospective faith communities to ensure that he’s not put in situations where he could rape again — all the while, of course, making himself very vulnerable to social rejection. While this is not necessarily complete tshuvah — I don’t know what amends he made to his victim, and I don’t know what choices he made once released — he was clearly working hard to change, not to do the same harm again. There are no shortcuts.
Of course, this work is not always lived out well, even in the Jewish world. Barry Freundel, a Washington rabbi jailed in 2015 for filming more than 150 women as they undressed for the ritual bath, issued a public apology that was clearly shaped by his knowledge of classical tshuvah literature. But as one of his victims noted, its impact was mitigated by his actions, including appeals for a lighter sentence — showing an unwillingness to accept the full consequences of his deeds.
And sometimes it’s simply not clear. When renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen was accused by eight women of sexual harassment and misconduct, his public statement to the press hit all the right notes, also clearly informed by Jewish text. “I am committed,” he wrote, “to making the changes that are necessary to avoid recurrences in the future and, when the time is right, seek to apologize directly to, and ask forgiveness from, those I have unintentionally hurt.”
But I’ve spoken to several of his victims, including Keren McGinity, who is in touch with many more; to the best of her and my knowledge, he has not yet reached out to anyone for any sort of apology or amends. Whether he will at some point remains to be seen.
On a human, ethical level, there is always a path toward repentance, toward understanding the harm we have caused and toward doing the work of repair and restitution, to whatever degree that is possible. People can always grow and become better.
But how are the rest of us to decide whether these men and others like them have, in fact, repented? We don’t have to. Society can’t make the determination about when a perpetrator has done sufficient tshuvah, and the people who stand to earn money from enabling their “redemption” can’t make that determination, either. No matter what, we don’t need to reward men who have done harm with more opportunities for wealth, prestige, power and celebrity. Part of repenting is accepting the consequences of your actions; in this case, those consequences might come from the criminal justice system or from professional censure.
Whether an abuser’s victim or victims have forgiven them is a separate question from whether perpetrators — public entertainers or not — have done tshuvah, and it’s their business, not ours. There are many talented people whose work we could reward instead of rushing back to people who haven’t truly repented. That would send a clear message about not tolerating rape culture.
Rosh Hashanah is almost here. The Talmud teaches that the gates of repentance are always open. Maybe this will be the year that more perpetrators choose to walk through them.
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