By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
We are upon Elul, the month of apologies and forgiveness and on the threshold of the ten days of awe, repentance. This year is different, with all the #MeToo offenders well known, less known, and the transgressions they have done to women from sexist slights, harassment to downright assaults. This past year has been a taken down of men who abuse their power and women in the process, it happened in every industry, entertainment, politics, journalism, business, education, and everywhere else in between, from the back lot, the boardroom to the classroom. Most of the offenders have given superficial public apologies, less out of genuine repentance than a last ditch effort to save themselves, their career and sometimes legally as well. The victims are left pondering should they be forgiven, to what extent, if at all. As the scandals still roll out the answers vary and it all depends….
For former White House intern and anti-bullying activist Monica Lewinsky, the answer would be no. On Sunday, September 2, 2018, Lewinsky cut short an interview in Jerusalem, Israel when asked if she is still awaiting a personal apology from former President Bill Clinton about their affair and the scandal, which broke out 20 years ago. Lewinsky spoke at a conference hosted by the Israel Television News Company, where she delivered a speech about her experiences with cyberbullying as the scandal broke, and Clinton went through the impeachment process. Clinton was only the second president ever impeached in American history, and he was impeached on charges of obstruction of justice and lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. The Senate acquitted Clinton in February 1999 but for Lewinsky the public shaming continued long after, forcing her to hide from the limelight for many years until she reemerged in 2014 writing an article in Vanity Fair about her experiences.
During the speech, Lewinsky noted how different her experience would have been if it happened during the #MeToo movement. Lewinsky said, “I don’t think I would have felt so isolated if what happened in 1998 happened in 2018. By and large, I had been alone. Publicly alone. Abandoned most by the main figure in this crisis, who knew me well and intimately.” Lewinsky also pointed out that even the Jewish community “shunned her” during the scandal, saying, “I was shunned from almost every community which I belonged to, including my religious community. That led to some very dark times for me.”
The controversy happened afterward when Lewinsky sat down for a post-speech question period with Israel Channel 2 news anchor Yonit Levi. First thing, Levi asked Lewinsky was if she still expected Clinton to apologize personally for the ordeal and affair. Lewinsky promptly responded “I’m so sorry, I’m not going to be able to do this,” and walked off the stage. She later apologized and explained on Twitter, that Levi and she discussed the parameters of the interview and that particular question was off limits. Lewinsky expressed, “The exact question the interviewer asked first, she had put to me when we met the day prior. I said that was off limits. When she asked me it on stage, with blatant disregard for our agreement, it became clear to me that I had been misled. I left because it is more important than ever for women to stand up for themselves and not allow others to control their narrative.”
In May, Clinton faced a backlash for his defiant response to the question whether he apologized to Lewinsky or owed her one. In May, Clinton appeared in a joint interview on NBC’s Today Show on Monday morning with mystery author James Patterson for their new book “The President Is Missing” when Weekend co-host Craig Melvin confronted the former president about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Melvin shocked a seemingly unprepared Clinton asking him if he ever personally apologized to Lewinsky. Melvin asked, “Through the lens of #MeToo now, do you think differently or feel more responsibility?… Did you ever apologize to her [Lewinsky]?” Responding to whether he personally apologized to Lewinsky, and “Do you feel that you owe her an apology?” Clinton answered Melvin, “I do not. I have never talked to her. But I did say, publicly, on more than one occasion, that I was sorry. That’s very different. The apology was public. I felt terrible then, and I came to grips with it.”
The debate over whether #MeToo offenders should be forgiven started almost as soon the movement did. Most of the offenders have been defiant like Clinton giving superficial public apologies once they were caught, or the classic denials, blaming the victims and questioning the victims’ credibility. With every accusation, the offenders, mostly men, and some women saw their careers crumble. Any apologies came only as a last resort after the offenders were so entangled that the only way they felt they could save their career was by apologizing and as a result, there have been very few genuine apologies.
Although many Jewish men have been accused including former film mogul Harvey Weinstein there have been few major moments that have captured the press’s attention. From the start, there were often ignored rumblings and accusations from the Jewish federations and philanthropy world, where women often have taken a backseat to leadership positions. Speaking about harassment in the Jewish world seemed taboo and labeled anti-Semitic even when it came from fellow Jews. Even after Israeli author, journalist and columnist Ari Shavit faced two waves of sexual assault and misconduct the community did not acknowledge the problems within.
Before the #MeToo movement took hold, in October 2016, Danielle Berrin, a reporter at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles accused Shavit of sexual harassment and assault in an article without naming him. Shavit admitted he was the man Berrin was referring to but after another accusation became public, he resigned from his jobs Chanel 10 and Haaretz. In December 2017 after much apologies and supposed repentance, two more women came forward accusing Shavit, canceling his much-hyped comeback. Before the second wave of accusations, Shavit claimed to the Jerusalem Post he had “a personal year of reckoning, humility, and change.”
Shavit stated, “I spent precious time with my family, addressed my past and did my utmost to become a better person and it “is ongoing and will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am looking forward to discuss it in depth and full transparency next year. When I’ll do so, I will express unequivocal commitment to women, gender equality and Tikkun Olam.” He expressed, “I continue to take responsibility for my actions. I’ve asked forgiveness from those whom I hurt and I am profoundly sorry for the pain I have caused.” Unfortunately, Shavit never personally apologized to Berrin, he contacted her called it “a deep apology” but stuck by his story it was a relationship and he did know why he was apologizing. Shavit never made the amends necessary and Berrin is not forgiving him.
This past summer Shavit again sought a comeback giving a far-reaching interview to his former publication Haaretz, claiming, “I Was Blind to the Power I Had as a Privileged White Man.” He tried to convince the public he is worthy of forgiveness but a third chance is difficult and his credibility shattered. Shavit kept to his original excuse, refusing to acknowledge the assault, saying, “That evening at the bar, I thought that Berrin’s interest in me was personal, not professional. I made a terrible mistake, which stemmed from my arrogance. I was inattentive, and I completely misread the situation.” Shavit claimed, “I am not forgoing my narrative” and all the while he ignores the three other allegations against him.
Both Shavit and his interviewer legal scholar Orit Kamir downplayed what Berrin experienced changing the story to put Shavit in a favorable light. Claiming that the evening “ends without incident,” rather than as Berrin put she was “sexually assaulted.” Kamir gallingly praised Shavit’s reaction as the accusation broke saying he acted, “admirably, honorably,” and “I hope that perhaps your choice will inspire others who find themselves in similar circumstances to admit wrongdoing and leave the stage, instead of denying and denigrating. Instead of remorse, Shavit in a classic move turns the narrative around portraying himself as a victim, “Certain people with certain personal, political and partisan agendas were manipulating the situation in order to get rid of me.” Nearly two years later and Shavit still has not truly shown remorse, but continued lip service in a desperate plea to regain a career he lost.
This summer another one of the Jewish world’s biggest stars, demographic sociologist Steven M. Cohen was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct from eight women. Cohen faced the usual career ostracization that has become the pattern of the #MeToo movement. Cohen also attempted the heartfelt apology approach, issuing a statement, which said, “I recognize that there is a pattern here. It’s one that speaks to my inappropriate behavior for which I take full responsibility. I am deeply apologetic to the women whom I have hurt by my words or my actions. I have undertaken a critical and painful examination of my behavior. In consultation with clergy, therapists and professional experts, I am engaged in a process of education, recognition, remorse, and repair. I don’t know how long this teshuva process will take. But I am committed 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.”
In the past year, the #MeToo movement, women and some men have broken their silence and come forward with their long-held stories of men and women in powerful positions, harassing, sexual harassing and assaulting them, finally in a world open to their suffering. With the new belief, many of the accusations have been enough to convict and sentence these offenders in the public’s eyes. Like Lewinsky and Berrin, the victims have a right to remain upset at their offenders, there has been no genuine remorse or apologies, without it, victims do not feel in a forgiving mood.
Unfortunately, for many women, they not only live with the scars of the abuse and harassment but many continue to live the Non-Disclosure Agreements many of the men force the women they harass to sign, silencing them. These men continue to deprive the women of the freedom and the right to their story to spare their careers. Forcing the victims to sign the NDA and making them live with it day in, and out can sometimes be even worse than the initial harassment because the victims can never escape and move on, it is continual abuse.
While the #MeToo movement freed many victims, those that signed NDAs still suffer in silence. Sixteen states introduced legislation that would prevent NDA’s being used to cover up sexual harassment and discrimination in private and public industries, and government. Just last week, the California legislature passed two bills outlawing NDA’s used to prevent victims of harassment from telling their stories and sent the bill for Governor Jerry Brown’s desk to sign. While earlier this summer Congress introduced a bipartisan bill that would stop the use of NDAs for sexual harassment. The legislation will stop many of the offenders from continuing their moralistic charade and force them to take responsibility for their actions.
At this point the punishment for many offenders have been a complete destruction of the careers, any accomplishments are dismissed and seemingly erased. The all or nothing approach begins to sound just like vindictiveness if there is not any way to rehabilitate the offenders especially if sexual violence was not involved. If there are to be any second chances, there needs to be more than “I’m sorry,” the offenders have to take responsibility for the actions, admit what they did wrong and genuinely apologize to those they wronged, privately or publicly when the story ended up in the media and there was public humiliation. Offenders have to also set those they made sign NDS free, finally releasing them shows they can let go and are truly looking forgiveness rather than just spare their careers. So far, as Vulture in May noted the ever-controversial Samantha Bee’s “Friendly Reminder to the Men Attempting a #MeToo Comeback: ‘You Have Not Yet Done Anything to Earn Our Forgiveness.’”
An April 2018 article by the Associated Press asks just that, “Can there be forgiveness, second chances in the age of #MeToo?” According to experts, there can be forgiveness if the apologies are genuine and recount exactly what they did wrong to their victims. The article’s author Michelle R. Smith claims, “Forgiveness must be possible if society wants to reduce instances of sexual misconduct, but experts say, it will take work and willingness to change from both the perpetrators and society at large.” The responses from academics came mostly from Jewish professors, who borrowed Jewish laws on apologies and forgiveness as a solution to the #MeToo rehabilitation problem.
Jennifer A. Thompson, an assistant professor of applied Jewish ethics and civic engagement at California State University believes it is possible. Thompson explains that in the Jewish tradition, “You have to go to the person you hurt and ask, ‘What can I do to make this right?’” Thompson believes that model of redemption could work in the age of #MeToo. Lesley Wexler, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law concurs, and believes in “restorative justice.” Wexler told the AP, “Part of what should be happening here is personal. Making amends to the victim, restoring the victim. And a separate part is acknowledging that the nature of this harm isn’t just the individual, you are a community. That suggests you also need to be public about what specifically was wrong and what you can do better.”
Lawyer Jill Filipovic tackled the question in her TIME Magazine article “How to Find Room for Forgiveness in the #MeToo Movement.” Filipovic believes before society allows them back into their industries “we must reckon with the questions of forgiveness, rehabilitation, and redemption. Can these men be redeemed? And what does redemption — or just forgiveness — look like?” For forgiveness, “It means seeing their humanity and offering them mercy while requiring accountability and refusing to indulge narcissism. Everyone deserves grace, and the chance to transform into a better version of a damaged old self.”
The month Elul is about finding the “compassion” forgive “ourselves” and “others.” In Judaism, while with wrongs and sins against G–d, with repentance one can be forgiven faster, wrongs against individuals require the person to give the forgiveness. The Orthodox tradition says there are three levels of forgiveness, Selichah, Mechilah, and Kapparah. The first stage is Selichah, “forgiveness,” which requires a genuine apology, where one must acknowledge what one has done wrong; say they regret it and that they would never do it again.
The second “Mechilah,” meaning, “wiping away” is more difficult to ask and receive forgiveness at this level, this is where the person asks for reconciliation, and if the relationship can go back to where it was before the wrong occurred. While the third level “Kapparah,” atonement, usually occurs at Yom Kippur if requesting forgiveness from G-d. Kapparah is usually a sacrifice, including tzedakah, charity, “redeeming” through giving, which is considered “perhaps the most quantifiable aspect of atonement.” Only when someone has asked forgiveness three times without receiving forgiveness is his or her sins lifted.
According to Chabad Rabbi, Jacob Immanuel Schochet in his book To Touch the Divine (Kehot 1999) Teshuvah is defined as “a renewal, rebirth,” which “is in the heart, in the mind.” As Schochet indicates the word, “Teshuvah is directly related to bushah — shame, embarrassment. The Hebrew word teshuvah contains the letters of boshet; transposing the letters of shuvah (return), offers the word bushah (shame). For bushah is an indication of teshuva.” Sochet quotes, Moreh Nevuchim, III:36, writing, “The belief in teshuvah, however, leads him to improvement, to come to a state that is better, nearer to perfection, than that which obtained before he sinned. That is why the Torah prescribes many actions that are meant to establish this correct and very useful principle of teshuvah.” Schochet notes the sin is not so much the problem but “The real tragedy, the ultimate sin, is the failure to judge oneself, the failure to do teshuvah, ‘he has left off to contemplate to do good…. does not abhor evil.’” While “only a change of heart, conscious remorse, is able to confront its form, its soul.”
Within the Jewish tradition, there are views about whether we should forgive even in Elul. According to Reconstruction, the act of forgiving is more for the aggrieved to let go of the past hurts than even for the one who wronged them. According to the denomination, “Our tradition teaches that forgiveness is the great cleanser. When we forgive, we literally change the past. We don’t change what happened, but we do change how we respond to what has been. By forgiving we are no longer controlled by the pain and the hurt of past experiences. We are free to respond in a new way…. It is not an effort to condone a wrongdoing or suppress or ignore pain. Forgiveness acknowledges what is unjust, harmful and difficult. And it offers to lift the burden of anger and resentment so we can move beyond hurt into something new.”
Canadian civil servant Kristin Raworth, who accused former federal cabinet minister Kent Hehr of harassing her, recently wrote, “#MeToo can become a ‘journey to change.’” Raworth sided with the Reconstructionist view that forgiveness serves best the victims to help them move on and find peace. In her article, Raworth believes, “If the only societal response is to blacklist and banish, then we serve to further silence those who have been impacted by sexual violence and harassment. These voices have been silent for long enough. We need to encourage and support paths that allow those accused of non-criminal harassment to reach out and better themselves and address the way they have hurt others. Acknowledgment of behavior and the impact it has on others is the first step towards changing how society deals with these issues.” Raworth recounts an Indigenous community elder in Manitoba telling her, “My girl, forgiveness is for those who have been hurt to begin their healing journey. Acknowledgment is for the person who did the hurting to begin their journey to change.”
Raworth believes that forgiveness is not just for the rehabilitate the offender but to help the victims move on. She writes, “Forgiveness is what you do for yourself. You give yourself closure. This movement. This work. It is about healing and change. One cannot exist without the other. I have chosen to forgive.” Without forgiveness, we cannot move on. The #MeToo movement is not just about revenge but justice, giving a voice to the silence all in the name of stopping this power struggle that breeds “harassment and abuse.” Raworth “hopes as this movement continues, we will keep making room for those who have wronged others to make amends to and to seek a road to become better. We cannot become an #AfterMeToo society without it.”
Reform Rabbi Alana Suskin takes an opposite approach in her article, “How Can We Forgive the Unforgivable?” Rabbi Suskin believes although the religion requires us to be open for forgiveness, sometimes the hurt is too much for either side, too much to even ask for forgiveness and too much to give it. Suskin ponders, “Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean the cleaning of the slate, but it certainly implies that what was done can be repaired, or at least moved on from — but what if it can’t?… But perhaps some years we should live in our sin for a while. Maybe it would be worthwhile to spend longer saying, “If only I hadn’t …” or insisting that some wrongs cannot just be glossed over.”
In the midst of the #MeToo Movement and the second wave of accusations against Shavit, Berrin questioned in the New York Times, “Should We Forgive the Men Who Assaulted Us?” For Berrin “Genuine repentance requires a combination of accountability and sensitivity, selflessness and self-awareness. Men like Mr. Shavit would do well to remember that a true apology would not make excuses or justify bad behavior but would take full responsibility for what went wrong.” Berrin also believes “A complete rehabilitation should include a commitment of time and money to a cause that uplifts and empowers those in need.” She thinks offenders need to show humility and selflessness, by giving their time and money to causes that “empower vulnerable women” as a way to seek redemption.
Rabbi Shochet writes that Teshuvat hamishkal, penance should commensurate with the sin, “to balance the scales,” is important. In the #MeToo movement the offenders’ punishments and penance should be proportionate to their offenses. At this point, we are treating harassment, sexual harassment, and assault on the same level, as well as the offenders’ retribution for standing up the offenses including forced Non-Disclosure Agreements that further silences the victims purely for their benefit. While the punishments have been severe, the offenders have been short of repentance.
Filipovic also thinks that their atonement and punishment should be based on the offense. Filipovic writes, “There is also the question of what atonement means, and what it looks like to truly take responsibility for one’s own choices and one’s own life. That varies with the specific act of wrongdoing… The seriousness of a man’s conduct must guide what his penance looks like, but every man currently in the limelight for behaving badly toward women (and the many who aren’t in its glow) have an obligation to act like adults and recognize that their actions have consequences. “Sorry” might not be enough to undo the damage they’ve caused.” Still, the question remains up in the air, “How far is too far to earn back our trust?”
There seems a consensus also offenders should have their punishment and repentance fit their actions if they were a public figure and betrayed that trust they should not be allowed to return as leaders and celebrities. Filipovic does not believe that those that abused their power should ever be allowed to have the public’s trust again; saying, redemption does not include “public accolades.” Jenny Singer writing in her Forward article, “Ari Shavit, Go Away and Don’t Come Back” points out, “We, the public, need to let Shavit do teshuva and rejoin the world as a private citizen… But he has exempted himself from celebrity status by proving that he is incapable of the responsibly of holding that position… We do not owe Ari Shavit a position in the spotlight as an intellectual leader.”
For most #MeToo offenders the public has already refused to forgive or ever forget, for the individuals involved the process is more complicated. It has been 20 years, and Lewinsky is still reevaluating her affair with Clinton as an abuse of power in light of the #MeToo movement. Considering Lewinsky walked off the stage after being asked about Clinton apologizing to her, the subject is still a sore one. It is over four years and Berrin still writes, “I’m not ready to forgive him — at least not yet. Until restitution is made publicly as well as privately, his reckoning rings hollow. But as Judaism reminds me: It is never too late to repair what’s been broken.”
In my own experience after nearly six years, it is difficult to forgive and forget especially since this man has not shown a shred of remorse or responsibility despite preaching heartfelt, genuine, and sincere Elul apologies, repentance and forgiveness. He traumatized my life with his actions but he refuses to acknowledge at all the damage he did and still does. As all the offenders, he acts moralistic, sympathetic to the #MeToo movement but easy to forgive some of its offenders, while underneath he retaliated and keeps his career because he forced my silence. A near death experience this past winter changed my mind from being closed off to forgiveness to open to considering. Still, as most in the movement, I believe forgiveness has to be earned with genuine remorse and amends, unfortunately, it is so elusive.
One can take the power away from the #MeToo offenders but not the ego. This Elul the responsibility to forgive has to be on the offenders; they have to do the work, take responsibility and earn our trust, and in the words of Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi they should not “wait for a time when it might get easier — because it probably won’t.” Still, we have to keep our hearts open to forgiveness to those apologize and genuinely want to make amends without it being self-serving. Those #MeToo offenders deserve the second chances the most.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.