No Holds Barred: The death of American forgiveness

Without atonement and forgiveness, Americans are going to be at each other’s throats with no way back.

Actress Roseanne Barr reacts as she arrives at the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., January 7, 2018.  (photo credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
Actress Roseanne Barr reacts as she arrives at the 75th Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., January 7, 2018.
Roseanne Barr and I have now recorded two lengthy podcasts where she expressed heartfelt regret, amid a flood of tears, over the pain she caused with her recent tweet about Valerie Jarrett. Barr apologized multiple times in both podcasts and explained that her purpose was to go through all four major steps of Jewish repentance, as outlined by Maimonides.
First, a recognition of the sin. One cannot excuse or rationalize one’s actions. There must be an unequivocal acceptance that one has done wrong. Second, a confession of the sin, a clear articulation that one acknowledges one’s error, with no ifs, ands or buts. Third, an apology to the injured party and a request for forgiveness. And fourth, restitution. Undertaking concrete action that demonstrates that one is charting a new course.
Barr went through all four. She said publicly and emotionally that she had done wrong and caused pain to others, in particular Jarrett. Second, she confessed her wrong publicly and personally, multiple times and on many occasions. Third, she asked the public for forgiveness and went to Jarrett’s Twitter account and asked for forgiveness. She has also indicated she would call Jarrett directly if she would be willing to accept her phone call. And fourth, Barr said she has contributed funds to African-American educational establishments to make restitution.
And even with all that, I had national TV anchors asking me last week, “How do you know she’s sincere?” “What if she’s doing this to rescue her career?” “Doesn’t she have a history of doing this kind of thing?”
Amazing. A woman who is world renowned can do two public interviews where she cries her eyes out, begs forgiveness, says loudly and plainly that she does not want her legions of fans to defend her, as she knows she’s done wrong, and still there are so many who refuse to forgive.
If it is true that civility is dead in America, then civility’s equally important cousin, forgiveness, is equally dead. And what a tragedy for America.
First, let me deal with Barr. She recorded the apology podcast after her show had been canceled. And it was released after ABC had already announced that it was replacing her show with a new series called The Connors, in which her character was written out. She had nothing to gain by releasing an interview in which she showed extreme vulnerability. To the contrary, many of her advisers told her it was a mistake. Extreme contrition would be translated as extreme weakness. And with all of that, she still offered this extremely emotional apology for one reason: she believes in the Torah. She knows that as a famous Jewish woman, who publicly aligns herself with Judaism and Israel, she is a de facto representative of her people. And she didn’t want to be an ambassador who acts in contravention to the values she herself promotes.
In this hyper-partisan climate that currently rules America – the worst any of us has seen in a generation or more – there are going to be more and more high-profile people who step on land mines. Just look at some of the celebrities of late who have said things in public that are utterly outrageous. Robert De Niro dropped the F-bomb on the president at the Tony Awards – not once, but twice. Peter Fonda tweeted, “We should rip Barron Trump from his mother’s arms and put him in a cage with pedophiles and see if [his] mother will stand up against the giant a--hole she is married to.” Samantha Bee used a misogynist expletive against Ivanka Trump that was scripted into her TV show. And that’s just a partial list of recent outrages.
Do I want to see any of these people destroy themselves, lose their career, and never be forgiven?
Heck No. I love De Niro. He is a transcendent actor, one of the greatest in cinematic history.
I want to see an America that believes in atonement and forgiveness.
I recognize that some – perhaps De Niro – probably don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong. They believe the president deserves it. But for those who believe they crossed a public line – and civility should be that simple line – then we have to ask them to repent, and we have to forgive. It’s that simple.
Celebrities and politicians saying outrageous things is going to continue to happen. America is just not in a place where people in the public eye are exerting a great amount of self-control. So, at the very least, let’s impress upon them the need to atone for missteps – however egregious – and, if they do so sincerely, they should be forgiven.
Without atonement and forgiveness, Americans are going to be at each other’s throats with no way back.
And isn’t this something we want to teach our children – that when they make mistakes, they should repent, ask to be forgiven, and then witness its receipt?
Sure, people should be civil to begin with. They shouldn’t attack each other or say mean things about each other. But we are all human, we are all fallible, and we’re all going to make serious mistakes, especially in an America that is increasingly acrimonious.
I am a great believer in apologies, so long as they are offered sincerely, without excuses, and restitution is made. How do we know if someone is sincere? Firstly, from the degree of emotion showed in their apology. As the Talmud says, “Words that emanate from the heart, penetrate the heart.” You can always tell if someone is faking it, when their words are offered coldly and mechanically, for public consumption.
We also know that someone is sincere if they follow up their words with action. Action, as the ancient Rabbis said, is the most important component. Restitution can come in the form of charity, it can come in the form of public service, and it can come in the form of making direct amends to the aggrieved party.
In our public conversation, Barr said that Martin Luther King Jr. was her idol. I responded by saying that I have long considered him the greatest American of the 20th century for restoring America to its founding principles of the equality of all of God’s children.
Over the weekend I was reading a new book, Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours, that said that after the Memphis march that took place in the spring of 1968, just days before he was murdered, and which led to violence, King felt so regretful for the violence that ensued – although it was in no way his fault – that he was committed to penance. He first decided that he would fast as a form of atonement. He then left that idea and decided instead that he would lead a second march, this time with no violence. That commitment to atonement and repentance, in concrete action, led him to return to Memphis on 3 April 1968, and that night he gave one of the greatest speeches of American history, popularly known as “I’ve been to the Mountaintop.” Less than 24 hours later, he would be felled by a white racist’s bullet. But his dream of equality for all humankind and his commitment to atonement and forgiveness lives on.
King could not have expressed it more eloquently than when he famously said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
It’s time we listened to his inspired words.
The author, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 32 books, including Lust for Love, co-authored with Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.