The embarrassing spectacle currently engulfing the United States shows no signs of abating and the descent into anarchy is proceeding. The presumption of guilt, the disregard of judicial process, the contemptuous dismissal of the necessity of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (“proving” it to one’s fans on social media suffices), the flippancy with which reputations are ruined never to be repaired, and the intolerance of those who see only one perspective on anything as legitimate and worthy of being heard all testify to the collapse of the social order.
There is something else that adds to America’s current ills, perhaps the root of it all. It occurred to me while listening last week to Dennis Prager’s radio show. His guest was Rabbi Shmuly Boteach and, for a time, the latter’s protégé Roseanne Barr, the comedienne who fell into disfavor last year for racist remarks she tweeted. As an aside, I have never found her act funny or even mildly interesting, nor watched any of her shows, but Rav Shmuly’s point – well taken – is that America has become a very unforgiving nation. There are people who commit a single moral offense and are considered “one and done.” One social misstep and you become a public pariah. He emphasized that Barr went through the Rambam’s four steps of repentance – she regretted her misdeed, verbalized it, confessed it, and committed to the future, and even donated money to black causes. She seems genuinely contrite – and so, he asked, why have Americans lost the capacity to forgive?
It’s mostly but not entirely true. The lack of forgiveness only pertains when the wronged party is a member of one of the established and celebrated victim classes in America, and when the wrongdoer is a member of the class of official oppressors. The former can do no wrong and the latter can do no right. The former cannot even be challenged and the latter is not allowed a defense. But in general, his claim is true. So what has happened to the concept of forgiveness in America? Are too many people are one and done?
Certainly that situation is lamentable but he didn’t quite explain what has happened, which transcends Roseanne and is certainly harmful to society.
The Talmud (Moed Katan 16b, Avoda Zara 5a) describes King David as the man “who established the discipline of repentance,” such that “if an individual sins, he is told ‘go follow the individual.’” If the community sins, there is a different protocol for repentance, but if an individual person sins, he is told to heed the example of King David who sinned, confessed, repented and was forgiven. King David is the role model for the repentance of the individual sinner.
There are two reasons why America has lost its capacity to forgive. Firstly, because forgiveness requires that there be recognition of something called “sin,” and that is what is most missing from modern society. There can’t be “sin” because sin requires an objective standard of morality, i.e., G-d and a moral code. Repentance presupposes that there is an awareness of sin. What we have in place of sin are artificial social constructs that are dictated by the cultural elites in order to allocate power to their various favored identity groups.
To give one simple example: make an anti-black comment and you are understandably thrown out of civil society. But make an anti-Jewish comment and you get sympathy, support, votes, acclaim, if not even lionization. Thus, at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Bill Clinton can sit a few seats from Louis Farrakhan on the dais with nary a negative comment. (If George W. Bush ever sat next to David Duke at any event, we would never hear the end of it.) The outrage is a bit selective; the double standard is obviously hypocritical.
And the notion that there are certain slurs that some groups cannot say while others can is a moral absurdity. That is no longer a quest for morality or civil discourse but a quest for power. There is no greater power exercised over human beings than the power to control their speech. That is the exercise of brute force. But that is now an accepted element of our world, even though no person should indulge in speech that is harmful to others and no person should get a pass based on group identity.
There cannot be forgiveness in a place where there is no concept of sin, and America has lost its fear and even recognition of sin. Real “sin” is mocked and has been driven underground. Instead of sin, we are told that we each have our own truth, our own gauge of right and wrong and good and evil. So how can forgiveness ever be possible?
And there is a second reason as well why America is so unforgiving – and the contrast with the Torah outlook is striking. The dominant ethos in today’s America is that people cannot change. You are who you are, and that is all. Your personality and values at age 5 or 15 will be your personality and values at age 35, 55 and 75. Dr. Freud, take a victory lap: you won. But what a rejection of the possibility of repentance, and what a dark view of man’s potential!
One of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is that people can change. We can change because we have free choice. We can change by learning more Torah, by scrutinizing our personalities, by moving to a different environment, by repenting and by realizing the error of our ways.
Even King David had challenges in life, sins he committed and acts he regretted, but by the end of his life he was a different person. He was no longer the same individual who had his trials when young, even in the early years of his monarchy. That is why he is the paragon of individual repentance. But King David today would be disparaged, demeaned and destroyed for his indiscretions. He would be deemed irredeemable.
Where there is no acceptance of sin, there cannot be forgiveness, and where society denies that people can change, there cannot be repentance. And that has created a sad, bitter, churlish, grumpy, hypocritical – and polarized country. If Jews would ever entertain, much less subscribe to such a philosophy, there would be no point in a Yom Kippur.
But we don’t – and that is why we continue to admire King David, who guides and inspires us until today, and why the world at large, and this troubled society in particular, could benefit from our knowledge, wisdom and moral absolutes.