Judy Karin: Teshuvah for Everyone?

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

― Maya Angelou

“There’s just something unsustainable about an environment that demands constant atonement but actively disdains the very idea of forgiveness.”

Elizabeth Bruenig

When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.
― Shimon Peres

As we approach Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness and redemption. About people who have done a lot of good things, but also did bad things. At what point are they unforgivable? At what point does the bad completely negate the good?

People for whom the quote attributed to Maya Angelou applies – when they learn and know better, they do better – are we willing to give them credit and allow them to keep their lives, or does their past prevent us from ever respecting them?

One of the things I find so powerful in Judaism is the possibility of redemption and the imperative of teshuvah. The recognition that we are simultaneously “the image of God” and flawed human beings, and that mistakes, errors in judgement, behaving in synch with a system that we later recognize as unacceptable, do not doom us. We have the possibility of redemption, when we own up to our wrongdoings and make amends. Teshuvah is not easy, and it’s not a free pass to do bad stuff, but it allows us to keep living lives of value even in our brokenness.

I started thinking about this a lot as the #MeToo movement gained momentum, as social media-fueled “call-out culture” led to the downfall of so many. There were some – “influencers” – whose downfall was faster than their meteoric rise to fame, due to a poor word choice, a bad decision, a single error in judgement. There were people I had thought of as talented and productive and wise, who made some mistakes – and I wondered if they deserved to have their lives ruined for those mistakes.

And, there are those for whom I have a hard time imagining any sort of redemption or forgiveness. When I think of them, words like “Despicable” surface immediately. There are those I once greatly admired for their talents and wisdoms, who we’ve come to learn abused the power that came with their fame – these revelations led first to disbelief, then sadness and disappointment, and eventually disgust. I think about the Pharaoh in the Exodus story, who hardened his heart so many times that he was incapable of teshuvah; these people express, as described in the Etz Hayim chumash, “a state of arrogant moral degeneracy, unresponsive to reason and incapable of compassion…” I’m honestly not sure what to think about redemption for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.

For others, though, it’s more complicated. These are good people, I think. They made a mistake – they did what they knew, and now that they know better, they’ve owned it; don’t they deserve the chance to do better? Don’t we all?

Who among us can approach yamim noraim, the Days of Awe, as the High Holy Days are known, with complete comfort, feeling that we have done nothing wrong and have no cause to repent?

Can any of us read the litany of the al cheyt, “for the sin we have sinned against You”, or as our new machzor translates it, “for the ways we have wronged You,” – and never squirm in recognition? Every year I stand and recite the al cheyt in shame, remembering moments when I failed to live up to anyone’s standards.

“The ways we have wronged You through our thoughtlessness, in our routine conversations, by losing self control, by giving in to our hostile impulses; and the harm we have caused in Your world through impulsive acts of malice, through inflexibility and stubbornness, by hating without cause, by hardening our hearts, through gossip and rumor,

“For all these failures of judgement and will, God of forgiveness-“ – we plead – “forgive us, pardon us, lead us to atonement.”

Do we each expect to be disgraced for life, to lose our livelihood and the respect of everyone we love, when we admit our wrongs? I don’t think so! Isn’t that the whole point of teshuvah, that redemption is possible?

Every year we hear that it’s not just about apologizing to and being forgiven by G-d; we’re challenged to admit our mistakes and ask for forgiveness from – and grant forgiveness to – each other.

And every year I think about the people I’ve wronged, and whether it makes sense to bring up what I’ve done and ask for forgiveness – not just a blanket post on Facebook, “to all my friends, I hope you’ll forgive me for anything I said or did this year,” but an honest, embarrassing confession and apology. And once in a great while, I think about someone who’s wronged me, and whether I am willing to hear their apology and forgive them.

I’ve been brave enough to engage in this person-to-person process only a few times in my life. It was uncomfortable and awkward. And in at least one case, healing. Forgiveness doesn’t erase past wrongdoings, it’s more an agreement to move forward – the mistake remains a mistake, but the friend remains a friend.

This year, we approach the yamim noraim in the midst of a pandemic, natural disaster season, a bitter election seasoned with uprising against racial injustice – Big Things that threaten both our physical health and our souls. In our discomfort with our lack of control, many of us look for someone to blame, and there are SO MANY people to heap blame upon! But what do we do if they admit their mistakes and apologize? Do we allow them to make amends, give them a chance to redeem themselves, as we need to be forgiven ourselves?

I’m brought again to the Elizabeth Bruenig quote: “There’s just something unsustainable about an environment that demands constant atonement but actively disdains the very idea of forgiveness.” Atonement is hard. Forgiveness is HARD. But without them, our world is descending into complete chaos.


Judy Karin came to Santa Barbara 35 years ago to complete a PhD in ultrafast optoelectronics at UCSB, and never left. She’s been a cantorial soloist, teacher, b’mitzvah tutor, wife, and mom, and is currently the director of CBB’s Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.