Yom Kippur, Donald Trump, and Apologizing Like You Really Mean It

If you have Jewish friends, you’ve probably noticed a Facebook post along these lines in the last several days:

“If I have wronged you in the past year, please accept my deep and heartfelt apology.”

If you were wronged by an observant Jew in the past year, you may even have received a phone call or visit seeking forgiveness. This is because during the Days of Awe — the ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with (today’s) Yom Kippur — Jews practice t’shuvah, meaning repentance, a term closely related to the Hebrew word for “to return.”

According to Rabbi Jason Rosenberg:

T’shuvah is more than an apology. T’shuvah is a serious, deep process which is meant, ultimately, to lead to self-improvement.

I’ve long desired a deeper connection to my Jewish ancestors; to their culture and philosophy, if not necessarily to organized religion. And so, although my Jewish heritage is on my father’s side and I wasn’t raised a Jew, today I’m fasting on Yom Kippur for the first time. I’m not resting or attending services — baby steps — but I am fasting and reading about my ancestors’ traditions. In that reading, the concept of t’shuvah stands out as timely and relevant. It’s the exact opposite of the typical celebrity/politician apology, and it’s a practice everyone can contemplate and learn from.

Repenting in All the Wrong Ways

Right in the middle of the Days of Awe this year, the least repentant man alive released the least genuine apology ever filmed. Donald Trump’s sorry-not-sorry message to America was skewered by Samantha Bee, frowned upon in the New York Times, and described as “defiant” by CNN.

The horrible public apology is an American tradition that predates Trump. One of my favorite examples comes from Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder, apologizing for fat-shaming his customers.

Chip looks to be on the verge of tears, but never actually apologizes to the people harmed by his remarks. Instead, he talks about his own pain. A couple of years later, he resurfaced in a truly bizarre New York Times interview that is well worth reading slowly with a cup of strong tea.

Fox host personality Eric Bolling deserves another spot on the “worst apologizers of all time” list. You can’t help but cringe as you watch him apologize for a sexist on-air remark while blaming his wife’s dirty looks for forcing his apology.

Un-pologies share a few things you won’t find in a genuine apology:

  • Lots of I-statements that aren’t “I’m sorry” or “I hear you.”
  • The word “if,” as in, “if you were offended.”
  • Deflection of blame
  • Excuses centering the apologizer, e.g. “I was hurt and lashed out.”
  • The apologizer’s desired outcome, e.g, “I hope we can all move on.”
  • A change of subject following the apology

It’s easy to see how most people making a public act of contrition get it so wrong. After all, one of the most difficult lessons of t’shuvah is this: repentance is not meant for damage control. It’s supposed to be a path that leads you to become the sort of person who wouldn’t do this kind of thing again. We’re not always ready for difficult personal growth at the precise moment we’re shamed into a public apology.

T’shuvah for the Social Media Era

The proper execution of a public call-out, and when to deploy it, has been discussed ad nauseam in 2016. But what happens after the call out/in, if the person called out/in wants to make amends? What if, like Donald, you’ve said something rotten, but unlike Donald, you genuinely want to make things right?

That’s where t’shuvah comes in. Rabbi Rosenberg again:

“Our sages tell us that t’shuvah is a multistep process. First, we have to confess what we did wrong, and we have to do it in detail — no just saying, “I was greedy.” Instead, we have to say, “I was asked by so-and-so to give to such-and-such cause, and I didn’t because I wanted to go out for dinner that night,” or something of that sort. And then, if we harmed someone with our misstep, we have to apologize to them, openly and explicitly. We have to repair any damage, if possible, and only then do we have the right to ask for forgiveness from them, or from God.”

One major way t’shuvah differs from how public figures typically handle apologies and/or un-pologies: in the context of t’shuvah, only the person(s) wronged can pardon the wrongdoer. According to David H. Lincoln:

“Forgiveness can only be extended for wrongs personally suffered… In the end, only the aggressed-against party can forgive the aggressor.”

Melania Trump played the traditional spousal role in her husband’s damage control tour, publicly accepting his(lousy) apology. Within the paradigm of t’shuvah, Melania may forgive the harm done to her by Donald’s disrespect to their marriage, but he must still individually seek forgiveness from each person he harmed — potentially an impossible task. Ariel Pelaia writes this about seeking forgiveness:

“(In addition to murder) there are two other offenses that come close to being unpardonable: defrauding the public and ruining a person’s good name. In both cases it is nearly impossible to track down every person who was affected by the offense, for instance, every person affected by a monetary crime or every person who heard a rumor.”

So what does this mean for someone who really, truly regrets something they’ve done in the social media era, when an offensive, hurtful remark can spread to millions of people in a blink of an eye?

I propose a t’shuvah inspired process of really, truly apologizing:

  1. Confess what you did wrong, in detail, to yourself before others

Not just, “I sent a sexist tweet and upset a lot of people.”

More like, “I used slut-shaming language when I responded to a news story on Twitter last night. I realized immediately that I had upset many of my friends, but my reaction was to get defensive and angry. It took me all night to realize I was in the wrong, and by that time lots of people had seen the tweet. When people who experience gendered abuse see slut-shaming, it can trigger intense feelings of sadness, anxiety, shame, and hurt. I harmed anyone who was made to feel that way by my words.”

2. Apologize to the people you harmed, without asking for forgiveness.

If a frozen pizza brand can apologize individually to every person hurt by an insensitive tweet, so can we all. An unrestricted apology means demonstrating that you know what you did wrong, understanding that your actions were harmful, and saying you’re sorry. Excuses aren’t a part of an unrestricted apology. Nor is a request to be pardoned— that comes later.

3. Make an attempt to repair the damage.

Sometimes, repairing the damage is just a matter of reaching out to friends and asking how to fix things. Maybe they just want you to listen for a moment, or maybe an apology is all that’s necessary. But for public figures, whose actions affect the opinions of an audience, making amends can require reaching out publicly to say, “I was wrong, and I set a bad, harmful example.” It may also mean spending some time watching people who admire you to see if they are behaving badly as a result of your example, and asking them to stop.

If you materially damaged someone — for instance, if you participated in trolling that forced her out of her home in fear—you should reimburse the costs incurred as a result of your actions, if the aggrieved party is willing to accept money from you.

4. Seek forgiveness

Remember that this can only come from the aggrieved party/parties individually. If they deny forgiveness or indicate they don’t want to hear from you, accept that and move on. You’ll commit a fresh offense if you let your desire for forgiveness turn into aggressively pursuing someone who wants to break ties with you.

5. Take material steps to become a person who won’t do it again.

From Rabbi Rosenberg:

“The ultimate goal of t’shuvah is not to obtain forgiveness from someone else or to wipe away our sense of guilt. The ultimate goal of t’shuvah is to become a better person — the kind of person who would never do such a thing in the first place.”

What can you do, after realizing you were in the wrong, to become the kind of person who would never do such a thing? Probably not “ask the person/people you harmed to take you under their wing and teach you to do better” — that’s exploitative, unless they offer without being prompted. Instead, take advantage of information available online. Find supportive groups of people who are also seeking self-improvement. Practice mindfulness. Educate others like yourself who you see making the same mistake you made.

Elevate the voices of people more marginalized than yourself wherever possible. If you happen to receive opportunities to benefit from your self-improvement journey — e.g., if you are a man who was forgiven for sexist remarks, and you are later invited to join a panel about women in tech* — do your best to redirect those benefits to the people you harmed. Suggest, “Maybe my colleague, who has personally experienced sexism in the workplace, would like to join the panel instead?”


*That hypothetical scenario is a little complicated, because you may have a genuine opportunity to educate others and prevent harm in a context where a woman wouldn’t be heard the way you could be. If you feel that’s the case, I think it’s okay to take the opportunity to speak, but it would be wise to donate any compensation received.

Footnote: If you’re not Jewish, please don’t read this and go around telling people you’re practicing t’shuvah. I won’t be. I’m not Jewish under Jewish law (matrilineal inheritance) and I don’t attend religious services, so I can’t describe any apology I make as t’shuvah. It’s one thing to adopt a personal growth process inspired by the scholarship of a culture that’s been debating ethics, logic, and personal growth for thousands of years. It’s another thing to say you’re doing their religious practice when you’re not a member.

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