Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently apologized for her highly inappropriate comments about Donald Trump. Whether she did so because she regretted her actions or because of all the incoming condemnations, even from leading liberal outlets, is beside the point. The mere fact of an apology from a public official in America has become so rare as to merit mention.
Politicians are always looking for a theme song for their campaigns. Well, I’ve got one that fits both the Clinton and Trump campaigns, Elton John’s “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Both candidates are struggling with historically off-the-charts unpopularity. And I think that one of the reasons is that both seem to have a problem uttering the simple words, “I’m sorry.”
One of the holiest actions in Judaism is to say, “I’m sorry for my transgressions.” This is what Jews all say on Yom Kippur and we believe that God accepts our apology. Strong men and women are those who believe in accountability and are not remiss in taking responsibility for their actions. To apologize is to show conviction and strength of character. To withhold an apology is to promote the fraudulent belief that we are somehow infallible. It’s to deny our essential humanity.
In this foul election season politicians of all stripes seem to believe that admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness rather than of vigor and integrity.
It is not a sign of feebleness to admit mistakes. All humans are imperfect and while popes may be expected to be perfect, presidential candidates and elected officials are not.
In Judaism we are enjoined to avoid not just wrongdoing but even the perception thereof. This is especially true of public officials whose actions are meant to inspire the masses. To apologize is not to admit culpability but rather to respect the public’s sense of woundedness. But our politicians today are an apology is an admission of guilt.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seem to share this stubbornness.
Hillary will offer a non-apology apology when cornered, as in the case of her email debacle. She may not be in legal jeopardy, but the FBI investigation proved she misled the public on numerous occasions about various aspects of her emails, such as whether any were classified. The investigation into her handling of the events in Benghazi did not reveal any evidence of misconduct. But the perception remains that she was less than forthcoming about her responsibility. The ties between her, members of her staff, her husband, and donors to the Clintons’ foundation also doesn’t pass the kosher test, even if nothing was illegal.
For this and more Hillary should come before the public and say she is sorry for losing the public’s trust. She should take full responsibility for her actions and prove to her critics that she does not believe she is above the law.
Donald Trump maintains he has nothing to apologize for no matter what he says – or tweets. Instead of debating whether he tweeted a Jewish star or a sheriff’s badge, Trump could have easily apologized for retweeting an image that apparently came from a white supremacist’s social media feed when he is definitely better than that. I do not believe for a moment that Trump harbors any anti-Semitism. But he’s got a lot of Jew-hating crazies who are ardent supporters and he should have long ago put distance between himself and them. He should do it now and declare he regrets not doing it earlier.
Trump should finally apologize for the absurd criticism of universally-acclaimed war hero Senator John McCain who suffered unspeakably for his country. And finally, he should apologize for suggesting Mexican immigrants are thieves and rapists.
Let me be clear. I do not think that our entire presidential campaign should be reduced to a series of “I’m sorries.” Rather, in suggesting the various issues for which both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump owe the public an apology – including the awful tenor of this race – I’m hoping that they might just begin the process of taking public responsibility for their actions. They owe it both to the American people and to the high office they seek.
I do not expect the candidates to go on an apology binge like President Obama who apologized to the Europeans for our “arrogance,” to the Islamic community for American imperfections, and to the Turkish parliament for the “darker periods in our history.” There is also a big difference between apologizing to people from foreign countries, especially for policies that many Americans do not believe were mistakes, and telling Americans that you are sorry for actions at home.
I also recognize that both as an American, as a Rabbi, and as a human being I cannot dish out the advice without practicing it myself.
I have been thinking about the importance of apologies since the first potshots were fired early in the campaign, but the issue really hit me upon the recent death of my mentor, friend, and inspiration Elie Wiesel. While the Holocaust turned six million Jews to dust, this one courageous man stood up as a witness to ensure the horror of that era is never forgotten. Elie was forever associated with the mass murder of Jews, but he was also a spokesperson for all the victims of genocide. He was not afraid to speak “truth to power” and to decry the world’s silence while people are massacred in Rwanda, the Sudan, or Syria.
Knowing that Reb Eliezer, as I affectionately called him, enjoyed the most sterling reputation as one of the most respected human beings alive I was always conscious of the great gift I had in his friendship and the responsibility I carried to never tarnish that standing even to the most infinitesimal degree.
I was fortunate to be one of the people who was with him in his last hours and to do what little I could to comfort him. I attended his funeral but was tortured by the sense that I had not apologized to him for those times when we disagreed and I may have hurt him. In Judaism, we are obligated to seek atonement even if the person we have wronged is no longer alive. It was for that reason that, at his burial, I waited for the gathered mourners to leave and then stood alone over his grave and engaged in the ancient Jewish custom of asking the deceased for pardon and forgiveness for any transgression I may have been guilty of in our friendship.
As I sat at his funeral and heard a celebrity speaker divulge a private conversation he recently had with Elie, I pondered whether I had been guilty of the same, including in a Facebook blog I wrote as soon as the Sabbath went out on the day of his passing where I spoke of the words of comfort I had offered him. Perhaps this too was a breach of confidentiality, and I apologized both to Elie as well as his son Elisha, a dear friend who granted me the unique honor and privilege of being with his father in those last trying hours.
I repeat the apology again, especially to my dear friend Elisha.
And if it’s important to atone to those whom we have lost, it is all the more so important to apologize to people who are still alive and who can accept our apology.
Our presidential candidates are diminishing the grandeur of our great country and souring the people on the political process with a Presidential race which all the polls show is turning off Americans, even as it provides endless entertainment. While I can speak only for myself, I would guess that a principal cause of this growing disillusionment stems from the utter inability of candidates to show remorse.
The campaign is far from over so there is still time for both Clinton and Trump to admit their fallibility and to ask the public to forgive their imperfections. The candidates would like to move on from controversies, but they will linger until November if they are not addressed forthrightly. Americans are not god, but they are a famously forgiving people when presented with a heartfelt, sincere, and simple “I’m sorry.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.