A Very Brief Primer on Repentance and Apologies, Genuine and Not

As Jews prepare for the annual exercise of self-examination and repentance on Yom Kippur, our experience with apologizing during the Ten Days of Repentance may prove helpful to people of other backgrounds as well.

Genuine repentance has 3 basic components: recognizing and regretting the sin; verbal confession, apology and making amends to those hurt and offended; and changing one’s behavior to avoid repetition.

To see how this works, consider the hypothetical example of a male public figure who gropes women in an unwelcome sexual manner, then makes obscene remarks about them and others, and the offensive remarks later come to widespread attention.

A perfect expression of non-repentance: It was a long time ago. I was just joking around. I apologize if anyone was offended. That type of conduct does not reflect who I am. I was wrong. I apologize. But A and B have done a lot worse and I’ll tell you more about that soon.

An example of actual repentance, assuming sincerity: I said very vulgar and inappropriate things of a sexual nature and repeatedly imposed myself on women for my own selfish gratification. I feel deeply remorseful and ashamed, and I am seeking professional care to help me understand why I engage in this behavior and to ensure that I never do so again. In the meanwhile, I am reaching out to every woman toward whom I behaved in an inappropriate manner to apologize directly and ask her forgiveness. I offer my heartfelt apology to everyone whom my inexcusable behavior has hurt or disappointed.

Schadenfreude alert: It’s worth remembering that it is wrong to revel in the discomfiture of others, and that when we point the finger of accusation at someone, three fingers point back at ourselves.

About the Author
Rabbi Richard A Block is Immediate Past President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism, and Senior Rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, OH. Newsweek Magazine has recognized him as "one of the top 25 pulpit rabbis in America."
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