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Steven Bayar
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The boundaries of repentance

How far should forgiveness extend? What should congregations do when a sex felon wants to attend services?

One catchphrase of the High Holy Day season is “Utshuvah, Utfilah, Utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagizera,” often translated as “repentance, prayer and charity will avert the evil decree.” At this time of year, our community faces the challenge to accept penitents back into the fold, allow them access to our sanctuaries, and even offer honors to the Torah. If we truly believe in the possibility of repentance, we must be willing to reintegrate them.

But what of abusers? The recently issued “Guidelines and Protocols on Child Safety and Sexual Abuse in a Congregational Setting” from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) asks the same question. “One of the most difficult challenges for congregations in dealing with abusers is that of granting access to the synagogue to registered sex offenders, to those suspected of abuse, and to those charged with abuse but not convicted for a variety of reasons.”

This issue has plagued each movement. Anecdotally, most congregations do not handle it well. Rabbis are loath to refuse the repentance of a felon. At times I would be made aware “in confidence” of an abuser in the congregation. “Outing” them, especially if they had already served their sentence, would humiliate them and their family.

David Hartman (of blessed memory) taught me that “a value is only a value when it is tested.” In the past, congregations and movements have interpreted this to mean that we must be willing to forgive a person who has sinned and allow them to be part of the community once again.

But that is not how this issue should be interpreted. It stems from a basic mistranslation of the High Holiday catchphrase, which should read, “repentance, prayer and charity (may) modify the decree.”

In other words, you can repent but you are still responsible for your deeds. In this case, part of your “repentance” is to never allow a victim to feel the danger of your presence. And the perpetrator’s wish to be in the sanctuary cannot be allowed to take precedence over the trauma their presence inflicts on victims.

Thankfully, the RCA has taken a courageous stand, which is found in its opening sentence. “The primary responsibility of a congregation is to ensure the physical and emotional safety and wellbeing of its members including the victims and survivors of sexual abuse by the immediate perpetrator, potential victims, minors and their parents, and victims and survivors of other instances of sexual abuse.”

The protection of children and other victims of abuse is of greater importance than the repentance of the perpetrator.

The policy states that if a perpetrator needs a minyan one can be provided for them at a private home or a setting where no children are present.

This is not a small step on a new path. It is the beginning of a “legal correction” (takana) over the responsibilities of a community to members. One hopes that it becomes “the norm” for all movements. More to the point, one hopes that the individual congregation will implement these recommendations.

Then this will truly be a High Holy Day season.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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