As America was transfixed watching the testimony of Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford regarding Dr. Ford’s allegation of sexual assault, we all saw firsthand the extreme partisan politics on display. There was disagreement on who sounded more credible, on whether Senator Feinstein deliberately delayed sharing Dr. Ford’s allegation until the very end of the nomination process and whether the Senate vote should be postponed until the FBI can conduct a fuller investigation. However, both Democrats and Republicans seemed to agree that if Judge Kavanaugh indeed sexually assaulted Dr. Ford 36 years ago, then that would be grounds to disqualify him from consideration as a Supreme Court Justice. And I wondered: does our Torah tradition agree? Are there some sins from which we can never be cleansed? Or can teshuva, when done properly, erase all?
Perhaps we can argue that we can’t read into the hearts of men and women and therefore, we can’t know for certain if someone has truly repented. We believe in the concept of teshuva and we even have a ten-day period when we focus on teshuva, but at the end of the day, only God knows if we repented. Therefore, if someone committed a crime, we can’t risk appointing him to certain leadership positions like the Supreme Court even if he seems to have repented because we don’t know for certain if he’s a changed person. But what if someone committed a crime over thirty years ago and has been a model citizen since? Isn’t there a point at which we can say that he has indeed repented beyond a shadow of a doubt?
There is another point to consider. The Rambam in the laws of Sanhedrin (17:9) writes that a Rosh Yeshiva who has sinned is given lashes and does not return to his position of authority and he also is not reinstated as one of the other judges of the Sanhedrin. Rav David Ibn Zimra (Responsum 2078) explains the Rambam’s position by arguing that the sins of a leader are considered as though they were committed publicly and therefore constitute a grave Chillul Hashem, a grave defamation of God’s Name. In other words, perhaps through teshuva we can repair our relationship with God and we can even repair our relationship with others, but sometimes we can engage in sinful behavior that may disqualify us from certain leadership positions due to the Chillul Hashem involved. Some crimes, even if they are committed before someone is a leader, are too severe to allow us to fully erase the sins of someone’s past from the minds of society’s citizens to allow someone to become a Supreme Court Justice. Teshuva is about restoring the relationship between the sinner and God, but the effects of the sin cannot always be undone.
Americans may still be divided on whether we believe Justice Kavanaugh or Dr. Ford, or if Senator Feinstein deliberately delayed sharing Dr. Ford’s allegation, or whether the Senate vote should be postponed until the FBI can conduct a fuller investigation. However, I believe that America has spoken clearly about the limits of repentance.