Gidon Rothstein

Would We Accept a Sinner’s Teshuvah? Why Should Hashem Accept Ours?

The past several years have seen more than a few scandals in the Jewish community, involving ordinary people, lay leaders, ordinary rabbanim, and even, to our chagrin, top-level Torah scholars. These scandals run the gamut from the financial to the intellectual to the sexual, and nothing I am writing here should be taken as in any way excusing any of what has been done wrong. But there is an element of the communal reaction that bothers and worries me.

In brief, some people are too quick to excuse the actions of those involved, and some are too absolute in denying the possibility of those people ever being allowed to again hold any position in a Jewish communal structure.

It does not take too much imagination to conjure Yossel Chotei (or, sadly, Rabbi Yossel Chotei), whose wrongs have been made public, whether financial, sexual, or intellectual. Can Yossel repent? I don’t mean before God, we all know he (or she, although until this point the scandals have all been men) can repent. I mean would we ever accept that Yossel had repented, enough that he might be restored to some contributing position within the Jewish community? If, at some point in the future, he provided evidence of repentance and change, would we be willing to entertain the possibility that that is true?

My experience is that many would say no. They would say that what he did was so serious—not least the chillul Hashem aspect of it—that he can never again hold any kind of communal position. Sadly, they could also point to many people, Jewish and not, who claimed to have repented, yet later proved they had done no such thing or had fallen yet again into the trap of whatever sin lures them.

The Halachic Element

As a friend who asked me not to use his name pointed out to me, there are sources that point in that direction. mMenachot 13;10 tells us that priests who served in Beit Chonyo, an alternate (although illegitimate, since there can be only one) temple set up in Egypt, would never be allowed to serve in the Beit HaMikdash after that. Shu”t Afarkasta de-Anya 1;158 raises that in a question about a ritual slaughterer who had for some time served in a Reform community. For all that he had himself always been observant, had his service there been fully willing, the consensus of the time was that he would not again be allowed to serve an observant community.

That, however, was a fine, as part of the attempt to stem or reverse the Reform tide. As contemporary decisors note, today the question would focus more on whether we can trust his repentance, including a slaughterer caught foisting unkosher meat on the public. Repentance may be long and require much verification, but it can lead to restoration, partial or whole.

In 1;120, Afarkasta de-Anya held that a cantor who had a position in a Reform synagogue should not be allowed to serve as chazzan in an Orthodox shul, even on a particular occasion, and cites the example of the priests from the Temple of Onias for support. (Although the notes to 1;158 argue that we cannot always extrapolate from the Beit haMikdash to other places of worship). In that case, however, the chazzan was still serving in the Reform congregation or, at least, had not made the effort to repent.

The case of a chazzan is more complicated, however, since Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 53;7 set an unusually high standard, that a chazzan should be someone about whom there have never been any rumors of serious sin, even in his youth, even if he afterwards repented. That seems related to the fact that he will represent the community before God, such that even a minority of members have the right to protest his accession (if they nonetheless gave him the job, he cannot be removed after the fact because of it).

Let us leave aside chazzanim, then, and perhaps shochatim, ritual slaughterers. Other than those, it seems to me that I hear people speaking overly absolutely about public sinners’ inability to ever get past their sin. That, to me, violates our obligation to love others as ourselves. Just as we want Hashem to accept our teshuvah—and want our family, friends, and other loved ones to forgive our missteps– year in and year out, despite sometimes or often not having made progress or improvement (I speak for myself, perhaps not for you), should we not be open to the possibility of real, successful teshuvah, even in serious sinners?

Difficulties of Repentance

First, two caveats. In cases of chillul Hashem—and any public scandal involving observant Jews, let alone rabbis, is a terrible chillul HashemYoma 86a tells us that repairing the relationship with Hashem is arduous, involving teshuvah, repentance, the absolution of Yom Kippur, yisurim, cleansing suffering, and is still incomplete until death. So whatever I suggest about how to react to those who have created a chillul Hashem should not be seen as minimizing any of that.

Second, in many such cases, we cannot and must not ignore the sensitivities of the victims, nor should we ever allow our reactions to any possible teshuvah to lead to danger to new victims. One of the worst parts of some of these scandals is that some people’s desire to see penitence in people they otherwise respect leads them to too hastily restore those people to where, when temptation strikes again, they again victimize innocent others. Anything I suggest here is only in the context of being sure we do not put others at risk.

The same friend also reminded me of Sanhedrin 25b, which says that restoration of status through repentance—in the Gemara, it was a return to being accepted as valid witnesses in a court—must include the destruction of the vehicle of sin. A gambler has to break the dice he used, someone who bought and sold produce improperly during a shemittah year has to live through another shemittah without doing that, and might need to give any ill-gotten gains to the poor. So whatever we might decide qualifies as repentance has to include a full recognition of what was done wrong, and a full and convincing stepping away from that element of the sinner’s life, for all time.

Laying Out a Path

With all that granted, it seems to me halachah allows for—and we need to allow for—an avenue of repentance and some level of restoration. Let me start with the repentance, a model we all know and yet perhaps glide over too easily. There are four steps, at the very least—Rabbenu Yonah in Sha’arei Teshuvah has a longer list, which I believe would prove productive for most of us, but Rambam’s list is better known.

Recognizing the sin means accepting, forthrightly, without equivocation or minimizing, what one did, naming it and agreeing that it was wrong. Any teshuvah that is aimed at demonstrating one’s penitence to the public who know of the sin would have to start with fully recounting what was done (and perhaps also accounting for it, giving some sense of what was going on for him in doing all that), and the sinner’s agreeing it was sinful, in all the ways that it was.

The next two steps, whose order might not matter, is committing to not repeating the sin and regretting the past. It’s not enough for Yossel Chotei, for example, to say “well, since the law caught me, or I ran out of money, I’m not going to do it again.” He’d have to say that since it was wrong, he’s committed to not doing anything like that again. He would have to, before we could raise any question of whether he has repented, make clear that he regretted all that he had done, and the pain he had caused. In any case where people were hurt (unlike if we found out he was secretly eating cheeseburgers), he would have to make some meaningful attempt at seeking their forgiveness as well (and they, for all their hurt, financial, physical, or psychological, would need to forgive—without yielding any forms of redress they might legally have— once they are convinced that Yossel was sincere).

Finally, there would be a vidui, an articulation of sin. Technically, that part is between the sinner and God, but since we’ve already spoken of his recounting the sin as part of the recognition of it, it seems relevant here, too, as part of helping those around him decide whether they’re convinced of his change, such that he might again function in something like his old role.

Is There Room for Us To Be So Harsh?

As I said at the outset, many bristle at the idea. But suppose that Yossel Chotei takes all these difficult steps, in addition to going to jail, if that’s what’s called for, or counseling, or takes time away from whatever his forum of activity was. Years later, if some community (or communal institution) felt he would be the best person to fill some role—as a financial adviser, as a teacher of Torah, as a rabbi–with no access to any of the vehicles of his sin from before, do we want to say that no, that should still be impossible?

I hope not, and I say that for completely selfish reasons, personal and communal. I stand before my Creator three times a day, and then more intensely so during the Yamim Noraim. I hope and believe there is a difference of degree between any of these public sinners and myself. But I repeatedly ask Hashem to ignore and excuse my sins, and I hope that, should any of them become public, others would treat me with understanding and generosity, allowing me to continue my efforts to move forward from those aspects of my past and present that embarrass me. How can I be closed to extending that understanding to others, even if I flatter myself that their sins were much, much worse than my own?

The Jewish community hurts itself by that stance as well. There are many Yossel Choteis who, with all their flaws, also have contributions to make to our community that few others can, in various areas of use and value to the Jewish community. Stressing again the need for real and not pro forma teshuvah, as well as for safeguards in case a sinner backslides, I believe the Jewish community hurts itself by foregoing their expertise. We are not so swimming in the various types of expertise that we can afford to write off such people irrevocably.

It’s a middle road, with danger on either side, but I think it is a middle road we should strive to walk. We cannot be overly lenient with those who have embarrassed the community and have deeply hurt others, financially, sexually, or otherwise. But we also should not close doors we would not want closed on ourselves, especially when we’re denying ourselves that which we might need.

Hashem models this behavior for us, setting a high standard for what teshuvah has to look like, but also being clear that it’s always a possibility. As we strive to fulfill the mitzvah of lehidammot bi-Drachav, imitation Dei, to mold ourselves to be more like HaKadosh Baruch Hu, this is one way we can and should do so. Especially at this time of year, as we look into ourselves, let’s also remind ourselves that others out there need forgiveness and absolution, and there should be a path for us to offer that. Ketivah Ve-Hatimah Tovah.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.