Recently, The Times of Israel had a story about Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who was released in 2017 after serving time for sexual assault. Although many in Berland’s community have turned against him, the wider ultra-Orthodox community refuses to do so, and some have gone out of their way to show support. Berland was even given a special VIP treatment on a recent visit to the Kotel, and received a visit from ultra-Orthodox MK Yaakov Litzman when he was in the hospital.
Often, when people stand up for other rabbis who have been accused of sexual assault, they say that they are fulfilling the mitzvah of giving everybody the benefit of the doubt. But of course, that is not true. They are giving the accused (often men) the benefit of the doubt. In doing so, they are assuming the worst of the accusers (often women) — that they are liars who cannot be trusted. However, the silencing of victims’ voices is not unique to the religious community. It is a problem in the secular world as well, though that has begun to change with the #MeToo movement, which is finally allowing victims to tell their stories.
The movement has greatly impacted the Jewish community, as well, however, the High Holidays, when talk of repentance and forgiveness is in the air — and in our prayer books — can be triggering for victims of sexual and other types of abuse.
We are taught to ask God, and our friends and family, for forgiveness. There is often an accompanying lesson, whether implied or stated outright, that we should also forgive those who apologize to us. After all, as Jews, we are instructed to imitate God: “Just as He is Merciful, so too, you should be Merciful” — just as God forgives us, we should forgive others.
But, when it comes to sins in the realm of interpersonal relationships, we only expect God to forgive those who show true contrition towards those they hurt. It is not imitating God to forgive those who have abused us if they have not come to us and expressed true atonement. In fact, to the contrary: imitating God means forgiving those who have abused us only if and when we feel ready to do so, because that is when God is ready to forgive them, as well — and not before that point.
That is why, in Tefilat Zaka, recited on Erev Yom Kippur, we mourn for the fact that although Yom Kippur may atone for sins between us and God, it does not atone for interpersonal sins if we have not already obtained forgiveness from the people we hurt.
Since I know there is hardly a righteous person in the world who never sins between man and his neighbor…in deed or in speech, therefore my heart aches within me, because for a sin between man and his neighbor, Yom Kippur does not atone until one appeases his neighbor.
In general, when people want to obtain forgiveness, they apologize. However, for some abusers, apologizing is part of their modus operandi — it is a hook to keep the victim from leaving, in order to be able to continue the abuse. That type of apology is no apology at all. In fact, Tefilat Zaka has a special clause for apologies of this ilk.
I extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has sinned against me, whether physically or monetarily, or who has gossiped about me or even slandered me…to anyone who has injured me, whether physically or financially, and for any human sins between man and his neighbor — except for money that I wish to claim in court and that I can recover by law, and except for someone who sins against me and says, “I will sin against him and he will forgive me.
Someone who continues to be abusive, while apologizing for his behavior, falls into the last category. The apology is meaningless, because it does not express a true commitment to changing their actions.
We have this clause in the prayer because Judaism understands that although we have an obligation to try to be kind and forgiving towards others, that obligation does not trump our obligation to protect ourselves from harm. If someone continually takes advantage of our kindness to hurt us, it is okay to stop giving. It is okay to set boundaries. It is okay to leave an abuser, or cut them out of your life. You do not have a religious obligation to forgive them.
The leaders who protect those such as Berland often speak of the importance of giving the accused the benefit of the doubt, but there is a difference between not automatically assuming the worst of people and ignoring credible evidence against them. There are many questions that halacha must grapple with in the #MeToo era, but there is one question that simply should not need to be asked: Do I have to forgive my abuser?
The answer should be obvious. No.
If religious Jews believe that the thing that God wants them to do as they prepare for the High Holidays is to forgive those who have abused them, then there is a serious problem in the way Judaism is being presented.
It is easy to get confused when you see mainstream, “respectable” figures refusing to condemn rabbis who have been credibly accused — perhaps even convicted — of sexual abuse. But that is a desecration of God’s name, for it broadcasts the message that God expects us to forgive abusers who have not repented for their actions, when in fact, the opposite is true.
Yom Kippur is about forgiveness and repentance. It is a time to reflect on the type of people we wish to be. But it is also a time to say things we are afraid to voice out loud. In our prayers, we confess to God. We admit things we are ashamed of. This only works because the entire congregation engages in a pact to make the synagogue a safe space for the duration of the holiday, so that the true work of soul-searching can take place.
There is an aspect of that to the #MeToo movement as well. It is about telling stories that we are afraid to tell, and saying things we are ashamed to say —because even though victims have no reason to feel ashamed, society often makes us feel as if we do. We tell stories because we understand that stories have the power to change reality. Naming the sins of the past (in the case of #MeToo, the sins that have been perpetrated against the victims) is vital to prevent the sins of the future and to foment social change.
That is why the confessions of Yom Kippur are recited out loud, in the plural form, “We have been guilty; we have betrayed” — we are taking communal responsibility to make the world a better place, and to build a more just society, and that means recognizing that we each bear some responsibility for the current flaws that exist in our community.
Yom Kippur is in part about changing the stories create about ourselves. On the night of Kol Nidre, we declare all vows that we have “prohibited upon ourselves” to be “null and void.” In other words, all promises we have made to ourselves, all committed ideas we have had about the types of people we are — those are nullified, and we have a chance to turn over a blank page and write the next chapter — a chapter informed by all the lessons and insights we have learned since last Yom Kippur. This is an act of empowerment. We are the ones tasked with writing the story — not just for ourselves as individuals, but also as a community.
But this task can only occur properly in a space of empathy, a space where we listen to others’ voices, even if they say things we find difficult to hear.
Part of the #MeToo movement, as well, is listening to people’s stories. This Yom Kippur, let us resolve to make space for victims’ voices, and make sure those voices can be heard, for by listening to the voice of suffering, we engage in a Godly act, for God is the Ultimate Listener, who hears our prayers and the cries of those in pain.
May God answer all our prayers and bless us all with a happy and healthy year ahead.
*Translations are from the Artscroll machzor.