Repentance and Return: What Jewish Tradition Tells Us about Restoring the Cancelled
When does a disgraced person get to come back? When can we offer restoration and return to a man who has behaved badly?
The Jewish intellectual community has been wrestling with that in recent months.
In 2018, one of the foremost scholars of contemporary Judaism, Steven M. Cohen, resigned from Hebrew Union College. The #MeToo movement was sweeping the nation – and former students and colleagues of Cohen came forward with numerous stories of unwanted sexual attention, including verbal harassment and physical touching. Cohen expressed remorse as he resigned, and did not contest the allegations. He promised to apologize to his accusers.
In January 2021, Cohen took part in several “off-the-record” online discussions about contemporary Jewish life, alongside several of the most preeminent scholars in the field – his onetime colleagues. The invitation to these discussions was quietly disseminated, the organizers urging recipients to keep everything on the down low, so as not to arouse controversy.
No one had offered Cohen a job. But he was included in a roundtable discussion as if he had been restored to his old life; there was no mention of his resignation or the events that led to it. Many in the American Jewish intellectual world were stunned that Cohen was back without warning; many women in the community declared it made them feel unsafe and discouraged to see a harasser returned so easily to his former platform.
Last Thursday, a group of more than 500 rabbis and scholars issued a public statement, declaring “As Jewish clergy, we know that actively participating in the rehabilitation of unrepentant abusers is not value neutral, and we know that lifting up the work of unrepentant abusers is not value neutral.”
In Judaism, there is a process for restoring those who have committed misconduct. Not only are the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) centered on that communal restoration, there is an ancient and clear framework for bringing an offender back into the fold. Teshuvah is the Hebrew word for repentance, and it’s an essential prerequisite for restoration. The offender must not only be sorry, but be publicly so – and make every effort to heal the damage they did.
In May 2020, the Forward published a blueprint, written by feminist scholars and the Committee for Ethics in Jewish Leadership, entitled How sexual abusers can earn their way back into Jewish communal spaces. I urge you to read the whole thing, but based on both Jewish tradition and contemporary feminist psychological insights, the rabbis proposed a four-point plan for restoration. In order to be welcome home, the offender must:
1) Fully admit the misconduct, without naming victims who do not wish to be named.
2) Take sole responsibility for the behavior, without blaming anyone else.
3) Make unconditional apology to all harmed, with no mitigations – no “I’m sorry if you got upset,” etc.
4) Attempt ongoing restitution where they are able, including financial restitution (such as donating fees from future speaking gigs)
According to his victims, Cohen has partially attempted the first two steps, but has not apologized privately to any of his accusers. The outrage is not that some in the community wanted to restore Cohen – it’s that they wanted to do so while he remained steadfastly unrepentant. “Unrepentance” in this case isn’t the absence of internal guilt – it’s the failure to follow the ancient and clear process for restoration.
The rabbis who signed the statement denouncing the premature restoration of Steven M. Cohen don’t want him shunned forever. They want him to do the work, and they don’t want him readmitted until he does it. Once he walks the walk, he’ll be invited back to give the talk – and not before.
What of the rest of us, who are not part of the Jewish intellectual community, and not similarly guided by clearly prescribed steps for return? How, in American public life, do we create a system for return?
Part of the problem with contemporary cancel culture is that it is focused solely on removing offenders from their positions. Any concern with what happens to the dispossessed after they are fired or forced to resign is seen as unseemly “himpathy” with predators and bigots. Those who are defenestrated from public life are expected to transform themselves on their own, without bothering anyone else, and without any hope of a comeback.
As one former colleague put it to me a few years ago, when I wondered aloud if I could ever teach again, “You don’t deserve a second chance until everyone else has had their first. Get to the back of the line – and it’s a long, long line.” It didn’t matter if I apologized or took responsibility; those might be good steps for my mental health, but unlike in the Jewish context, they weren’t remotely sufficient to consider a return. In secular America, cancellation is in effect a lifetime ban, and the sooner the cancelled accept the permanence of the consequences they’ve “earned,” the better off they’ll be.
In my case, I lost everything entirely on my own confession. Not one person ever came forward to accuse me of misconduct. As far as the world knows, I made up a story about sleeping with my students as an act of monumental self-destruction. I fell from tenured professorship to schlepping groceries solely because of a narrative I created. The students I slept with did not want me to lose my job, and they didn’t want me to talk about what we’d done – it was my guilt and shame that led me to tell all. And of course, you can’t verify any of that because there’s simply no evidence beyond my own words, most of which were typed or uttered when I was in the middle of a colossal breakdown.
You can never prove I’ve apologized to people you aren’t sure even exist!
I made the decision two years ago that I would consciously reject the kind of restoration plan the Jewish community holds forth. While I grieve my infidelities and the harm I caused to Eira and my children, I do not believe that consensual sexual relationships between professors and their adult students are inherently unethical and inevitably harmful. I do believe that adult students can give meaningful consent, even to a professor, and I believe that those students can look back with fondness on those relationships, years later. I have been told this by my exes, and I cling to what they told me.
I have apologized to everyone who has told me that I hurt them, but that’s not the same as apologizing to those who believe they weren’t hurt.
I will not recite a formula of contrition in which I do not believe. I do not believe it would make a difference if I did; in the modern era, even if I wept and gnashed my teeth and made the sincerest of apologies, no one would hire me to teach again. It’s far too great a liability – and as my colleague put it, other people deserve their first shot before I get my second (or, to be frank, my 89th.)
I will be on the margins the rest of my days, hustling and gigging and breaking down pallets until my body breaks down. That’s the consequence I choose to live with, and I try and find a little dignity in it, so that my children know that I kept fighting to stay in their lives.
Getting away from my own boring self-absorption, the Cohen case is vital because it does propose a concrete way forward for once-abusive men. It points to a long hard road, but a road with a definite end. The rabbinical objection to Cohen’s return to prominence wasn’t that a badly behaved man was restored, but that he took a shortcut to the restoration. He didn’t put in the work, particularly the vital steps of apology and meaningful restitution. Once he does those things, IF he does those things, the conversation will be very different.
The four-point plan proposed by feminist Jewish ethicists centers the needs of victims. They need to hear they were not at fault, that the perpetrator understands the scope of the harm he caused, and that he is both sorry and willing to make tangible compensation as evidence of that sorrow.
At the same time, Jewish tradition doesn’t necessarily give victims veto power over an offender’s final return. If Cohen does apologize and make restitution, and some of his victims accept the apologies and others don’t, the process of restoration isn’t suspended indefinitely. Mr. Cohen must do the work, and he must do it sincerely, but if it isn’t enough for some, those “some” don’t get the final say over whether he can come home. That’s for the community at large to discern. So far, that’s all speculative, as Cohen isn’t even attempting the apologies he needs to offer. Until he does so, the door will be shut.
We are in an extraordinary cultural moment. When it comes to sexual abuse and systemic racism, we speak constantly of reckoning and reparations. How do we confront the harms that were done? How do we repair the damage? Once we’ve reckoned and repaired, how do we restore? It is not enough to say, “the first shall be last, and the last first” – that’s glib prophecy, not a coherent moral agenda. (I mean, who the hell thinks progress should look like changing the order of a single-file line?) Who decides what reparations are sufficient? Who decides when it is okay to embrace the prodigal?
We need to have this conversation, and we need to have it soon. Fortunately, the Jewish scholarly community has shown us one way forward.
My prayers this Passover are with Steven M. Cohen and those whom he has harmed. Do the work, Steven; do it, do it fully, and come home.