An Apology Isn’t Enough

There’s a pattern, and I should know it exists by now: I will post a note saying, “I’ll be silent for a little while.” Then, I’ll see something and just need to post about it, ordinarily within two days of the post saying there would be no posting.

And so it goes.

A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

Torah at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

At InterfaithFamily, Rabbi Mychal Copeland has a post entitled, “When Sacred Text Hurts Others.” In it, Rabbi Copeland describes her experience at a largely Christian interfaith gathering where after she blew the shofar, texts from the Gospel of Matthew that excoriated the Pharisees (almost certainly the main predecessors to rabbinic Judaism) were recited, the pastor who cited the text apologized, and the entire gathering recited a liturgical piece of apology for harms done in the misuse of and abuse of scriptural texts. Rabbi Copeland goes on to wonder about what to do with texts that are harmful to members of her own community, and whether placing the text in historical context is enough:

But at a time when more interfaith couples are choosing a Jewish life for their families, I feel what the pastor felt for me — that our texts, attitudes and parts of our liturgy may be doing harm to their hearts even as they gift us with their presence and the presence of their children.

If you could reach out to someone who may be hurt by our texts, who would it be?

What, then, of this problem?

I think the answer for liberal Jews should actually be straightforward. It starts with acknowledging, as Rabbi Copeland does, that the texts are products of their times. And you then need to use the texts with intention each time. You have to think about why the text is going to be used, what it says, and, after you know the harm the text can do, whether the text should be used. If the text can’t be used without doing harm–or can’t be used unless you make the reason for its use known clearly and immediately so that you can prevent that harm–perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be used in that setting.

The reality, of course, is that most liberal Jewish congregations don’t make this kind of intentional use of text. They follow the Torah reading cycle without interruption, with perhaps a sermon identifying the harm in the text and trying to contain it. They use the siddur with some abridgement, week after week, day after day–perhaps with an omission of the really obnoxious bits, perhaps not, and most days and weeks without a word about why a passage is or is not present.

It’s not enough to apologize for the harm caused by a text, only to continue on with what you’re doing. We have ethical obligations in how we speak in community. To fail to address those obligations, except in retrospective apology, is to fail to truly address the problem of a text’s potential to harm.

If atonement requires apology and changing behavior, what does it mean when we apologize but continue to plod along the same rutted walking path, trodden hard and packed down over 2,000 years?

This is one of the challenges we face in Secular Humanistic Judaism. We cannot responsibly cite the texts calling for the destruction of Amalek–even if the story were true–unless we are teaching the text in distinction to what we really believe. This is not only because we don’t regard these texts as true; even if we accepted the story as having occurred, we cannot responsibly cite such a text without making it clear that blotting out Amalek is about as unhumanistic a sentiment as can exist.

It is, simply put, wrong. And that means that the text cannot be used unreflectively. To be sure, different communities will view different texts in different lights, and will use the texts differently. And there are times when communities must challenge their members with difficult texts.

Humanistic Jewish communities won’t simply use the Amalek texts, though we might teach their contents. We don’t simply use any text, because we value saying what we believe and believing what we say. The text of the siddur is not our default; the words of the Torah are not our North Star.

Why? In no small part, it’s because communities ought never fall into the trap of neglectful use of texts that might harm.

And this is not, as I know some reader out there must now be thinking, a matter of stifling political correctness. Not if you take seriously the challenge of building true community.

As we roll toward Elul and move into the traditional season of reflection and atonement in Jewish life, we must stop and recognize that it’s not enough to apologize. Apologies ring hollow without change. And so the question should be not merely, “If you could reach out to someone who may be hurt by our texts, who would it be?,” but also this: “What are you going to do about preventing that harm in the future?”