The ethics of apologies and Jewish guilt

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

This afternoon, I will be joining my family at the river near our house to participate in a tradition known as tashlich, a ritual that includes casting away one’s sins (in the form of bread crumbs) into the water. As I prepare to engage in this very old tradition, I am reminded of my own sins, my parents’ sins, my grandparents’ sins, all the way back to my ancestors’ sins. This is a ritual that all practicing Jews participate in during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. My family is special though, since we are direct descendant from the High Israeli Priests, better known as the ones who condemned Jesus to die.

We will be entering the year 5778, and I can’t help but wonder how many sins my people have committed since Year One. I feel as though I should be acting differently, given my heritage. I am ashamed of all my wrongdoings, but am also conflicted. I am not a practicing Jew (though most of my family still is), but am proud of my heritage and plan on raising my own children with the same traditions I was raised on. Will they sin as well? Will they feel ashamed? No one ever really means to sin, do they? And if they do, how can we simply cast those sins away as if they never happened? Surely an unethical, unkind behavior is not forgiven by a quick, sincere apology, let alone an insincere one. I feel remorse for some of my actions, and feel justified for others. I don’t feel the need to apologize for some of those sins, and even if I did, I’m not sure it would even matter. In that case, what is the purpose of apologizing, especially if one is not really that sorry for what one did?

The Torah, Bible, Quran, Book of Shadows, etc, all teach us that we should be kind to others at all times. This in and of itself is a universally-acknowledged ethical principle, and yet it seems to be the most difficult one to grapple with on a daily basis. When we are unable to do so, we should feel remorse and apologize immediately. Though this is common courtesy, that exchange often never happens. Some people are able to fake remorse because they’re great liars, sociopaths, or just don’t like conflict. Others just can’t get themselves to apologize for something they’re really not sorry for. In their mind, the sin committed was completely justified, and the other person should apologize. This dissonance is one of the most dividing differences in Judaism versus Christianity. Rabbi Gershon Winkler, a Rabbi at the Walking Stick Foundation, says that “Judaism does not perceive the journey back to God as so arduous and steep that it requires the aid of a redemptive savior”. In other words, Jews believe that forgiveness comes from the perceived victim of the sin, while Christians believe that forgiveness comes from God. Therefore, if one is aligned with Jewish ideals, it makes no difference whether one is really sorry or not. What matters is that the person that’s been sinned against forgives his or her aggregator.

Regardless of whether or not one is truly sorry, the victim of a person’s sin still must deal with the consequences of that sin. Even if the perpetrator is sincerely apologetic, the victim can- and often will- refuse that perpetrator’s apology. In that case, the sin has not been forgiven, and the “sinner” will begin the New Year knowing that they still have unresolved contention with another person. In addition, one can lie to someone about how sorry they really are, but one can’t lie to oneself or to God. If I’m standing at the river, tossing my challah into the water, thinking about how that person really had it coming, I’m still admitting to oneself that I did something harmful or unkind to another human being. I still feel that cognitive dissonance of knowing that I’ve behaved unethically, despite having my own justification for it. The tradition of tashlich is not meant to be a constant stream of “I’m sorry for this, I’m sorry for that” (though it often is), it’s meant to be a chance to own up to one’s wrongdoing and promise God to try better next year.

Perhaps therein lies the truth as to whether insincere apologies can ever be ethical: there is no such thing as an ethical or unethical apology, only ethical and unethical actions. An apology stands alone; it does not serve any other purpose except to reassure the victim that we’ve acknowledged our role in an unkind or unethical interaction. In other words, an apology is not a solution to a lapse in ethical behavior, it’s simply an acknowledgment of that behavior. The ethics of apologies comes before the unethical behavior has happened. The only ethical way to apologize for harmful, unkind behavior is to recognize that the behavior is harmful and should not come to fruition, and if one decides to go through with it anyway, to make sure that behavior never happens ever again. One cannot make ethical what was unethical to begin with — not through apologies, remorse, or breadcrumbs.

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Amanda Friedlander

Amanda Friedlander

Chicago native with a passion for prose and an obsession with compassion. I’m radically transparent about my personal experiences in health and wellness.