“Safe Confession Versus Truthful Confession”: Rabbi Maderer Rosh Hashanah Sermon

When I handed down my decades-old ripped blue-jeans to my teen-aged daughter and I told her: they were so old that they used to be my fancy jeans, she asked, how that could be so–why would I have bought ripped blue-jeans, as my fancy jeans. “Well, honey, they were not ripped when I bought them… only recently did people start to purchase jeans, with holes already torn!

A congregant recently told me about her clothing mending business called Love My Schmatte. A part of the visible mending movement, there’s no subtle, same-colored stitching.  Stitching and patching are meant to attract attention.  

With an intent to discourage people from discarding clothing and producing textile pollution, visible mending demonstrates values-driven choices and makes mending and re-use a sustainable fashion look.  Visible mending is a walking example, of exposed imperfection and repair.

In these Ten Days of Repentance, repair/tshuvah in our relationship with God, can happen only after we have made things right in our relationships with other people. We begin with confession—(and of course, this is Judaism so we are not confessing to an intermediary). We confess to the people we have harmed so they know, we own our actions. On Yom Kippur we will cry out to God: We have stumbled and strayed; anachnu chatanu / we have done wrong.  In our soul-searching before we reach Yom Kippur, we turn to each other to say: I have done wrong. 

According to the Jewish thinker Maimonides, it is praiseworthy to confess, as publicly as we sinned. Harm an individual one-on-one? Confess to that individual privately.  Inflict harm on someone at a staff meeting in the presence of co-workers? Confess to that entire staff.  Cause harm in an institution, in a nation? Confess to all witnesses, perhaps, even to the world.  Maimonides’ teaching of Confession – so honest, so exposed – is the opposite of covering up, or of subtle, same-colored stitching. 

Expanding on Maimonides’ message about confession, in her book, On Repentance & Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg illustrates the power of a victim-centric approach—that is, a focus on the feelings, needs, and healing of the victim.  With Confession, by owning the harm, the wrong-doer lifts a portion of the burden, off the victim. She teaches: “Resistance to [confession] is a manipulative way of denying reality-which piles more harm on top of the original offense.”  

Of all the steps of tshuvah, I think Confession is the most counter-cultural.  In a society that favors cover-ups more than honesty, liability protection over accountability, and filtered presentation over reality… it’s no wonder that, truths that can rock the boat, are scarier than the actual holes in the boat.  When the first response to harm we have caused is: how can I make sure no one finds out, rather than: how can I make sure everyone who witnessed, knows my behavior was unacceptable, we are shaped by a culture of fear, rather than accountability.

Perhaps, confession is not only counter-cultural in our own time.  There is a story of a woman and a priest in the ancient days of the Tanakh/Hebrew Bible, that is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah. This woman Hannah, deeply distressed in her infertility struggle, visits a Temple.  Overcome by despair, yet holding onto hope, she quietly prays to God.  Elie the priest, seeing Hannah’s lips move, but hearing no sound, accuses her of public drunkenness, and scolds her to sober up.  Hannah explains to Elie that in her anguish, she has been pouring her heart out to God. When Elie the priest realizes he was wrong, he responds: Then go in peace and may God grant you your prayers. Hannah accepts his blessings. Elie has extended himself with a kind word, but notice: he does not outright admit his offense or commit to doing better the next time he has the opportunity to give someone the benefit of the doubt. And in their unequal power balance, she does not call him out on that, but simply accepts that he has ceased to scold her, and that he offers kindness–his safe tshuvah. 

Could Hannah be thinking: “Well, is it me or did he just harshly judge and scold me, and then not acknowledge his unfair assumption?  Did that just happen? Or did I make it into something bigger in my mind than it actually was?”

Denying her the validation that confession brings, even with his kindness, he offers a quiet pay-off, in his blessing.  Hiding the truth of his wrongdoing, protecting himself from emotional exposure, and taking the safe route, the priest Elie lets himself off the hook.

A cautionary tale- to any of us tempted to avoid, facing hard truths about ourselves. What would it mean to learn from Elie’s shame, and in our shameful moments when we have harmed others, to embrace teshuvah with the first step of Confession, in a way that is less safe, less comfortable, less minimizing of the harm, more centering of the victim’s feelings…to face our fears about how harmful we can be, and about the consequences that can result? 

To take responsibility. To say: I have done wrong.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tells the story of how the Hollywood producer of the television show, Community demonstrated, and his victim confirmed, the power of confession.  After earlier vague apologies on his podcast, about being a bad boss, producer Dan Harman unequivocally and publicly confessed his sexual harassment of a woman in his writer’s room.  To that same podcast audience, Dan Harman later said of the sexual harassment: “I let myself keep doing it, and it’s not as if this person didn’t repeatedly communicate to me, that was I was [causing harm]. I just didn’t hear it, because it didn’t profit me to hear it.” He confessed, that following her rebuff, he treated her cruelly–did things he says he never would have done, had she been male.  After Harman’s public confession, the woman whom he had harassed, responded that she felt validated for her own experience and suffering.  After having endured the harassment, the loss of a potential mentor, the doubts about what happened, and about whether she really had talent, it gave her some relief; it helped. This producer rejected safe confession, and leaned into riskier truthful confession. He opened himself up to litigation and risked his reputation.  Focusing on the needs of the person he harmed, choosing her wellbeing over his own comfort, he did not attempt to hide his actions, or avoid consequences. With a reach as public as his reputation, the confession announced: he owned his wrongs; he set the record straight and held himself to account, offering a model for our own tshuvah, to be less safe and more honest. 

Amends and changed behavior are critical, and how powerful–hard, countercultural, but powerful– are those initial words: “I was wrong.”

The power of confession is real. This summer Marta Kauffman made a generous donation to Brandeis University, establishing an endowed professorship in its African and African American Studies Department.  The impact lies not only in the donation, but also in the public confession: Kauffman has been outspoken with her regrets, about the lack of diversity, both in front of and behind the camera, on her hit television show, Friends. Reflecting on the time following the murder of George Floyd, Kauffman speaks of more deeply understanding systemic racism and examining the ways she participated. She publicly says: “I knew I needed to course-correct. I’ve learned a lot…Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy.  It’s painful looking in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better, 25 years ago.” With a reach as public as her reputation, the confession announced: she owned her wrongs, offering a model for our own tshuvah. Amends and changed behavior are critical, and how powerful–hard, countercultural, but powerful– are those initial words: “I was wrong.”

Or, we were wrong. In a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, then German president Richard von Weizsacker, offered what was essentially a confession:  “Who could remain unsuspecting after the burning of the synagogues, the plundering, the deprivation of rights, the ceaseless violation of human dignity?  Whoever opened their eyes could not fail to notice that Jews were being deported.  But… there were many ways of shunning responsibility, keeping mum… All of us, whether guilty or not, are liable for it. … If we remember that disabled persons were put to death in the Third Reich, we will see care of people with mental illness as our own responsibility. If we remember how people persecuted on grounds of race, religion and politics and threatened with certain death, often stood before the closed borders of other countries, we shall not close the door today on those who are persecuted.”

Forgiveness of the Nazis, I do not believe is possible; but validating the experience of the Holocaust survivors—this means something.

Every human being, every institution, and every nation inflicts harm.  The question is, when we do, will we acknowledge with confession, bear responsibility, and engage in tshuvah?  This year, leaders of our national Reform Jewish Movement engaged in a painful process of reckoning, conducting independent investigations of past misconduct.  Sharing publicly their devastating reports, they confessed a history of abuse of power, (which I addressed earlier this year). In keeping with Maimonides’ standard, the Reform leaders’ confessions were as or more public than the sins, messaging to the entire impacted community that this behavior is a violation of our values and profoundly wrong. I do not believe the reports reveal a problem, particular to the Reform Movement; they reveal a truth of abuse of power in our society, our communities, Jewish and not, religious and not.   Amends and transformation are critical, and how powerful–hard, countercultural, but powerful– are those initial words: “We were wrong.”

Whether we have sinned publicly, or simply, privately failed a friend, in our institutions, our boardrooms, our kitchen tables, from justice work to our most intimate relationships…We all need to hold up a mirror, with scrutiny to ask: when was my behavior harmful, when was I a bystander to harmful behavior, in what ways do I benefit from harmful behavior, and how do I need to take responsibility. This sacred Jewish time compels us: to present not only our filtered selves, but our honest selves, to find the courage to expose the vulnerability of imperfection. All walking examples of brokenness, with soul-searching work, we can also be walking examples of repair. 

This morning in the Unetane Tokef we spoke these words to God: You urge us to return from our ways and live.  In these holy days, striving for repair and growth, we do the painstaking work, to return from our ways and live…That we may open the prayerbook on Yom Kippur and read:

God, You teach us the true purpose of confession:
to turn our hands into instruments of good.
Receive us, as You promised,
in the fullness of our heartfelt tshuvah.