Erev Yom Kippur 2023 • 9th of Tishrei 5784
Kol Nidre Sermon by Rabbi Bridget Wynne
A few days ago, I received a video sent to everyone connected with the Jewish Reform Movement, through which I was ordained and within which I worked for many years. In the video, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the movement, stands solemnly in front of an open Ark, the Torah visible behind him, speaking in a pained voice. He says,
It has been 18 months since the Union of Reform Judaism released the ethics...report...that outlined the harms committed in our workplaces... Victims and survivors have lived with the pain and consequences of these harms, some for many decades... As we approach Yom Kippur, ...our hearts remain heavy... [Jewish scholar and philosopher] Maimonides...spells out our obligation to do everything in our power to make amends and reparation for our misdeeds to those who have been harmed. [The prayer known as] Al Chet, [for the wrongs we have committed], one of the most powerful prayers [of] Yom Kippur...is written in the collective, reminding us that our individual lives can be profoundly harmed or healed by our communities. I offer this...Al Chet on behalf of the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism:
Rabbi Jacobs continued, tapping his breast for each wrongdoing.
Al chet, for the sin we committed by not listening to or believing the pain and trauma of survivors and victims... Al chet, for the sin we committed by not acting swiftly to take responsibility for the acts of sexual or other harassment and abuse that have taken place in our institutions. Al chet, for the sin we committed by not working with our congregations and partners to make all our spaces...safe from bullying, sexual harassment, homophobia, and racism... Al chet, for the sin we committed with our hypocrisy by espousing, but not always living, our Jewish values. V’al kulam, [meaning], for all these and more, we are profoundly sorry; we seek to earn the trust of those who have endured harm on our watch as we build...a...Movement that truly reflects the dignity and sanctity of each individual...
Wow. I never thought I would hear words like these, especially shared so publicly. I am one of the people Rabbi Jacobs is speaking of, who endured years of abuse within the Reform Movement. When I entered rabbinic school, in 1988, gays and lesbians were not allowed. I felt so drawn to being a rabbi that I went anyway. Coming from the Bay Area, where I worked in community organizing, I could never have imagined the cruelty and discrimination, including being denied jobs, that my family and I would experience for the next ten years, first in rabbinic school, and then while I served as a congregational rabbi. Now I lead this wonderful community, and no one would dare mistreat me as they did in the past. So why am I sharing this with you? Because, experiencing how the Reform Movement is doing teshuvah—the profound transformation we are called to at this season—has helped me understand that process more clearly than ever. Most of us would like to be better people and live more in keeping with our deepest values. How do we do this, in the midst of life’s pains, difficulties, annoyances, and all we cannot control? This is the question teshuvah is here to help us address, offering us the opportunity to make amends for our misdeeds and grow as individuals. Yet we may resist looking at the actions, or inactions, we regret. Who wants to feel guilty? And we do hear a lot about “Jewish guilt.” But does Jewish tradition really teach us to feel guilty? I don’t think so. The guilt many Jews joke about comes not from Judaism, but from a particular immigrant culture that many of us are descended from.
In fact, as Rabbi Ruth Adar pointed out to me, teshuvah is a cure for guilt, Jewish or otherwise, moving us instead towards responsibility and action. So, how do we make teshuvah?
The first step is acknowledgment, recognizing what we have done that is harmful, to others, ourselves, or the environment. It’s human to be defensive. Getting past our defensiveness demands vulnerability, courage, and honest self-appraisal rather than minimizing, ignoring, or justifying. It may sound scary, but remember, it is the way out of guilt.
Next comes starting to change– “starting,” because real change can take time, bravery, and openness. I experienced how this can be done well, or not. Two other Reform Movement institutions—the school, and the rabbis’ association—also covered over abuse for years. But, as this became public and they tried to address it, they never actually learned from those of us who’d been harmed how our experiences affected us, and what we needed. They made a general apology, and are working on changing their policies. This left most of us angry and alienated after we’d spent hours testifying to the law firms they hired. My experience with the Reform Movement that Rabbi Jacobs leads was different. They started their process the same way, but then they took the brave step of hiring consultants steeped in Jewish tradition and restorative justice. They interviewed people who had been abused, including me, tried to understand how our lives had been impacted, and asked what each of us needed. Then they worked with the movement’s leadership to help them get past their preconceptions and wrong assumptions and move towards understanding the effects of their actions from our points of view. I see this in the words Rabbi Jacobs shared. After acknowledging wrongdoing and starting to change, the third step is repairing the harm we have caused, making restitution, as best we can, that is what the injured party needs. When it comes to harms like stealing or property damage this may be relatively straightforward. Other kinds of harm call for more complex repair. Hurting others emotionally, or spiritually, harming their reputation, participating in oppressive systems, failing to stand up against discrimination or abuse...harms like these may require us to stretch beyond how we may imagine repair to learn what it means to those who’ve been hurt. Otherwise, our attempts at repair may make things worse. Repair can also involve accepting consequences. If I have hurt someone badly, I may do my best to rectify the situation, but the person may still decide they do not want to be in my presence. Many harms cannot be undone. In that case, we can explore ways to take steps toward repair that are related to the original harm. As we look at this process of teshuvah, acknowledgment, change, and repair, I hope you see that it is not about guilt. It is about coming closer to living our values and making positive change in the world. The fourth step is apology. It may seem surprising that we have come this far before getting to “I’m sorry.” If I realize I’ve harmed someone, shouldn’t I apologize right away? Sometimes. But in complex situations, or those we don’t yet fully understand, a sincere apology can only come after taking the previous three steps. The fifth and final step is making different choices. Our goal is, when we face the opportunity to cause harm like that we have in the past, to become a person who would not make that choice. This is how we know we have changed. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has written, teshuvah “isn’t merely making amends. It’s transformation.” (On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World) When I saw the email from the Reform Movement, I was hesitant. Would it be one more opportunity to feel unseen, disappointed, and angry? I didn’t need that, especially as a rabbi a few days before Yom Kippur. Instead, when I watched the video, I was touched and surprised by how relieved I felt. The Reform Movement’s teshuvah is not complete–they are still working on specific forms of restitution for each individual who requests it. For the first time in years, I feel understood by some of those with the power to hurt or protect the thousands of people who participate in the Reform Movement. Feeling relieved, understood, and even inspired, I noticed that, without planning it, I started examining my own actions more carefully and refraining from gossip that I might otherwise have participated in. I will do my best to continue this virtuous cycle, a cycle in which I now invite you to participate. Where in your life have you been avoiding opportunities to make teshuvah because of guilt, fear, or not knowing where to start? I hope you, too, were inspired by Rabbi Jacobs' words, and that you’ll draw on that inspiration to take a first step beyond these barriers to teshuvah, and that it will help you come closer to being the person you want to be. As we move into this new year, may each of us be blessed with the healing power of teshuvah: making it, receiving it, being inspired by it, and continuing its virtuous cycle.