What does repentance mean when public leaders commit immoral acts?
The Bible's King David learned about being honest with himself after an affair with Bathsheba, and then sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, into battle knowing he would be killed. It was only until Nathan the prophet confronted him that David finally realized the extent of the evil he had done and proclaimed, "I have sinned against the Lord." The result was that he could rehabilitate himself and go on to marry her and be king over all Israel. The price he paid was to lose the first child he had with her. It was a hefty price to pay for succumbing to the temptation of the flesh.
Today, I am not sure that we all agree about the answer to that question. In Judaism, the idea of repentance goes deeper than simply acknowledging that one has remorse for doing something wrong. Repentance requires admitting not only the wrongdoing, but owning up to how the offended party has been hurt and committing to never repeating that kind of behavior again. Moreover, Judaism has all kinds of texts and commentaries that discuss how the offending party is supposed to prove his or her sincerity by performing special deeds. We have one teaching in Judaism, for example, that comes from the Talmud and it states a person may be prepared to face being turned down three times before they can receive forgiveness.
The upshot is that, depending on the severity of the transgression, saying sorry is not enough. In fact, the underlying theme behind the Jewish High Holy Days is called teshuvah, or repentance, which literally means to return to God-like behavior.
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All religions have similar ideas about ways to repent and attain private and public forgiveness, but the problem with the public or with people who serve in the public's eye is not with religion. It lies with the way people exploit and manipulate their own faith traditions in a moral sense under the guise of seeking redemption to hold a job or to destroy a person's reputation. T
he public sits in judgment over elected officials who commit acts of moral turpitude. The media becomes a secondary prosecution and jury. Staff and supporters of the official try to deflect the relentless criticism by invoking the half-truth adage that the person's behavior is "a personal matter" or "aren't we all sinners?" Somehow these responses seem disingenuous.
The truth is, when someone enters public life he subjects himself and his family to a level of scrutiny. Whether we are talking about clergy, politicians or school teachers, they all are expected to behave in a morally responsible way.
There are times when saying sorry represents the beginning of the repentance process. Public officials should have to prove by deed to their communities that they have learned from their mistakes before they are worthy of assuming positions of leadership again. And just because they are capable of reforming themselves, does that mean they deserve to lead again in the same community, let alone in the same job?
One of the hardest aspects of holding a public office is living with the daily pressure that people are watching. The sometimes harsh, unfair and hypocritical reality of the public's eye forces the leader, his spouse and children to live under a microscope.
Sometimes good people simply make mistakes, so should they be punished forever for an indiscretion? The public has a responsibility to be fair in their judgment, just as much as the person who erred has a duty to be honest.
True and heartfelt repentance, regardless of the religious tradition, demands hard work and sacrifices with both private and public actions, and requires changes in lifestyle and attitudes with God. When we see public leaders fulfill this criteria in a convincing way, then the public should consider giving someone a second chance to serve again.
Just saying "sorry" by itself simply doesn't cut it. These words should not hide under the cover of religious morals as a "get out of jail" pass to return to positions of community leadership in our society.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.