The rush of revelations of male sexual predation has led me to an uncomfortable topic. Can people change?
An episode of Invisibilia – “The Myth of Personality” – makes a strong case for the affirmative, even in the case of those who have committed heinous sexual crimes.
However, in the case of public figures there is the question of how we should respond to events decades in the past. Our society is oriented to say that “once a rapist/pedophile/etc., always a …” If it turns out this isn’t true, how are we to proceed?
Jewish law offers, I suggest, a compelling path forward.
In order to be forgiven by God for an injury to another person, Jewish law requires that the criminal demonstrate true repentance (“teshuvah“). This is demonstrated by completing three tasks:
- Make a sincere apology to the injured party, and obtain their forgiveness. This must be done without embarrassing or otherwise further injuring the victim, and it is up to the victim to decide whether the apology merits forgiveness. If by some chance the victim is unwilling to forgive, three genuine attempts must be made. (Who decides if they were genuine? God only knows.)
- Make full restitution for the injury. This is understood to include the secondary effects of the injury, as well as any penalty for a crime (such as an extra 20% if money was stolen, etc.).
- Demonstrate that you have changed by finding yourself in a similar situation and not repeating the offense.
I suggest that we apply these standards to the men in power who have been accused of these acts.
- Have they apologized, sincerely and without causing embarrassment and further damage, to each victim individually?
- Have they made full restitution for the damage they caused?
- Have they found themselves in the same circumstances and not repeated the offense?
Have any of the predators achieved this? It’s a high bar, you might say. It should be, I respond.