Like all of us, I suppose, I was surprised and more than just slightly taken aback by the revelation that the sitting governor of Virginia, a man known for his liberality and his commitment to civil rights, once placed a photograph of someone in blackface and someone else dressed up in a Ku Klux Klan outfit on his page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of 1984. Was either person in the photograph himself? He’s been oddly equivocal in answering what is in essence a simple enough question, but it hardly matters at this point—the bottom line was that he himself chose to place that picture on that page, which means that he either thought at the time that the photograph was funny enough to warrant permanent memorialization in that space or, even more disconcertingly, that it was in some way suggestive enough of who he was and/or what he stood for to make it reasonable for people looking back years later to remember him by looking at it. As many have lately noted, it was a long time ago. But not that long! (The 1680s were a long time ago. The 1980s, not so much.) But the question isn’t really how long ago 1984 was, but whether the man who chose to adorn his yearbook page with racist images should be the governor of an American state now in the present, not in the distant or not so distant past. And another question asks itself as well: what kind of school would permit such pictures to be published in its yearbook in the first place? (Or is that one of those questions that is its own answer?)But the focus in these last days has rightly been on the governor, not the school. Oddly, that confuses rather than clarifies the issue…because Ralph Northam has been a strong supporter of civil rights for all of his years in public service. So his non-racist bona fides—Northam left the field of pediatric neurology to become a United States senator in 2008—are not the issue at all. The question, therefore, is whether the past should outbalance the present…and whether apologizing for past errors of judgment should be enough to earn the right to move forward unencumbered by one’s own youthful stupidity.
The governor issued a statement in which he described the photograph as both “clearly racist and offensive.” And then he went on to apologize. “I am deeply sorry,” he said, “for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service…The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.”That certainly sounds like a sincere effort to own up to what even his most ardent supporter would surely characterize as an error of judgment of monumental proportions. But is saying you’re sorry enough? Can you undo the past with mere words? Can regret in the present outweigh tasteless vulgarity in the past? Those are the issues I’d like to write about today.
At the heart of the matter is a fundamental philosophical question relating to the way the past relates to the present. Trees grow over the course of decades and their trunks become broader and thicker as the former outer layer of wood becomes one of the tree trunk’s inner growth rings and is superseded by a new outer layer. So, at least with trees, it’s all in there somewhere: the outermost layer of wood becomes interiorized as the past retains its physical presence within the ongoing tree. But is the same true of people? Is the eleven-year-old me in there somewhere? It’s hard to say. It feels as though he must be—where else could he be?—and yet the tree model doesn’t feel quite right: boy-me hardly lives within man-me in the same way that a tree’s inner rings are physically present within its trunk as living testimony to its past. Boy-me is more in there somehow than somewhere.Nor is this mere philosophical musing: our entire criminal justice system rests on the principle that we bear responsibility for our own past acts because we are not ethereal projections or reconceptualizations of the people we were in the past but actually are those same people. And that, in turn, leads me to the pertinent question worth asking with respect to the governor’s racist tastelessness as a young man: since the deed cannot be undone but apparently does not rise to the level of criminal activity for which he could tried in a court of law, then what exactly should he do to address the issue? To that question, the chorus of responses has been varied and, each in its own way (I believe), off-mark. Giving him a pass merely because he doesn’t have a time machine and can’t return to 1985 to re-edit his yearbook page sounds idiotic to me. But maintaining that precisely because he can’t undo the past he should now withdraw into premature retirement and spend the rest of his days ruing a huge error of judgment from a quarter-century ago sounds not only excessive, but also profoundly counterproductive.
One of the features of our intellectual life at Shelter Rock is my annual series of lessons, undertaken every August and lasting through the High Holiday season, devoted to the section of Maimonides’ great law code, the Mishneh Torah, devoted to the law of t’shuvah. The Hebrew word, t’shuvah, is regularly translated as “repentance,” but the English words sounds to me like a slightly more august version of regret whereas t’shuvah involves constructively using some amalgam of remorse, shame, and guilt as a platform upon which to stand not while attempting to travel from the present into the past (which is impossible, see above) but while attempting to move meaningfully from the present into the future.The text is rich and satisfying—challenging in some ways, but bracing in others and always inspiring. When considered alongside the book I think of as its companion volume, the Ḥibbur Ha-t’shuvah (“The Book of T’shuvah”) by Rabbi Menaḥem ben Solomon Meiri (1249-1306)—an understudied and underestimated work that I come to esteem even more highly each time I open it—a path opens up for poor Governor Northam to consider as a way forward out of his self-inflicted predicament.
In our tradition, the past cannot be undone but it can be addressed profoundly and meaningfully. The first step is always a public confession: t’shuvah cannot be done in private, let alone in secret. If the misdeed under consideration involved harm to another person, then you have to beg that person’s pardon in person and out loud. If the person is no longer alive, then you must gather a minyan by the side of his or her grave and there confess your sin and pledge to become a finer person in the future who has learned from the error in judgment that led to the event being repented. In every case, the viddui (that is, the public confession of wrongdoing) is an essential element in the larger process.And then, having stepped into the world, you need to step out of it and demonstrate your resolve to grow into a finer iteration of yourself through a regimen of prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Jews, of course, have Yom Kippur as our national day devoted to doing exactly those things: fasting, engaging in various forms of self-denial, spending the day immersed in contemplative communal prayer. Rambam—as Maimonides is familiarly called even in scholarly circles—goes into all of this in great detail. And then, finally, he says this about the individual seeking to do t’shuvah for a specific misdeed: “Such a person,” he writes, “must be humble of demeanor and modest. If boors mock such a person by referencing the deed for which that person has repented by saying ‘you once did such-and-such a thing’ or ‘you once spoke in such-and-such a way,’ then the person who has done t’shuvah honestly will not respond in anger, but rather should listen carefully and take pleasure in their insults—because such taunts will lead to becoming even more ashamed of the past behavior in question and more filled with remorse, and that experience will not be degrading but elevating….”
And that is what I think Governor Northam should do. He seems to be a good man in many ways, but one who made a terrible mistake as a young man that now, all these years later, has hurt many people who must now wonder if they can trust him at all. There is a way forward and, speaking as a rabbi, I recommend our Jewish path of principled t’shuvah coupled with a public commitment to grow through this scandal into a finer version of himself, one even more devoted to the pursuit of civil rights for all than he has been in the past. A bit of public prayer probably wouldn’t hurt either.And one more detail too, also from Rambam: “Once people have done t’shuvah for some specific misdeeds, it becomes absolutely forbidden to humiliate them by reminding them of their former misdeeds…and doing so is to break the commandment of the Torah that forbids individuals from oppressing each other unduly.”
Can this rule to applied to this last week’s other politician-apologizer, Representative Ilhan Omer (D- Minnesota), who seems so far to have made her mark on Congress solely by sending out anti-Semitic tweets and then apologizing for them? That will have to be the topic of a different blog posting!