October 5, 2011
Opinion: Who’s sorry now?
Some big Jewish ideas really get around.
Over the past year, New York Times columnist David Brooks devoted one column to the value of Torah study, another to the big idea behind the word haimish. His colleague Roger Cohen weighed in on Aug. 11 with a column on Jewish identity, which was, improbably, also the focus of the season opener of “The Good Wife.”
Meanwhile, author Anita Diamant pushed the idea of Sabbath on Oprah, the group Reboot took over Union Square Park with modern sukkot, and the Yeshiva University group the Maccabeats has gotten more than 7 million hits on YouTube hitching Jewish themes to Top 40 hits.
America has embraced Jewish ideas to a remarkable degree, with one exception: teshuvah.
Mensch and Maccabee, Chanukah and haimish — as foreign as they sound — are easy concepts for Americans to adopt. But as a nation, we seem to have rejected the idea that there is a time to say I’m sorry.
Teshuvah is, of course, more than just a simple “sorry.” The Hebrew word embodies the notion of both remorse and repentance. We have to make amends to those we have wronged. We have to ask forgiveness. And, confronted with the same situation in the future, we have to act differently. Teshuvah is what the High Holy Days are all about.
And yes, that’s really hard. Which is probably why our culture has embraced bagels and kosher, while teshuvah is still Greek to us.
Think back to the decade’s great debacles and tragedies: The real estate bubble. The Iraq War. Hurricane Katrina. 9/11. The economic meltdown. The response to the economic meltdown.
In all of these cases, elected and appointed officials and other decision makers made grievous errors that either caused or exacerbated the situation. In almost all of these cases, no one accepted responsibility and apologized; no one was punished.
We just marked the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Not a single official was ever demoted or reprimanded for what is now a well-documented chain-reaction of official neglectfulness, even malfeasance.
Put aside for a second whether you agree with the Iraq War or not — its execution was horribly bungled. Has anyone accepted responsibility? Are you kidding?
During former Vice President Dick Cheney’s book tour last month, interviewers all but begged him for a single smidgen of regret, much less remorse.
“I pointed out to the former vice president that everyone makes mistakes, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting mistakes. We are, after all, only human. No one is perfect,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer recounted in a blog post.
“But he refused to budge. ‘I’m proud of the policies we put in place. I think they did the job we intended for them to do. And I’m not inclined to make any mea culpas,’ Cheney said.”
Not the war? Torture? The transformation of the Clinton surpluses into massive deficits?
“Cheney refused to accept any personal responsibility,” Blitzer wrote.
I don’t want to say this is a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative fault. I didn’t notice the Democratic leaders in Louisiana beating their breasts over their share of the Katrina tragedy.
And the people behind the financial meltdown were bipartisan. According to a 2009 federal commission report, “The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public.”
In other words, humans set off the $11 trillion bomb that has wrecked so many lives. Not one of them has done teshuvah.
The protesters gathering on Wall Street and downtown L.A. have yet to enunciate a clear set of goals, but I’ve no doubt their anger is fueled by a sense that the people whose profit-taking punctured the economy never said sorry.
The word “atone” appears once in Ron Suskind’s remarkable book about our economic debacle, “Confidence Men.” Former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Gensler confides that he helped fuel an unregulated derivatives market that made him enormously rich at the expense of millions of others.
“The people who helped create the game, and I’m one of them, should say they’re sorry and start making amends,” Gensler told Suskind.
Gensler said that privately — to do so publicly, he believed, would create “havoc.” But public crimes require public teshuvah.
One reason the idea of teshuvah can’t gain any traction is that our sick political culture has turned every social problem into a zero-sum game. To admit guilt or self-doubt is to run a touchdown into the other team’s end zone.
Why does it matter? Life goes on. Everyone makes mistakes. Right?
No. The High Holy Days come each year to teach us that where there is no teshuvah, there is no accountability. Where there is no accountability, there is no improvement.
I don’t know how exactly to popularize, or secularize, or institutionalize teshuvah in America. National Teshuvah Awareness Week? The teshuvah awards? Another David Brooks column?
Earlier this year, I attended a local concert and literally bumped into Angelo Mozilo, until 2008 the chairman of the board and CEO of Countrywide Financial, the company whose greed, inside dealing and predatory lending came to symbolize the subprime crisis. Mozilo, with his trademark deep tan, glad-handed and backslapped his way down the aisle and flashed me a big white smile.
The word for that display is well-known to most Americans. It’s not teshuvah. It’s chutzpah.