Rabbi Shmuley: Roseanne and Repentance in America

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Everyone is aware of just how divided America is today, with right and left assailing each other with a fury that is as vicious as it is shocking. What fewer people focus on, however, is how it is not just civility that is dying in America, but an acceptance of repentance right along with it.

Take the example of my friend, Roseanne Barr, whom I have known for 20 years. There is no question that Roseanne has elbows and has long maintained a capacity to stir things up. Still, her tweet last week about Valerie Jarrett contravened the core Torah values of the equality of humankind and the infinite dignity of all God’s children, to which Roseanne, as a strong practitioner of the Torah, herself subscribes.

So how could she have written it?

Roseanne says she was impaired by sleeping pills and she has no racism in her heart. But she has also said that what she wrote was unforgivable, and that she takes full responsibility for the pain she caused. She is offering no real excuse for her outrageous remarks, and has asked people not to defend her. She has apologized repeatedly, including last Friday just before the Jewish Sabbath, when she offered “one more apology and prayers for healing of our divided nation. Tomorrow is Shabbat and I will continue to pray that everything for everyone goes forward & ends well for all.”

The news broke last week that Roseanne and I had recorded a podcast where she emotionally addressed the tweet and its aftermath. That podcast is not currently being released. But I will say that Roseanne again took full responsibility for her actions and repeatedly apologized to Valerie Jarrett in a tone of terrible torment bereft of any artifice.

But she also told me that it seems one cannot really repent in America, and once you do begin to apologize, it sends the message to those who wish to bring you down that you’re getting weak. They smell blood and increase their attacks.

My response to Roseanne was that she is a strong adherent of the Torah, that she publicly affirms her love of Judaism, and her efforts to live by its values. The Torah is clear. If one causes pain to someone or diminish their sense of value or dignity in any way, one must apologize and repent. Indeed, in the Jewish religion, stripping another person of their dignity is a grave sin.

Few faith-systems on earth are more emphatic about the image of God in man than the Torah, which affirms the divine spark in every human in the very first chapter in Genesis. And the Torah says again in Deuteronomy that all humankind are God’s children.

Roseanne told me that she of course accepts all that, has expressed contrition for her actions, and has a broken heart over all that happened. She said she tried to obtain Valerie Jarret’s phone number so as to apologize to her directly. She also said she wrote to her on her Twitter feed to ask forgiveness.

So, should Roseanne be forgiven?

Some point out that days after Roseanne’s tweet, Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a horrible name on her TV show, Full Frontal, apologized for it, and kept her show, even as Roseanne’s was cancelled.

Is there a double standard?

It is not my purpose in this column to enter the American culture wars and determine whether liberals or conservatives are treated better in the media and whether bias exists. Doing so would just inflame an already combustible situation in America when I am trying desperately to bring some healing and calm things down. For God’s sake, we are one nation. What the heck is going on?

I have no desire to see the many people working on Samantha Bee’s show lose their jobs just as I do not wish to see Roseanne’s colleagues lose theirs.

So my opinion is that both should be forgiven, if they repent and apologize and show contrition. I do not wish to live in a country where it’s one strike and you’re out. If Roseanne and Samantha Bee showed repeated and never-ending prejudice, that would be something very different. But none of us should want to live in a country where there is no forgiveness and no penitence unless the offender is a repeat offender who is utterly unrepentant.

I am not an expert in Roseanne’s social media feed and I cannot claim to know everything she has written or said online. But I have known Roseanne for two decades and I have never seen a racist bone in her body or been exposed to a racist idea crossing her lips.

I admit to being very disappointed in Roseanne’s words, especially given her strong, public, and passionate commitment to Jewish values. We Jews know more than most about being the targets of dehumanizing verbiage and our Rabbis admonish us to always be extremely careful with our words. Judaism says that all humanity has inestimable value, equal dignity, and infinite worth. Racism, therefore, is a sin not just against man but especially against God. Roseanne has always told me Martin Luther King was her idol. She had no reason to lie to me.

After the tweet, I reached out to her and told her that she has a responsibility, in the name of repentance and her commitment to Judaism, to make this right. She agreed and allowed me to interview her for a podcast that was comprehensive and moving. My own words cannot do justice to the depth of emotion she showed throughout our discussion. It was clear she was in considerable pain.

It is not for me to say why Roseanne sent the tweet or what was in her heart. It is for me to say that Roseanne has acknowledged how errant what she wrote was, and that she seeks to repent and make amends.

But once that is done, the onus is on us as Americans to accept repentance and heal our nation. America is desperate for some unity. Black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, atheist and agnostic – we are all equal in God’s sight and we have to rebuild a United States of America.

The African-American experience in the United States has been tragic and exploitative. It iis hard to believe that the greatest country on earth, and the world’s first modern republic, was selling God’s children on the block like cattle just two centuries ago. It is equally painful to accept that when I was born in the 1960s, there were still places in America where a black man would have to walk to the back of a bus and a black woman could not rent a hotel room.

All of these things went not only against the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – as Martin Luther King, Jr.  expressed so beautifully in his “I Have a Dream” speech – but against God and the Torah, which affirms incontrovertibly that the Almighty created every human being equally in his image.

I know that Roseanne believes this. Roseanne is a passionate defender of Israel — not only because she is Jewish, but because she believes that Israel as an embattled small nation deserves to be protected. I know that she believes in fighting for human rights. And her writing something that undermined those core values requires penitence which, once made, should set an example to the rest of America.

We all must somehow find the humility to stop assailing each other, apologize when we’ve screwed up, and finally, as Jesse Jackson said, “Love each other, redeem each other, and move on.”

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 32 books including his new book, Lust for Love, co-authored with Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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