Not all sexual misdeeds are unforgivable

The current flood of sexual harassment allegations have toppled — deservedly — high-powered businessmen, accomplished actors and seasoned politicians. One aspect of legitimately bringing sexual harassers to light, however, has been overlooked: the ability to forgive genuinely repentant wrongdoers.

It’s perhaps unusual that a Jew, let alone a rabbi, would quote Christian Scripture, but the message found in Matthew 6:14 couldn’t be more relevant: “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”

Granted, life doesn’t always lend itself to a theological quid pro quo. Forgive and be forgiven, offer an apology and be absolved won’t work under all circumstances, even when the apology is genuinely tendered.

Some transgressions are morally unpardonable. Murder is chief among them for the simple reason that the victim is not alive to grant forgiveness. Preying on a minor, especially a very young child, is an irredeemable act. Never again can a child’s innocence be restored. The psychological harm caused is devastating. Rape and irreversible bodily damage are other examples. The physical and emotional scars usually remain for a lifetime.

That said, not all unwelcome carnal advances are equal to rape or pedophilia. How a victim reacts to any kind of sexual abuse or harassment is personal. What might prove to be unforgivable and endlessly traumatic to one may be forgivable to another.

The current rush to assign the same degree of seriousness to every accusation is troubling. It is morally confusing and intellectually narrow. It cheapens what are clearly the most aggressive and disturbing accusations of sexual misconduct. We’re in trouble if we can no longer distinguish between an unwelcome touch, kiss or suggestive comment — as unacceptable as they are — and far more severe sexual indiscretions.

This lack of nuance undermines our shared spiritual and human duty to forgive. We are reaching a point where we can’t permit even less serious transgressors to offer an honest apology and receive pardon. Lesser misconduct, in which the offender is deeply ashamed and sincerely repentant, eager never again to repeat his past behavior, should be forgiven. Such miscreants don’t deserve unending shame and public disgrace.

In my religious tradition, Yom Kippur is a day filled with fasting and introspection, 24 hours dedicated to requesting and granting forgiveness. The message of the Day of Atonement is timeless: Those wishing forgiveness for the forgivable wrongs they’ve committed have the potential to be pardoned.

Consistent with Jewish thought, neither God nor any other intermediary can reconcile a wrong on the perpetrator’s behalf. The person who carried out the misdeed must seek absolution from the aggrieved party.

Releasing others from their trespass is often as difficult as atoning and seeking pardon. Holding back forgiveness is empowering. It’s the reverse of being dominated, of being made to feel vulnerable. When the roles are upended, the person who refuses to forgive is no longer the victim; the one held in contempt is.

Men of status and influence have taken advantage of untold numbers of women. They thought they could get away with their abusive behavior, or worse, they didn’t even consider it abuse. To the women who suffered in silence, a desire for revenge is a visceral, understandable reaction.

Granting forgiveness, when possible, is not the same as forgetting the incident. No one should expect a victim of sexual harassment to forget the outrage inflicted on her. Neither should the reformed harasser forget his earlier behavior. By remembering, we grow and, ideally, improve. By analyzing past deeds, we can amend our ways and become more decent.

We can never know the extent to which anyone is genuinely repentant. But here are three possible indicators of a transformed soul. The offender acts differently in a later, similar situation. His apology doesn’t rationalize or explain away past behavior. He willingly seeks psychological or moral-religious help.

We are witnessing a watershed cultural moment. Women — and men — who have been sexually victimized are silent no more. Their public stories are forewarning others and bringing to justice abusers.

These individuals are brave indeed. But braver still are those who can forgive their tormentors, under circumstances that justify it. Doing so teaches us all about the indomitability of the human spirit, a spirit pliable enough to move on and, when warranted, powerful enough to forgive.

By Michael Gotlieb

Contributing Columnist