When “cancelation,” in the sense of public shaming and exile from polite society, first entered Americans’ vocabulary, it was a phenomenon limited to celebrities. Since then, even ordinary people have lost their jobs or suffered other real-word consequences for the slightest infractions. And although the cancelers have become adept at doling out punishment, there is yet to be an equivalent process of rehabilitation or absolution. David Wolpe, contemplating the case of a friend who has been “canceled”—with good reason, in Wolpe’s evaluation—looks to what Yom Kippur, a holiday of forgiveness, can teach our unforgiving culture.
There will always be things we cannot fully forgive and people who do not deserve to be restored to good reputation. And forgiving someone does not necessarily mean readmitting that person to your life. In most cases, however, Jewish teachings insist that fair judgment does not require damnation.
Judaism offers a series of ideas and guidelines for how to cope with offense and foster forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, it’s traditional to wear white, not only because white shows the slightest stain, but to remind us of the shrouds in which we will one day be buried. We do not have forever; we must struggle to right our souls now.
The Hebrew word for repentance, t’shuvah, also means “return.” To repent is to return to what once was, what became hidden through coarseness or impulse. It is also to return to God and to the community. But slow, careful restoration takes time. The one who is sorry today and expects to stride right back, unblemished, is naïve or conniving.
Public shame is a powerful and sometimes necessary punishment. . . . But it can also be brutal, and I believe that too often, lifetimes are remembered by their worst moments, and complex personalities reduced to their basest elements.