Hey, as we head into Rosh HaShanah, let’s go through the 12th century sage Moses Maimonides’s RULES FOR APOLOGIZING. It won’t be boring, I swear. Get back here.
Maimonides (who had the jaunty nickname Rambam) was a Spanish physician and chicken soup aficionado as well as a philosopher and rabbi. He wrote in a chatty, vernacular style. He talked a lot about teshuvah, repentance.
His four steps of apologizing:
- Fess up and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1).
- Show remorse and take steps to insure that you don’t repeat the wrong (Mishneh Torah 2:2).
- Do whatever you can to right matters and make things up to the person you’ve hurt (Mishneh Torah 2:9).
- Ensure that you never screw this up again if you’re ever in the same position in the future. (Mishneh Torah 2:1).
We have already discussed the delightful Lizard Metaphor on SorryWatch. If you say you’re sorry without thinking hard about how you won’t commit the sin again, it’s as if you’re immersing yourself in the purity of a ritual bath while holding a dead reptile. CAST AWAY THAT CARCASS.
I write this as we’re about to launch into the High Holidays. Now is a fabulous time to take up with God all the ways you’ve wronged God (and yourself and your own values). But if you sin against a fellow human being, confessing to God is not sufficient. You have to apologize and make reparations to the person you wronged. As Rambam wrote, “[S]ins between man and man; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like, will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.”
As we discussed earlier, if the person you offended doesn’t forgive you, Maimonides says you’re obligated to try three times to apologize. After three attempts, “the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered the sinner.” However, that rule doesn’t apply if the person you’ve wronged is your teacher. In that case, “a person should continue seeking his forgiveness, even a thousand times, until he forgives him.” (Judaism really, really values teachers, unlike the United States government.)
How about Rambam’s rules for accepting apologies? Well, you’re supposed to be a forgiving person. “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.”
I differ a bit with my man Maimo on this one. I agree about not seeking revenge. But I’m troubled by the notion that one must forgive. I don’t believe forgiveness is owed. Apology is morally mandatory; forgiveness, to me, at least, is not.
There’s a tendency for those who resent their own discomfort or guilt to feel they’re entitled to forgiveness. After relatives of the Charleston church shooting victims generously told murderer Dylann Roof in court that they forgave him, some white people seemed to feel that all black people should respond similarly to crimes against them committed by white people or racist institutions. No. The charity and mercy of the Emmanuel AME parishioners was powerful, but it was freely given and tied to their own faith system. No one else is obligated to do what they did.
Here are some other things Maimonides felt that you need to avoid (and repent for if you failed to avoid) if you want a place in the World to Come:
- Inventing a disparaging nickname for a colleague, or using the mean nickname someone else came up with. (OK, turd blossom?)
- Embarrassing a colleague in public.
- Gloating over a colleague’s shame.
- Disgracing sages.
- Disgracing teachers.
- Degrading festivals/important holidays.
- Profaning sacred things.
But if you apologize, repent and do teshuvah, you’re cool. Teshuvah literally means “turn,” as in turning away from bad stuff you’ve done in the past and turning (or returning) to the kind of person you want to be.
What if someone has screwed up in the past and apologized? You don’t get to lord their past idiocies over them. If you do that, you’re a dick. (Fine, Maimonides used the term “fool.”) He went on to say, “It is a utter sin to tell a Baal Teshuvah [literally “owner of repentance”], ‘Remember your previous deeds,’ or to recall them in his presence to embarrass him, or to mention the surrounding circumstances or other similar matters so that he will recall what he did. This is all forbidden. We are warned against it within the general category of verbal abuse which Torah has warned us against as Leviticus 25:17 says: “A man should not mistreat his colleague.”
So there you go. For more Maimonides/Jewish apology info, feel free to listen to me opine on Tablet Magazine’s podcast, Unorthodox. And Happy New Year to all who celebrate now; here’s to better apologies in 5776.