October 22, 2019

Roseanne Barr’s Year of Repentance

On the eve of Yom Kippur, Sept. 17, my friend Roseanne Barr and I will join in a public discussion on repentance and forgiveness at the Saban Theatre – Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills. Moderated by Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, the discussion will address the question of whether America is a forgiving country.

It couldn’t be more timely.

Over the past two months, I have been on a journey where I have witnessed penance and forgiveness in America up close.

Roseanne, my close friend of 20 years, who had for decades entertained Americans with a sitcom about a working-class family, tweeted a very hurtful and offensive remark about Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman who was one of former President Barack Obama’s senior advisers. That tweet on May 29 — “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj” — which Roseanne said was intended as a condemnation of the Iran nuclear deal but was seen as racist by those who read it, led to the immediate cancellation of the reboot of Roseanne’s legendary television series that had, in its 10th season, achieved the highest ratings of any sitcom in the United States.

Roseanne is known for her sharp wit, and she has never been a stranger to controversy. But in the two decades I have known and studied Torah with her, I have never heard a racist syllable emerge from her lips. Still, the words she tweeted last June were a breach of the core Torah values of the equality of humankind and the infinite dignity of all God’s children, to which Roseanne, as an active and proud practitioner of the Torah, herself subscribes.

I contacted her and told her she had a responsibility to put it right, to apologize and go through Maimonides’ four stages of repentance publicly, as the tweet was public. Ignoring the advice of professional public relations people and advisers who told her that an apology would show weakness, Roseanne taped a podcast with me during which she sobbed through an entire hour of emotional anguish for the hurt she had caused.

I have interviewed many people in my life. This was by far the most difficult. Hearing a woman spill her guts in raw, emotional nakedness in order to correct an error and speak of how she was prepared to pay the price for her actions, including “losing everything,” was moving and unforgettable. I did not post the podcast for three weeks, giving Roseanne the necessary time to reflect on the highly personal nature of the apology, making sure she was comfortable with its release. When it finally was published, it made immediate global headlines. People around the world were amazed at the degree to which a celebrity would go to make amends.

The podcast, broken into the four stages of Jewish penance, has Roseanne taking responsibility for her actions, orally confessing error, asking the injured party for forgiveness, and taking concrete action to rectify the grievance — this time in the form of monetary contributions to African-American educational organizations.

“As we move toward Yom Kippur, let’s dial down the enmity and disappointment we feel toward others. Not because we don’t believe in justice, but precisely because we do.”

Roseanne and I have since recorded many weekly Torah podcasts and the issue of the tweet still comes up. Last week, our podcast made world headlines when Roseanne said that she would be traveling to Israel during the airing of “The Connors,” the renamed show in which her character is written out. Roseanne said she has no desire to wish ill on anyone, and rather than go dark in watching a show she created go on without her, she wanted to be in the Holy Land, studying Torah and finding spiritual uplift.

Throughout all of this, I have wondered why Roseanne’s network did not forgive her and why certain segments of Americans did not forgive her. If it’s true that civility is dead in America, then its corollary, forgiveness, seems to be dead as well.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the greatest American of the 20th century because he restored this nation to its founding ideals of all people being created equal in the image of God. As a Jew, I am particularly grateful to him for having elevated the Hebrew Bible into a liberation manifesto and the very text of the civil rights movement. Regarding forgiveness, he once said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” He also said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”

Jarrett is, of course, the aggrieved victim in this story and is an impressive woman of erudition and sophistication. But given that Roseanne has publicly apologized to her many times, it would be appropriate for Jarrett to consider accepting. As Jarrett said of the tweet when the firestorm first broke out, we could make this a teachable moment in America. All of us learning to model forgiveness, even when it’s very hard, is vital to the spiritual health and unity of the nation.

We in the Jewish community have now entered into the 10 Days of Repentance, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. These days are meant to be a time of deep and sweeping introspection and a time to reflect on one particular facet of God’s being — namely, his infinite capacity to forgive.

Roseanne says she was impaired by sleeping pills when she posted the offensive tweet. She also has said that what she wrote was unforgivable, and she has taken full responsibility for the pain she caused. She has asked her fans not to defend her, apologizing without artifice. She said she tried to get Jarrett’s phone number to apologize to her directly, even writing to her on her Twitter feed to ask forgiveness.

However, she also related to me that repentance isn’t entirely possible in America today. Once we attach negativity to a particular personality, it becomes difficult for us to unsee.

My response to her was that, as a firm adherent of the Torah, she must follow its dictates regardless of consequence. And here the Torah is clear: If one causes pain to someone or diminishes their sense of worth or dignity in any way, one must apologize and repent.

But even as I told her this, I knew she’d made a valid point.

While the Torah gave the world justice, its most descriptive and beautiful portions are devoted to imparting how merciful and compassionate God actually is. Throughout their time in the desert, we see the Jews sin repeatedly. We even see them punished. But every time, God opts out of a grudge, choosing instead to forgive them.

Perhaps the best example is the Torah’s most intimate description of God himself, as Moses cowered inside a crevice of Mount Sinai. Moses is told of “a God of mercy and graciousness, endlessly patient, abounding in steadfast kindness and truth … forgiving of iniquity and transgression and sin …”

These qualities, however, are not an abrogation of God’s legal system but its very guarantor. It is his capacity for forgiveness that tempers the hand of justice. And so, divine judgment is softened by his recognition of our goodwill and contrition. He knows that without the warmth of absolution, justice becomes not a system of guidance and incentive, but one that makes our world only more dark, harsh and cold.

Thus, for God, to forgive is not to subvert justice but rather to preserve it.

In our society, it should be no different. Across the modern world, justice is signified by the scale and not by the noose.

As we move toward Yom Kippur, let’s dial down the enmity and disappointment we feel toward others. Not because we don’t believe in justice, but precisely because we do.

“Is America a Forgiving Nation?” is at 7 p.m. on Sept. 17 at The Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who calls himself “America’s Rabbi,” is the founder of The World Values Network. His latest book is “Lust for Love,” co-authored with Pamela Anderson. He is on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.