This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a very, very long time, and several half-baked posts on it have been sitting in my drafts folder for months, if not years. Don’t ask me why it finally gelled now, on the sixth day of Chanukah when my kids are on vacation, Eitan is off touring, I’ve been up since 4am for no good reason, I’m still in my PJ’s, I have writing/editing work to do that people actually pay me for due forthwith, and a doctor’s appointment I need to drag the kids to in a couple hours. But then, my muse has a habit of turning up at the strangest times. So here we are.
There were two epic stories that I found irresistibly captivating as a kid. One was the Star Wars trilogy (the original one. I prefer to pretend the so-called “prequels” don’t exist) and one was the Harry Potter series. I get the sense that sci-fi and fantasy are not your thing, but there’s a reason stories like these are so appealing to so many people. Both Star Wars and Harry Potter feature a hero who starts out an orphan living a hard life with his aunt and uncle, and is suddenly swept away to a magical world to discover that he is destined for a mystical and pivotal role in the ultimate redemption of his world. Who doesn’t fantasize at some point or other about discovering that they’re special and destined for greatness, and most importantly, essential to the world they live in?
There is another thing about stories like these, however, that I think is universally appealing. In both of these stories, and in most other stories, there is a clear division between light and darkness. There are good guys and bad guys. In both Star Wars and Harry Potter, the hero discovers that there is a certain level of darkness within him; but ultimately it is still very clear to us what it takes to cross the line between the two.
Real life is much more complicated.
There’s been a recent wave of allegations against public figures, many of them media personalities, of sexual harassment and assault. Many of these people immediately lost their careers; their life’s work being banned or boycotted in response to the allegations. Which is only what they deserve, right? If you assault a woman, you are a Bad Guy, period, and everything you’ve ever done in your life is now tainted with evil. Right?
…So… that’s the thing.
People Are Complicated
Consider the following TED Talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. They dated as teenagers, until Tom raped Thordis one night. The talk is about their raw and incredible story of shame, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
There is one line Thordis says in the talk that really struck me: “How will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?”
Before we unpack this, let’s hop over to another case I’ve been thinking about a lot for a long time.
Rabbi Barry Freundel was a community rabbi who helped many people convert to Judaism in Washington D.C. He is currently serving jail time after being found guilty of voyeurism. He had set up a hidden camera in the community mikveh, and videotaped dozens of women as they prepared to immerse (which is done without clothes on). The entire Jewish world was rocked by this scandal. He was a well-loved rabbi who took advantage of the extremely vulnerable position of the women who trusted him. We were shocked and disgusted.
About two years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend when she mentioned something about trying to give him a call to see if he was all right. It turned out that she had known him fairly well–and that her experiences of him were all positive. She told me a story about him going well out of his way, well above the call of duty, to do an important kindness for her when she was in a vulnerable place. So I asked her how she can reconcile the kind, funny, friendly man she knew with the one who violated women’s privacy in such a despicable way.
I don’t remember her exact wording and who said what in this conversation, but the upshot was that people are complicated. Good people can do really awful things. Rabbi Freundel did some terrible things and he should pay the consequences for those actions. Aside from the damage he did to the sense of security and dignity of these women, he brought shame and dishonor on himself and on Jews as a whole.
But does that mean that the wonderful things he did–such as helping my friend in her hour of need–meant nothing?
Good Guys and Bad Guys
Is Rabbi Freundel a good person because of the good things he did? Or is he a terrible person because of the terrible things he did?
I’ll bring you a more extreme example.
This woman tells the story of how she slowly discovered that her beloved father had committed multiple murders over the course of his life. “Why am I so mad?” she retorts. “Because my mother stayed married to a murderer. Because she let a monster raise her child. But that’s the thing; my father wasn’t a monster. He was the guy who snuck me candy when my mother forbade it. And he was the guy who made up silly songs to sing on the way to school. And he was the guy who was home in time for dinner every single f***ing night. He was a good father to me.”
Was he a monster?
Was he a good father?
In my review of Rabbi Sacks’s Not in God’s Name, I mention a concept he introduces: “moralistic dualism”. People who hold this worldview believe that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, the children of the light and the children of darkness. To a moralistic dualist, what this woman says about her father is an irreconcilable paradox. You can’t be both a monster and a good father. But he was. And he’s not the only one.
Which brings us to the place every single discussion about morality and evil brings everyone these days–the archetype of evil in our age. There’s an incredible German movie about the last hours of Adolf Hitler called Der Untergang, or “Downfall” in English. Some people took issue with the movie because it “humanized” Hitler.
And I must ask:
What was Hitler if not human?
Not only was he human–he was acting out of a belief that he was saving the world.
Does that mean he shouldn’t be held responsible for the choices he made? Of course not. Recognizing someone’s humanity does not and should not mean absolving them of responsibility.
This Is Where It Gets Really Uncomfortable
(Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
You know why I think we do this? Why we believe that people who do terrible things are irredeemable monsters?
Because we want to believe that we could never do it.
Oh yes. I see all you readers there squirming in your seats. “Me? I could never do such a thing. I’m a Good Guy. A child of light. I’m Harry Potter, I’m Luke Skywalker, I would never ever ever do something terrible.”
How true is that really? How different are you from Johnny Mascia and Barry Freundel and Louis C.K.?
This is the thing the world needs to hear and I’m going to do the blogging equivalent of shouting it from the rooftops:
IT IS NOT YOUR INHERENT NATURE THAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT FROM HITLER.
IT IS YOUR CHOICES.
It is the choices you make every single day about how to wield your power.
We may not be wizards or Jedi knights, but we all have power, whether it’s physical, political, financial, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, artistic–what have you. It is how we choose to use our power that determines what we are. That is the ultimate message of both Star Wars and Harry Potter. Good Guy or Bad Guy is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you have to choose–every moment of your life.
Shortly before Yom Kippur last year, Rabbi Freundel issued a heartfelt public apology for his actions. “No matter how many times I attempt to apologize, it will never be enough,” he wrote. “I am sorry, beyond measure, for my heinous behavior and the perverse mindset that provoked my actions… as I sat in the courtroom listening the victim impact statements, each felt like a blade entering my gut. The speakers expressed their feelings of rage, hurt, humiliation, vulnerability, and violation. How could I have been so incredibly blind, so unaware of my impact on others? I ask myself that question every day.”
I’m probably going to get all kinds of comments on this post about how Rabbi Freundel doesn’t deserve to be called a rabbi and how could I even suggest that he is anything other than a voyeur, a peeping Tom, an abuser?
Yes, I am suggesting that. I am suggesting that people are bigger than their actions. That people can make bad choices and then genuinely regret them, and go on to become better people who don’t repeat those bad choices. We have a name for this process in Judaism. It’s called teshuva. And we believe it works because we believe that all people are, at their very core, pure goodness. Teshuva means “returning”: returning to your essence, to who you really are. And who you really are is a spark of the Divine–a spark that is always calling you to choose good.
We don’t have to forgive unforgivable acts. But we can forgive the people who commit them.
Obviously, it is not my place to forgive any of these people for what they have done, and I would never say that victims must do so. People need to do what’s right for them and take care of themselves and find their own journey to healing. Thordis found that forgiveness was the right path for her. It helped that her rapist was actually repentant and genuinely regretted what he did; that’s not always true. But it is true sometimes, and in the #MeToo world, I get the sense that people don’t actually believe that.
My editor at the Forward recently wrote a very nuanced piece about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and whether we should still be singing his music in the #MeToo era, given the allegations against him. I sent her an email thanking her for writing it, and I wrote that I wish we lived in a world where people actually believed in repentance and forgiveness. I think we need to start by being more humble; understanding that goodness is not what we are, it’s what we choose; understanding that humans don’t fit neatly into the categories of “good” or “evil”; and having the strength and compassion to believe in forgiveness.
Gotta run and tend to Real Life now. Happy Chanukah and Bon Nadal!
2 thoughts on “Are People Who Do Terrible Things Necessarily Terrible People?”
This is so very, very well put. Whenever we encountering anyone whose choices put him or her on the side of evil, we need to be willing to admit: “that could have been me.” Only by fully acknowledging the possibility will we be impelled to live in such a way that “that will not be me!”
Only by fully acknowledging the possibility will we be impelled to live in such a way that “that will not be me!” Exactly!!!