Why is it so difficult for our male leaders to just admit to their mistakes and publicly apologize? The news media reminds of this character flaw on a 24/7 basis. On his book tour, George Bush refuses to acknowledge his grave error about Iraq’s not having WMDs; Barack Obama can’t bring himself to admit that he has failed to live up to commitments to voters; Keith Obermann, in trouble for conflict-of-interest political contributions, can’t simply say “I’m sorry. I screwed up.”
Why do these public figures remain so incapable of owning up to their mistakes, transgressions, even sins? Bill Clinton couldn’t do it; Marc Sanford couldn’t do it; the predominately male investment bankers and Wall Street titans still can’t do it. Where can we go from here? What does our Jewish wisdom tell us about how real men can “man up” and say they are sorry? JInsider asked Rabbi Niles Goldstein for guidance on how “real men” can become “real mensches.”
“Mistakes were made” is a far cry from: “I take responsibility for this terrible error in judgment and/or behavior, and I apologize deeply and with all of my heart for any harm I caused.” Men often lack either the emotional intelligence or the psycho-spiritual disposition to allow themselves to become vulnerable. Yet Jewish theology and liturgy have, over many centuries, advocated just that — the power of opening ourselves up, the paradoxical strength and sense of self-empowerment that can come from open hearts and souls. When we say, “We are guilty…” during the Vidui, a central (and public) prayer that is recited during the Days of Awe, we are also saying that our Jewish faith offers us the promise of forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal.
The Power of Vulnerability
Why would contemporary Jewish men run away from that beautiful idea? Because as Americans, we have still bought into the false (yet seductive) myth of the rugged individualist, the alpha male who can never show any sign of “weakness” and who never needs to rely on anyone for anything — let alone something that would make him feel exposed and vulnerable, like contrition. Yet that emotion/feeling/sensation which Jewish men fear most can serve as a source of transformation and spiritual advancement. As the mystics teach us, we must first descend into the muck and mire of our own imperfections before, like the prophet Jonah before us, we can rise again as truly mature, evolved, and respected leaders of our communities.
Fix Yourself First
One of the primary mandates of Judaism is that of tikkun olam, working to “repair” our broken, wounded world. Yet we can’t fix the world until we have first fixed ourselves — and that includes working on or mending our relationships with others, be they spouses, parents, siblings, children, friends or colleagues. Flight attendants always tell us to put our oxygen masks over our own mouths before we reach out to place them over those sitting next to us. In the same way, we (and men especially) must turn inward and mend ourselves before we can turn outward to help the world around us. “Think locally, act globally,” goes the mantra. The Jewish tradition seems to say something similar about our souls: “Search within, then reach beyond.” Until we practice the “micro” tikkun olam of self-repair, the “macro” tikkun olam of messianic scope will be forever beyond our grasp. We cannot let that happen. We need to man-up now before it is too late.
Niles Elliot Goldstein is the founding rabbi of The New Shul in Manhattan, where he served from 1999-2009. He is the award-winning author or editor of nine books, including “Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith.” (www.nilesgoldstein.com)