On Monday, Whoopi Goldberg, one of the hosts of ABC’s “The View,” was suspended for two weeks after insisting that the Holocaust was not about race.  Prior to the announcement of her suspension by Karen Godwin, President of ABC News, Goldberg apologized online Monday night and on “The View” Tuesday morning. Given this, many are upset at ABC’s actions. Suspending her for two weeks, many feel, seems to be a bit excessive. This being said, temporary “banishment” after a serious transgression is prescribed by Jewish tradition.
The Talmud details twenty-four offenses that could lead one to being suspended from the community. The great medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides lists these twenty-four offenses, one being to act in a way that encourages others who don’t know better to sin. By doing this, or committing one of the other twenty-three offenses, one could face nezifah, a suspension from the community that lasts for one day. In nezifah, the offender must remain at home, limit public communication and, hopefully, feel true remorse for her sin. Engaging in one of the offenses could also lead to niddui, a stronger suspension that lasts one week. During niddui, the offender may only have contact with her family and engage in the laws of mourning – not bathing, cutting her hair, wearing shoes. Just as with nezifahniddui was designed to encourage the offender to experience remorse for her offense. If one’s offense is extreme, she might find herself in herem, an indefinite banishment from the entire community.  It is important to point out that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, was put in herem by the Orthodox community back 1945 for writing a Reconstructionist haggadah and siddur.
Given that Ramat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue, exists today shows us that herem can backfire against those seeking to impose it and change the ways of a transgressor! Despite this, the three forms of communal suspension listed above teach us that, according to Judaism, repentance is a process.  It is not something that comes about simply by issuing a well-crafted apology hours after offending a community. Repentance requires time to reflect, learn and appreciate that part of being a productive member of a community is acting with care and ensuring that our words and actions lift those around us higher. We can’t act in a way that causes others to sin. Because of this, Judaism teaches us that true repentance requires a time out period to focus on oneself and one’s mistakes. After this time out, hopefully one has a deep understanding of her mistakes and the insight needed to return to her community, committed not only to not making the same mistake again, but also to repairing the damage that was done by her words and/or actions. Given ABC News’ statement on Goldberg’s suspension in which Godwin states “I’ve asked her to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments,” there is hope that the next several days will be a time of growth for Goldberg and an important teaching moment upon her return.
While rarely practiced, Jewish tradition has long taught that suspension from the community is a powerful response to a serious offense. While it has the potential to teach the transgressor important lessons, it also has the potential to send a strong message to the larger community. The silence of the transgressor, albeit temporary, can undermine their inappropriate words or deeds that were witnessed by many. At the same time, as we see today when powerful people are censured, their banishment can make them more popular.
It is important to mention that when discussing suspending one who commits a sin from the community, Maimonides discourages individual scholars from imposing a suspension on anyone who offends a scholar in private. And so, he wrote that it was custom for the wise to “forgive the insolent” when an offense was simply between the transgressor and scholar. But, when the transgression was public, Maimonides insists that forgiveness should not come so easily. A lesson must be taught. Some form of suspension must occur so that the offender realizes the impact of her words. An apology is not enough. She must take some time to realize the scope of her offense and, after reflection and with much humility, seek forgiveness and commit to changing her ways.
Whoopi Goldberg’s comments were deeply troubling. They denied the ugly reality of the Holocaust – distorting the history that led to the annihilation of the Jewish people. Her words offended so many of us. At the same time, they put a stumbling block before those who take her words as truth, encouraging her fans to make the same egregious comments she made. She has a powerful platform that she used to promote a false and dangerous narrative. An apology the day after was important, but she still needs time to reflect on the power of her platform and her words. She has a lot of work to do to repair what she created with her comments. And, her millions of fans, they need to understand the severity of her transgression. Whoopi has the ability to use her suspension in a way that not only gives her the ability to grow, but she also has the ability to show her audience, through her silence over the next several days and, hopefully, a humble return to her platform, that when we hurt our community, there are consequences.
May Whoopi Goldberg use this time to grow personally and return with the strength and insight needed to repair the damage created by her words.

1 Comment

  1. susan zelinka Reply

    thank you for educating our community on this topic…your words, as always, makes us wiser…hopefully this ignorant comment from a very out spoken individual will somehow educate her and her audience…. Bravo to the President of ABC News to apply her jewish education to this event.

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