I had a career in television and film during which I represented sexual acts in the films. I feel very bad now. I was so unwise in choosing my roles. I wonder if it could possibly all be forgotten or forgiven, as I have suffered foe 30 years since. I wonder if this is a sin, and if so, is it so bad? I fear I will pay for it till my death. What does Judaism say about my situation?
There are often no easy answers in life. The question you raise about your former career is about legacy, identity, and the relationship between God and people.
To answer your question about sin presumes that some sins are worse or better than others. While clearly murder and adultery are wrong, perhaps worse than wearing clothes that mix wool and linen (shatnez), I would argue that generally in Jewish tradition all sins are relatively equal. We all miss the mark from time to time, even if we are trying our best to be righteous. There is no shame in that. In fact God created the world with this very intention. The Sefat Emet writes in his commentary that humans are created to make mistakes because the reparative work we do in the wake of sin is how we truly come to know God.
You also make an assumption that is difficult for me, as a Reconstructionist Jew, to sit with; namely that God punishes us for sins. Surely some mistakes in life haunt us for a period of time, some for the rest of our lives. But I don’t believe in a God who punishes us for the mistakes of our life – at least not outside of the natural order of the world.
The process of teshuvah, repentance, is a powerful one in our tradition. I believe deeply that it has the power to help us change and grow from year to year – to become the person we seek to be. A sin which has been committed against God, as you believe you have committed, can only be atoned for through a meaningful process of teshuvah and reflection. But, after that process, if you are able to truly make different decisions and reflect on why you would act differently now, then I believe that people can atone – can change.
On a more personal note; it is clear that you are struggling deeply with your past behavior and that you have lingering feelings which are troubling for you. I encourage you to recognize the limits of spiritual care and to possibly sit with a trained therapist. In my own mind, true atonement means not only repenting but understanding the need for self care. From time to time we all need assistance processing – someone to witness our journey and help us in difficult times. I encourage you to find someone to talk with.
Good luck in your spiritual and emotional journey. I hope and pray that you will find the peace that you are seeking along this path.
Jewish law gives us a very clear direction as to what to do when we feel we have sinned. Our Rabbis assure us that we can be forgiven by G-d and that the way to gain that forgiveness is a three step procedure.
1. We must regret what we have done in the past.
2. We must confess to G-d our sin.
3. We must promise that we will not do it again in the future, a promise which is fully fulfilled
when we find ourselves in the exact same enticing situation, and then refrain from
You obviously regret what you did. You can fully, specifically and verbally confess to G-d privately now and/or on Yom Kippur what you did that you believe was sinful. Since the sin was one which did not entail hurting another human being, it is only between you and G-d and requires no forgiveness from another person. In terms of promising you will never do it again, since it is impossible to be in the exact same situation you were before, it is also impossible to fully test that promise. Since G-d is compassionate, however, He accepts our promise as truthful, forgives us and only asks that we be cognizant of the fact that we could similarly sin again.
This last point leads us to the question of a sin being totally forgiven and forgotten. Our tradition tells us that G-d is forgiving. Our problem is that we have difficulty forgiving ourselves. G-d totally forgives, but do we? Sometimes we have trouble accepting our imperfections and forget that we are all fallible and do things of which in later years we may be ashamed. As for forgetting, I believe that when we forget our own faults, we start to self righteously judge other people’s behavior without compassion and understanding. Life is difficult and we all try to do our best with the talents that G-d gave us. However, we are all on this planet together, and we need to comfort and support each other. The Bible tells us that there is no righteous person on this globe who does not sin. The Bible also says that one should not be overly righteous. I understand these two teachings to mean that should I see another person’s mistake, I should withhold judgment, show compassion and understanding, and offer my help. Furthermore, our Talmudic rabbis tell us that when we do real Teshuvah (the three steps of repentance), our sins are transformed into Mitzvot. Perhaps that means that the memory of our own transgressions should no longer serve as a whip to self flagellate, but rather as a reminder that everyone makes mistakes, and that our job is to support, comfort and help heal those who like ourselves are walking wounded.
QUESTION: I had a career in television and film during which I represented sexual acts in the films. I feel very bad now. I was so unwise in choosing my roles.. I wonder if it could possibly all be forgotten or forgiven, as I have suffered foe 30 years since..I wonder if this is a sin, and if so, is it so bad? I fear I will pay for it till my death. What does Judaism say about my situation?
Answer: Although the substance of the following answer would be the same, whenever I were to write it, by a fortuitous coincidence, I am turning to it shortly after the Fast Day of the 9th of Av, and so the words of the Biblical Book of Lamentations are still echoing in my consciousness. We read in the third chapter of that book:
But this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope:
The kindness of the LORD has not ended;
His mercies are not spent.
They are renewed every morning—Ample is Your grace!
Judaism teaches that repentance is the most powerful force in the relationship between each of us and our Creator. Yes, we sin. Everyone sins; everyone makes mistakes; everyone has reason to be ashamed. And yet, we can overcome that distance from God—not by means of some divine intercessor, as Christianity teaches, but rather by the free exercise of our own will. When we turn to God, and reject a path that we had earlier walked, we successfully transform our relationship to God.
In our tradition, repentance contains three dimensions. The first is charatah, “contrition”, and it is apparent from the questioner’s language that this person feels a full measure of that emotion.
The second dimension of repentance is vidui, “confession”. Such confession does not need to be a public self-flagellation. In fact, it is only necessary to make this confession before God, not before other people. For that reason, the language of our confession in the High Holiday prayers is in the first person plural, not the first-person singular. “Ashamnu, bagadnu… We have abused, we have betrayed…” We stand as a congregation and recite a confession together, an act which simultaneously allows each person to express his remorse and also provides the protection of anonymity, since all present are reciting the identical words. By asking this question, the questioner has fulfilled that dimension of repentance, as well.
The third dimension of repentance is kabbalah le’atid, “resolving [to behave differently] in the future.” Rabbi Moses Maimonides explains that full repentance happens when a person is faced with the identical challenge and successfully resists it. But even if the penitent is already much older than when the sins had been committed, and for lifecycle reasons, full repentance is no longer possible, the full-hearted emotional and intellectual rejection of that sin and the commitment to live the balance of one’s life differently already suffices for the penitent to be considered a “ba’al teshuvah”, i.e. a master of repentance. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Repentance” 2:1).
Implicit in the three dimensions of repentance is also the need to conciliate others whom we have sinned against. The questioner may be the principal victim of his or her past behavior; but if there was some betrayal of trust involved, then those other parties ought to be approached and conciliated.
There is one important caveat here: occasionally, it is not possible to bring up a previous sin against an aggrieved party without inflicting greater damage, and in such cases, it is better to remain silent. The penitent in that situation may have to learn to be content with having performed partial repentance, rather than full repentance, and to draw consolation from the fact that at least, the act of repentance is not adding present harm to prior damage.
I urge the questioner to take heart and be consoled. Our God is a forgiving God. We recite in our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers: “Until man’s dying day, You wait for him to repent, so that You may bless him, ultimately.”
At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we prepare for the next holiday, the festival of Sukkot (*Tabernacles”). We read the book of Ecclesiastes on that holiday, including the verse, “go, eat your bread in gladness”; The Rabbis commented that when we break our Yom Kippur fast, we may justifiably eat our bread in gladness, for God has forgiven us.
Judaism is a religion that always allows for forgiveness, for redemption and for repentance. We cannot always forget the things we have done but we can always be forgiven for our actions. We are approaching the Month of Elul, in which we start preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days, a period of time in which we are all given the opportunity to engage in the process of TESHUVA, repentance. You obviously feel that what you have done is wrong, regardless if it is a sin according to Jewish law, and thus what is important to remember are the four steps in the process of TESHUVA: First we must recognize our sins, feel sincere remorse, undo any damages and pacify any victims of the offense and finally resolve to never commit the sin again. It seems that you have recognized your actions as wrong, feel remorse and resolved to never choose these roles. You now must ask yourself – did your actions hurt, directly or in directly others? If so you will need to find the appropriate way to pacify any victims. This could be done for example by helping financially or by volunteering with organizations representing values you want to support regarding sexual behavior. Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, taught "The repentant sinner should strive to do good with the same faculties with which he sinned.... With whatever part of the body he sinned, he should now engage in good deeds. If his feet had run to sin, let them now run to the performance of the good. If his mouth had spoken falsehood, let it now be opened in wisdom. Violent hands should now open in charity.... The trouble¬maker should now become a peacemaker". Last but not least, we must learn to forgive ourselves. We must follow the wise words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who said, “First become a blessing to yourself, so that you may be a blessing to others.”
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