“I always say I’m sorry when I’ve hurt someone,” a man told me proudly in a recent conversation, a reflection that seemed appropriate in advance of Yom Kippur, which is so focused on repentance. “It’s the most important thing,” he said, looking me squarely in the eye with a mixture of impassioned education and nuanced reprimand. He is right, of course. And this is the season, I suppose, for all that — for remorse, apologies and open hearts. There is something beautiful and tender about all this, as members of the Jewish community engage in genuine and sincere introspection.
Still, I looked at this man, an Orthodox leader who is esteemed in his community and has a regular spot on the podium and the bima to speak or lead services, and thought to myself, “You never apologized to me.” Like all Orthodox men who are so easily counted and heeded, who have a voice and a place and are free to participate in the community practically any way that their hearts desire, he has never asked for forgiveness from the women and girls in his community, the ones who sit upstairs behind glass, or in the back behind the curtain, desperate for even a glimpse of the activity in the sanctuary.
I have never heard an apology like that from an Orthodox man. I have never heard of a rabbi get up in shul and say, “On behalf of all the privileged men, I’m sorry to all the women for all the silent suffering that you have endured for so many generations as the community stripped you of your voice and your power.”
I realize that this is a very un-Yom Kippur-like thought for me to have; so much ego, so much wanting, so much self-centeredness. A proper Yom Kippur reaction would have been more self-effacing, and magnanimous, more embracing and accepting, more gracious and grateful. That’s what women — especially Orthodox women — are so well-trained in doing, not only on Yom Kippur but all year round. We are taught to put our own egos aside for the sake of the collective, to ask for little if anything for ourselves, to not want so much but to just do for others. To even think that perhaps men should apologize to women sounds so, well, unfeminine, doesn’t it?