By Zane Diamond
We do harm all the time. Sometimes we know; sometimes we don’t. We might misgender a stranger or make a comment that hurts someone’s feelings. We may enforce or not challenge a rule that we don’t understand causes harm. We may buy chocolate from companies that use slave labor because it’s what we can afford. To be human in our interconnected world is to perpetuate harm on some level. It’s the water in which we swim. Once you begin to notice all the pain in the world, it can be easy to lose hope of ever fixing it. Your individual efforts will likely bear no fruit, so how can you cope? How can you even begin to make up for all the harm that you contribute to when the problems are too big for any one person to fix?
This month is Elul, which is the month of the Jewish year in which we apologize to everyone we have wronged throughout the year in preparation for divine repentance on Yom Kippur. The Jewish word for repentance, teshuvah, comes from the root (shin-vav-bet) שוב, which is often translated as return. Teshuvah is not only a return to one’s best self, but a set of steps to prove one is worthy of reintegration into a community. According to Rambam, a twelfth-century philosopher and one of the most influential scholars of Jewish law, teshuvah requires two main steps: apologizing from the heart and changing one’s behavior. As a framework for navigating interpersonal harm, it manages to hold the humanity and free will of both the harmed and the transgressor. Teshuvah emphasizes the human ability, as well as the obligation, to change for the better.
In cases where harm is diffuse, apology and forgiveness are not always possible. While Rambam suggests apologizing to the community, our modern world makes it nearly impossible. With so many institutional problems in the world, from racism to sexism to homophobia to ableism to the climate crisis, it can be hard to know where to begin. We can’t apologize to all the individuals we’ve harmed.
It’s important to recognize that everyone both perpetuates and is affected by oppressive societal systems on some level. Unlearning is difficult because it is actively discouraged by society at large. Any time someone does not fall in line with these oppressive systems, they might face negative consequences.
So what might teshuvah for these systemic wrongs look like? When harm is so widespread that there is no one person who can grant forgiveness, what can we do? We can look again to Rambam. While forgiveness feels nice, Rambam argues that while a person should forgive someone who harmed them, it is not necessary for the transgressor to be forgiven in order to complete the process of teshuvah. His understanding of teshuvah seems to be entirely focused on being personally accountable, understanding the impact of one’s actions, and committing to genuine change for the future. Rambam seems to intend this idea for cases where the wronged party refuses to forgive the one who harmed them. It can apply just as well in cases where forgiveness is difficult because the harm is complex and system-wide.
It may not be possible to personally apologize to every person harmed by the systems we live in. We ourselves are both harmed by and part of these systems. I wonder if Rambam’s focus on taking action for the future might provide us with a map forward. His core principles of personal accountability and commitment to change are also core to the contemporary idea of allyship.
Action is the keystone of allyship.
Allyship is a process rather than a fixed set of behaviors. It is a willingness to question, learn, and act. Reading books, listening to others’ experiences, and analyzing the world around you are a vital first step, but they do not make systematic change.Change requires action.
Action comes more easily when one is in community. An ally’s job, first and foremost, is to listen to and uplift voices that are marginalized. The needs of the communities you ally with can and will change with time. Community can also battle compassion fatigue; allyship coming from love has an infinite amount of fuel, unlike allyship coming from righteous indignation or spite. Being an ally can span a range of behaviors, from challenging oppressive rules and policies, to having hard conversations, to participating in protests, to providing food or childcare.
In the introduction to Textual Activism, Rabbi Mike Moskowitz frames his personal journey around allyship, explaining, “[s]everal years ago someone in my family announced that they were transitioning… I so desperately wanted to be supportive and yet I had no idea how. It was immediately clear to me that the stakes were high and that I was not well equipped to be adequately helpful… Realizing these limitations [of never having struggled with or been aware of my gender identity until that point] has sharpened my commitment to humble listening.”
But Rabbi Moskowitz did not stop after listening. He took action for his family member and the rights of the LGBTQ community to the point where his Ultra-Orthodox community shut him out. Now he works with members of the LGBTQ community at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah as the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies, and dedicates his work to building a better world with LGBTQ congregants and leaders. By showing the world that one can be both deeply traditional and radically progressive, his work has inspired countless other allies and LGBTQ people alike.
While many of us will not take on new career paths as part of our journeys of allyship, we all have the capacity to engage in humble listening, to commit to a better world, and to use whichever platforms we have to center the needs of those most impacted by the injustices in our society.
Because of the consistent communal engagement and action required by allyship, it can be a good path toward teshuvah. It holds space for accountability and learning as well as for positive action. This type of teshuvah has little need for self-flagellation or aimless guilt. Allyship takes that energy and moves it into a more productive space. Solidarity, community, and love are the most sustainable ways to heal the wounds caused by societal systems. While we cannot undo the diffuse social harms we perpetuate, it is our duty to try to make them right.