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The Apology

Updated: Oct 1

Max Stearns

A Story:

Approaching the Days of Awe, marking the period between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, an irascible aging man begs his wife to gather their family, friends, and acquaintances, providing tea and cakes. Although no small task as the High Holidays approach, she dutifully obliges. In an early evening, the man addresses the gathering crowd:

“Family and friends, welcome to our modest home. As the Rebbe will attest, I’m not the most righteous or pious man in the Shtetl. And yet, as I age, I find our traditions and beliefs increasingly important and meaningful. We are told that on Rosh Hashana, it is written, who shall live and who shall die, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed. And we are told that before we can atone for our sins before God, we must atone for our transgressions with our fellow man. We must apologize and seek forgiveness. And so, I want you each to know that I am here, willing to hear your apologies.”

These past years have been terribly hard, sometimes painful, this most recent one especially. For years I prided myself in maintaining meaningful engagement with people with whom I have vehemently disagreed. In recent months, this has sadly changed. Whether I, or an interlocutor, had the final word, on several occasions I have had ties severed with those who had once been friends or colleagues, or simply social media acquaintances. This saddens me; I cannot help but regard it as something of a personal failing. At this Eleventh Hour, as Yom Kippur approaches, it raises for this candidly secular Jew the question as to moral obligation, not because I envision a book closing, but because as with so many traditions, reckonings do matter.

For a long time, I held the view that people of good faith can, indeed should, embrace disagreements in framing foundational issues, including those I’ve spent my career studying and writing about. This must be true. Otherwise how do we as a society advance. Without pushing back against ideas, ideas cannot be refined, their implementation improved, and, in the process, society benefited. My blog titling, Blindspot, is meant to capture a singular insight: we all have them, and having them pointed out improves the way we see the world. Liberals and conservatives both have them, and I’ll readily concede that I, a moderate liberal, do as well. No one is exempt. This post isn’t the place to explore those ideas. I have done so in earlier (linked) posts. But it is important to say this:

Perhaps I too am an aging irascible man. I find myself increasingly upset, sometimes angered, by those who put forth claims that are based on foundational factual or analytical errors in pursuit of a cause that I regard as reprehensible, letting our sitting President hold onto, and indeed expand, his power at all costs. I find unfathomable the sorts of posts that highlight Joe Biden’s claimed cognitive deficiencies (Trump’s?), Biden’s age (Trump’s?), Biden’s health (Trump’s?), Biden’s verbal fumbles (Trump’s?), Biden’s inconsistencies (Trump’s??), or that claim that were he to be elected, Biden might not complete his first term, leaving as President Kamala Harris, a woman defined by raw ambition (Trump?), uncommitted to clear ideas (Trump?), willing to change her mind to succeed politically (Trump??).

I have witnessed former friends and colleagues lament the “woke left” as the greatest threat to our democracy, claim that the Democratic party is committed to socialism, to anti-Semitism, to undermining constitutional and democratic norms. My point is not to survey unending misrepresentation (on socialism, Biden, won, not Sanders or Warren; Biden selected Harris as his running mate, not Warren), or gaslighting (see above). Instead, it is this: I know I have pressed back and pressed hard. I know I have offended along the way. I know that I’m tenacious. Heck, an admired tenth grade teacher told me this before I understood, or fully appreciated, the word’s meaning. And although I like to hope that my (approaching) 60-year-old self is wiser and more empathetic than myself at 16, I also recognize that personality traits do lock in, with the risk of turning us into caricatures of our younger selves. But not always. I also like to hope our best selves always strive to refine and improve.

How does one apologize to those offended in their defense of a presidency that I sincerely believe threatens to tear this nation apart? That violates basic values and norms I so strongly embrace? Am I that aging man in the Shtetl?

I apologize to anyone whom I’ve personally insulted or offended. This I try not to do. I try to press on arguments, however relentlessly, not against people. If I have failed, I am sorry. I cannot, however, be sorry for pressing against the arguments themselves, and even for doing so relentlessly. The stakes are simply too high, and if that unwillingness seals my fate, that is a risk I'm compelled to accept.

May you all be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and for those who observe, may you have an easy fast.

As always, I am here. And as always, I welcome, well, your comments.


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