Monday, November 20, 2017

Franken's Apology: A Jewish Perspective

By now the whole world has heard about Leeann Tweeden's accusation that, in 2006, not-yet-Senator Al Franken kissed her too aggressively during a skit rehearsal and later posed for an embarrassing "joke" photo where it appears he is groping her. There is plenty of discussion about these events all over the Internet, so I'm not going to go into more details here.

Rather, I want to look at the ethics of his apology from a Jewish perspective. Why Jewish per se?  Because Franken himself is Jewish and has said that his Jewish roots are part of his approach to public service. (Read more on that...)    Although I am not his rabbi, I did know Rabbi Shapiro of Temple Israel in Minneapolis (who was), and can attest that Al Franken grew up in a positive Jewish environment. So I think it is fair to look at the issue from the standpoint of Jewish law & ethics.

But first, three disclaimers:

(1)  I do not speak for Senator Franken, and I have not discussed religion with him.  Therefore,  all opinions in this post are my own.

(2)  I am not in any way, shape, or form trying to claim that what Franken did to Ms. Tweeden was OK.  If I thought that, there would be no need to discuss apologies.

(3) I have been a Franken supporter since his first campaign in 2008 and I still am.  However, this does not mean I am blind to his faults, or that I enjoy raunchy sexual humor (Not!)  No leader is perfect.  Even Moses made mistakes.

Forgiveness and apologies in Judaism

Judaism teaches that for sins between human beings and God, it is enough to simply pray to God for forgiveness.  So, for example, if I eat a ham sandwich, all I need to do is acknowledge the sin, ask God for forgiveness, and hopefully not do it again.  However, if I harm another person - whether physically, monetarily, or through embarrassment --  I cannot be forgiven by God until I have made amends directly to that person.  In this, Judaism recognizes the right of victims to have their pain and suffering directly acknowledged.

This is exactly how Franken has handled the Tweeden accusation against him. Within 24 hours of Tweeden stating her case on CNN, Franken issued a full public apology to reporters, as well as sending an apology directly to Ms. Tweeden, which she read and discussed on The View.  During that interview she said she accepted his apology and stated, "I sincerely think he took it in and realized that -- man, he looks at it now and says 'I'm disgusted by my actions'..." She also stated that it is not her intent to get him to resign, that the people of Minnesota should decide this.  All in all, she accepted his apology and change of heart as genuine. (Watch the full interview on YouTube)

Unlike Weinstein, Moore, Trump and others, Franken did not retreat into denial.  There was no degrading of Tweeden, no calling her derogatory nicknames, no threats of defamation lawsuits,  no Twitter storm attempting to divert attention from himself, no coverup.  Franken fully owned his guilt and manned up to apologize. Twice.  I respect that.

Publicly humiliating someone is a sin

Let me point out that Jewish law takes a very dim view of embarrassing someone in public; it is, in fact, a serious sin that the Talmud compares to shedding blood (Bava Metzia 58b).   So even if Franken did intend the now-infamous photo to be a practical joke, the fact that it humiliated her made it a sin that he must atone for.  The same goes for the kiss, about which he says, "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann." Some people have nitpicked this statement, claiming that he is denying her story.  I don't see it that way.  It is perfectly possible for two people to remember the same event in different ways.  What seems trivial in one person's mind can loom large in the mind of another.  For him it was probably just a rehearsal.  To her, it was devastating and made her angry for years.

So why didn't he apologize back in 2006?  Because apparently he did not realize the seriousness of its impact on her until she told her story last week.  Some people have implied that he only apologized because he got caught, but this contradicts her own story on CNN, where she says she saw the photo after they got back from the USO trip.  For whatever reason, she did not confront him about it back then.  What matters now is that as soon as he became aware of the impact on her, he owned it.

However, we should note that pillorying Franken  in a social media feeding frenzy is also wrong.  Ms. Tweeden has stated that it was not her intention to get him fired, she simply wanted to tell her story and get an apology.  She got that and has accepted it.  If the victim does not want to press it further, shouldn't we respect that?  Must we continue to drag both of them through the media?

Loshon hara (evil gossip) is also a serious sin: "You shall not go back and forth as a talebearer among your people." (Leviticus 19:16) Reporting the news is one thing. Vicious gossip is quite another.

Is "joking around" an excuse?

This brings us to the question of whether "it was clearly a joke" could be an excuse. The Jewish answer is no, not if it causes harm to the brunt of the joke.  In a discussion about embarrassment and nicknames, the Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) says that one who calls someone a derogatory nickname -- even if he or she is used to it -- will spend eternity in Gehenna.  This may be hyperbole, but it does indicate the seriousness of humiliating somebody in public. (President Trump should listen to this.  Although he is not Jewish, one would hope that his Jewish daughter and son-in-law would point out it him.  Maybe they have but he doesn't listen?)

Humor is always tricky.  What is funny to one generation can be downright disgusting to another.  Even from group to group or person to person, what is acceptable can vary widely.  To be sure, much of Franken's humor back in his Saturday Night Live (SNL) days was very raunchy and misogynist.  (Read more...)  SNL today remains a venue where comedy often crosses the line into offensiveness.  This is not to make excuses, it just is what it is.  Perhaps we should all take a long hard look at ourselves and how we feed into this national obsession with raunchy sexist humor.

Again drawing on Jewish thought, Psalm 1:1 tells us not to "sit in the seat of the scorners," i.e., those who mock others. Good humor does not put others down.

Franken's humor and the 2008 Senate race

Here in Minnesota, when Franken ran for the Senate in 2008, his humor became an issue during the campaign.  The Republicans jumped on various articles and skits he had written or participated in (or sometimes just pitched but never produced) as "proof" that he was morally unfit to lead.  Even among Democrats, there was concern about his public image . Focus groups said loud and clear that they did not want Minnesota represented by a clown, especially a raunchy one.

Here again, Franken looked at his behavior and sincerely apologized: “For 35 years I was a writer," he said at his nomination speech. "I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren’t funny. Some of them weren’t appropriate. Some of them were downright offensive. I understand that. And I understand that the people of Minnesota deserve a senator who won’t say things that will make you feel uncomfortable."

So a lot of the bad comedy material from the past that his enemies are now dredging up is old news to us Minnesotans, who elected him in 2008.  In 2014 he won the Democratic primary with 94.5% of the vote and the general election with 53.2% of the vote.  Obviously, Minnesota feels he has grown beyond his past off-color humor and is now doing a good job representing us.

Unfortunately, the rest of the country apparently hasn't followed Minnesota politics that closely.  A whole new generation, who weren't even born in 1975 when SNL began, are discovering anew that Al Franken the comedian wrote offensive jokes before he became a senator.  What they are missing is that during the campaign he promised to turn over a new leaf --and he did.  He went so far as to not tell jokes -- even acceptable ones -- suppressing his inner clown to take on the seriousness of governing in the Senate.  (Read more...)

Is Franken unfit to lead?

Now that the Tweeden story is out, certain people are calling for Franken's resignation.  Abby Honold, the Minnesota rape victim who helped Franken craft a bill that would help train First Responders to better help victims of sexual assault, called Franken to say he was no longer fit to sponsor it.  For the good of the cause, Franken turned it over to Senator Amy Klobuchar.

But I find myself wondering if Honold is really right.  Is Franken really unfit to lead on women's issues or anything else?

Recall again that the Tweeden case, as well as his sexist humor in general, occurred before he was elected to the Senate. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 14 women staffers who worked for Franken signed a statement saying that he never acted inappropriately towards them:

“Many of us spent years working for Senator Franken in Minnesota and Washington,” their statement read. “In our time working for the senator, he treated us with the utmost respect. He valued our work and our opinions and was a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our office."

(UPDATE 11/21/2017:   Three dozen women who worked with Franken on SNL also signed a letter defending him: "Saturday Night Live" Women Defend Franken after Groping Allegations, stating "not one of us experienced any inappropriate behavior.")

So it would seem that he really has turned over a new leaf.  I find myself thinking about how, in many recovery programs, the best outreach counselors are those who have been there.  Ex-alcoholics, ex-addicts, ex-gang members, ex-convicts -- the list goes on of people who can speak convincingly to offenders precisely because they once were offenders themselves.

In a follow-up interview on CNN, Tweeden herself blames our culture, and said that change is going to come "not from the victims coming out, and talking about it, I think its gonna come from the people who may be doing the abusing that don't even realize they are abusing because it is so a part of the culture..." . (Watch the  video)

Take Alan Alda, for instance.  If  you watch the early seasons of M.A.S.H., there's a great deal of material that comes across as sexual harassment.  Then, partway through the series,  Alda became a feminist. And if you watch the episodes in order, you can see the show evolve into a more respectful treatment of female characters.  Having followed Franken's career here in Minnesota, I have seen a similar evolution in Franken's attitude.

So why can't Franken be an advocate for women's rights?  It would seem that a man who himself once degraded women on the stage and in his writing -- but who has since repented and reformed -- would be the ideal person to convince other men to do the same.  In other areas we support --even praise! -- ex-offenders who do such education and outreach.  Why should  this be any different?

As I write this, the news just broke that Senator Franken does not intend to resign.  Frankly (pun intended), I'm glad.  So far, he is the only one of the many powerful men recently accused of sexual misconduct who has had the guts to take full responsibility and admit his mistakes.  That shows  courage and strength of character. We need more of that kind of leadership.

*  *  *

UPDATE: Listen to Al Franken's Full 18-minute interview with Cathy Wurzer on NPR, Sunday, November 26, 2017


Yonassan Gershom said...

On Monday, another woman came forward with an allegation against Franken. Lindsay Menz, 33, told CNN in an interview that Franken grabbed her buttocks when they posed for a photo together in 2010 at the Minnesota State Fair.

In a statement, Franken said that, "I take thousands of photos at the state fair surrounded by hundreds of people, and I certainly don't remember taking this picture."

"I feel badly that Ms. Menz came away from our interaction feeling disrespected," Franken said.


Once again, Franken apologizes even if he does not remember the incident. Which is perfectly possible. It is also possible that it was unintentional. I have been to the MN State Fair and the crowds are huge. Anybody standing for photos all day could have let his arm drop out of tiredness. Or somebody else could have done it passing by. If it was a grope, surely there were witnesses? On a local TV interview she said her husband was right there. And he said nothing? I am not denying her story, just questioning whether a grope was Franken's intent. At any rate, once again, he took the blame on himself and apologized.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Regarding his first apology, which tried to write it off as a joke, I agre with the critics that it was inadequate. But it is also difficult to come up with a decent answer to anything when somebody shoves a mike in your face. Now the same people who criticized his first off-the-cuff answer are wondering why he is now silent for so long. Is it any wonder?

No doubt part of it js wanting to spend a peaceful Thanksgiving with his family. But I also think that, having learned from his mistake, he is now carefully considering how to respond further, rather than just make statements for the sake of statements. Unlike our President, Franken does not just Tweet out whatever pops in his head. Since he has called for an ethics investigation, Franken may also be waiting for that, rather than discuss the case out of court.

Bill Brown said...

Now that Senator Franken is committed to resigning in a few weeks, I express my thoughts. It is possible some accusations were either false or over stated, however there was some truth. His chances of being reelected dropped to hear zero. With a replacement now gives that person a chance of being elected.