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Trump has not done teshuva — so the Senate must convict him

Even for those of us whose hearts are hardened and who have tragically come to expect a certain degree of political violence in our system, the video was still hard to watch.

Footage shown for the first time this week during the second impeachment trial of former President Trump reveals just how close the events of Jan. 6, 2021 came to being much more violent and deadly than they were.

In particular, rioters almost reached Senator Mitt Romney, whom the brave Officer Eugene Goodman of the United States Capitol Police whisked to safety at the last minute. The mob also came terrifyingly close to getting their hands on Vice President Mike Pence, whom some of them were clamoring to hang; he had to be evacuated from the Capitol Building at the last possible moment.

Jewish ritual offers a clear way to think about whether Trump deserves forgiveness for inciting this violence. It’s something we ought to keep in mind, as we think about the end of the Senate impeachment trial. Our traditions emphasize that seeking teshuvah, or repentance, involves hard work, direct and considerable effort from those who have transgressed and wronged others.

Trump has steadfastly refused to do this work.

Instead, he has pleaded ignorance, pretending he had nothing to do with the mob that marched on the Capitol building after he told them “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He and his lawyers have maintained that argument even as the Senate trial has revealed that Trump posted a tweet attacking his own vice president for supposedly “lacking the courage” to overturn the election results after learning that Pence had been whisked off the Senate floor for his own safety. The timeline is clear: Trump knew that Pence’s life was in danger.

In that circumstance, as others related to the attack, the evidence unequivocally shows that Trump’s rhetoric played a direct role in inspiring what came perilously close to being a total bloodbath. Yet in the face of this evidence, the majority of Republican Senators continue to defend Trump and to argue that convicting the former president is unnecessary and divisive. Perhaps worst of all, Senator Mike Lee of Utah argued that “everyone makes mistakes, everyone is entitled to a mulligan once in a while.”

He’s right on one thing: Everyone makes mistakes. The idea that anyone is entitled to move on from them without consequences is a different thing.

As the great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides pointed out in his magisterial work, “Laws of Teshuvah,” genuine repentance requires, as a first step, a perpetrator of violence against another person to “confess in public and make his sins known to others, revealing the transgressions he committed against his colleagues.”

Next, the repentant person must commit to the difficult internal work of transforming themselves into the sort of person who would never commit such an act again: “to change his behavior in its entirety to the good and the path of righteousness.” They must make restitution for the wrong they have committed. Then — and only then — must they apologize directly to those they have wronged.

And the victim of the violence is not obligated to forgive immediately. Maimonides notes that if the wronged party is not convinced by the sinner’s efforts at repentance, the sinner should try this hard work of internal transformation again for a second and third time.

The Maimonidean model of teshuvah is the opposite of the cheap grace and easy forgiveness that is all too often preferred by modern American culture. It offers a path not just to forgiveness but also to growth: the Talmud teaches that a person who does the hard work of internal self-transformation is accounted as superior even to the fully righteous person who has never sinned.

And it’s precisely the model we need to recover from the damages of the Trump administration, starting with the impeachment trial.

Trump has shown no remorse for the way in which his words directly inspired the rioters, leading to the deaths of five people. (Two Capitol police officers who survived the riot also died by suicide in the weeks after the riot.) He has, in fact, done the opposite, continuing to praise the violent rioters as “very special people” even after his own vice president had to be evacuated for his own safety.

That’s what Senator Lee got wrong: We are entitled to our mistakes, but must earn forgiveness. Trump has not even begun the work necessary to earn acquittal. And not even his staunchest defenders expect that he will do the work to transform himself internally, to apologize to the victims of the Capitol Hill riot, to make restitution, and to turn himself into the sort of person who, if elected president again, could be counted on not to incite another violent mob.

This is why the Senate has a moral responsibility to vote to convict President Trump. Jewish tradition teaches us that true teshuvah is a difficult and painful task, and that the sinner must commit themselves to the long road of becoming the sort of person who would never commit the same sin again in the future.

Trump has not committed himself to that work of self-transformation. Just the opposite. For the country to heal from the wounds he inflicted, the Senate must ensure he cannot commit the same exact transgressions in the future, and bar him from ever serving as president again.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

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