Teshuvah

· October 26, 2020

We recently passed through a significant period in the Jewish calendar. The High Holy Days are a time for reflection and atonement. We think back over the previous twelve months, honestly own our missteps and failures, and make practical and spiritual reparations. This year, one of the moral and spiritual failures I found myself reflecting on and atoning for was a professional one.

Between Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are the ten Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim. Yom Kippur is a day for atoning for purely spiritual transgressions; any atonement for transgressions between people must take place beforehand. If an apology and repair hasn’t already been offered during the preceding year, then it should ideally happen during Yamim Noraim. It’s traditional to spend this period reflecting on one’s behaviour over the previous year and holding oneself accountable for any failing’s in one’s interpersonal interactions.

My method of doing this, for the last few years, has been to participate in 10Q. This is an initiative from US-based non-profit Reboot that seeks to revitalise Jewish culture, often in digital form. 10Q sends email prompts to participants with daily reflection questions each day during Yamim Noraim. Answers are entered online and can either be shared publicly or kept private. After Yom Kippur answers are sent to a ‘vault’ and participants only get access to them for a short period before and during the Yamim Noraim each year. One of the things that interests me about this is the personal recordkeeping and archiving aspects of it. A lot of the information entered is intensely personal and I’m acutely aware of the fact that the system that retains these digital records is sustained by a US non-profit. There doesn’t seem to be an easy export function, though each year participants are emailed with their complete answers from the previous year, so should have copies in their email, if nothing else.

Because I couldn’t go to synagogue this year, I also spent a fair bit of time, while preparing for the chagim (festival days) listening to online shiurim (lessons). I listened to several on the topic of תשובה (often translated as “repentance”, but which literally means “to return”). One I found particularly interesting was “In hiding or in plain sight: An alternative model of repentance”, which essentially argued for repentance as a form of “right to be forgotten”. I can see the analogy: if someone has genuinely recognised that they’ve done something wrong, taken steps to repair the damage they’ve done, and done the work of self-development to ensure that the same mistake won’t happen again, then in many cases it might seem cruel to publicly stigmatise them with visible records of their past wrongdoings. However, something about this shiur, in the recent context of the Black Lives Matter movement, made me feel uneasy.

I wasn’t quite sure what it was, until I thought a little more on it in the context of 10Q. I’ve been doing 10Q for four years now. It was a very different experience answering the questions this year than it was the first year I participated, because I had three previous years worth of data to look back on. I was able to see patterns in my answers emerging that I hadn’t been aware of previously. And I realised, that’s what I’d been uneasy about. The right to be forgotten only works to uphold justice if we’re considering individuals. What about patterns of societal behaviour and oppression? Even if individuals genuinely repent and change, we as a society want to be able to identify patterns of inequality and injustice. We can’t if individuals refuse to be open about the things they’ve done wrong. The וִדּוּי‎ (Vidui, confession) that we make on Yom Kippur is communal, recited in the first person plural. If we as a society and community are to acknowledge and confess our sins, we have to be able to recognise the pattern of them communally, and not just as individuals.

So, with that in mind, let me share with you a version of my answer to 10Q’s Q02: Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Relatively early in the (Jewish) year, I was asked by a researcher to help with a project that was a collaborative partnership between the university we work for and an Aboriginal-controlled community organisation. She seemed like she knew her stuff and had done a lot of hard work to build relationships with all the right people to set this collaboration up. We made initial contact with Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff members from the Aboriginal-controlled community organisation. My expectation was that we would follow up on this initial contact and begin to establish a solid working relationship. The researcher had other priorities and delayed getting in touch again for several months. In the meantime, she set research priorities for the partnership and had them approved by her academic seniors and supervisor, without once running them past our community collaborators.

What do I wish I’d done differently? I wish that, instead of asking her repeatedly if I should set up a meeting, or if I should get in touch with our community collaborators, I had just gotten in touch with them. The reason I didn’t do so was because I was worried about undermining my colleague’s authority as an early career researcher, as a woman, and as a person of colour. This was one of the first research projects she had ever lead, and I, as a white man, didn’t want to take over and undermine her. But in thinking that way, I was thinking about what benefited my colleague as a researcher, and when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities it is what benefits them that has to come first. So I should have put my relationship with our community collaborators above my relationship with my colleague.

I should also have sent them the draft research priorities document, once I realised she wasn’t going to. I should have made sure they got a chance to set the research agenda. The reason I didn’t was because I didn’t really get to have a say in it myself, I was only really shown it as an afterthought. The people who get to set the research agenda are researchers. As a member of professional staff, I don’t have much status and often take on more of a service type role in relation to research. I’ve also spent a long time in service professions, many of those in universities, so am generally disposed to treat researchers quite deferentially. And they are disposed to treat me quite dismissively sometimes, even if I have considerable expertise. So because of those power differentials, despite having access to the document, it didn’t occur to me that I had enough ownership of it to take it and show it to anyone else, even if those people needed and deserved to see it.

Once my colleague realised she had too much on her plate, she finally agreed to let me get in touch with our community collaborators. When that happened, I tried to make up for my failings by communicating regularly, being consistent about scheduling and showing up for meetings, completing the work I committed to doing, staying in meetings or on calls as long as there was work that still needed to be done, touching base with people regularly, and acknowledging mistakes when they were made and apologising, including for the long break in initial contact. I also tried a couple of times to raise my concerns with my colleague about our failings in how we had conducted ourselves on this project, but she made it clear to me that she didn’t feel like she did anything wrong and doesn’t think I did anything wrong either.

Obviously, I disagree. I think we both did many things wrong. I deeply regret my part in it and have taken practical steps to try to make up for that with the people I wronged. I’ve also made spiritual atonement. The reason I’m writing this now is because I think it’s important to acknowledge that my reasons for behaving as I did had to do with societal and institutional power imbalances, to do with the status of professional staff, early career researchers, senior academics, and community partners on research projects, for example, as well as individual’s statuses in society and in the workplace based on race and gender. Then, of course, lay over that the history of colonialism that has shaped the relationship between academic research and Indigenous peoples.

Through this process of teshuvah, I have become aware that these societal and institutional power imbalances created and continue to create a situation that puts pressure on us to act in ways that marginalise our Indigenous community collaborators. Resisting these pressures requires constant vigilance and constant work on our part. This is something we have responsibility for as university staff working with staff at an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation. Those same power imbalances also punish us for resisting those pressures. It ought to be the university’s responsibility to change the way it operates to either remove those punishments, or relieve those pressures, so that it is easier for us to interact with our collaborators with respect and integrity.