08/23/2010 07:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Senator Robert Byrd: Unorthodox Yom Kippur Role Model

It is at the end of one's life that one is in the best position to assess its significance, and perhaps also most motivated to do so. Certainly this has been the case with the recent death of Senator Robert Byrd, the longest serving senator in U.S. history, which has occasioned renewed discussion of his racist past as a leader of a West Virginia chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 40s and the extent to which he overcame it.

As Jews all over the world prepare for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement -- devoted to the examination of our souls and the manner in which we lead our lives -- I would offer Robert Byrd as an unorthodox and imperfect role model for the process of repentance so closely associated with this holy day.

In his eulogy for Byrd, President Obama praised him as possessing "that quintessential American quality ... a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, a capacity to be made more perfect." Judging from responses on editorial pages and in the blogosphere, however, not everyone is so forgiving. One writer comments, "A background of violence and hate toward a certain race should never be forgotten, and can certainly never be undone. One must either write off Byrd's involvement or accept the fact that this man was filled with hate and prejudice."

How we finally assess Byrd's life and character depends on how we understand repentance and, judging from popular discourse on the subject, most of us do not think about the demands of repentance very clearly.

Genuine repentance may be among the most arduous of human endeavors. It demands rigorous honesty in identifying our failings and unwavering courage in revealing them publicly. It requires that we both apologize for our failings verbally -- often repeatedly -- and then that we demonstrate through a new pattern of behavior that we have truly renounced the hurtful deeds we committed in the past.

As for Byrd, he openly recognized and repeatedly apologized for his affiliation with the Klan. Nearly 20 years ago he acknowledged:

The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan. And I've said that many times. But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts. That was an albatross around my neck that I will always wear. You will read it in my obituary that I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Here we see clearly the essence of sincere repentance, what Jews have always called teshuvah, "turning."

To fully appreciate its praiseworthy quality, contrast Byrd's statement to the defiant, unrepentant words of Strom Thurmond, who as late as 1998 said about his 1948 bid for the presidency as a segregationist: "I don't have anything to apologize for." Whether Thurmond still embraced these views, or whether he simply lacked the courage and the humility to admit his mistakes publicly is something we may never know. What is certain is that he did not engage in public repentance. His failure to do so remains an indelible mark on his moral character and warrants our continued condemnation.

Still, Byrd's repentance, if admirable, was far from complete. In his 2005 memoir, he conveniently omits the racist letter he wrote in 1945 in response to Truman's effort to integrate the armed forces: "Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels." He also failed to acknowledge that he remained sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan for years after his formal involvement ended. In 1946 he wrote, "The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia."

These troubling omissions betray a tendency familiar to all of us: we minimize the extent or significance of our moral failings even as we confess to them. But even as we have become cynical about the ethical lapses of our politicians, and so might be tempted to dismiss his statements as ultimately insincere, we should instead pay close attention to Byrd's imperfect repentance. His experience reminds us both how difficult it is to repent completely -- to reveal our moral failings with unsparing honesty -- and also how much every effort in this direction adds to our moral stature.

As a role model for repentance, Byrd deserves our admiration for his willingness to acknowledge just how wrong he had been. In his own words, "I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times ... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."

Indeed, no apology can ever erase the past, but it can go a long way toward restoring our moral integrity. Indeed, together with forthright acknowledgment of wrongdoing, it is an important step on the path towards teshuvah. Repentance, even when it falls short, is still a mark of moral resolve and personal courage. This is the moral lesson that I take from the life of Robert Byrd in the weeks leading up to this Yom Kippur.