We live in a time of first-person confessionals, when people openly publish their intimate thoughts, challenges and failures. Readers sympathize and cheer, as they peer into someone’s life and see both the frailty of humanity and its greatness in our ability to overcome obstacles. Is it proper for writers to reveal their failings in this way? Assuming they avoid lashon hara by refraining from defaming their family and friends, they still have to take care in what they reveal about themselves.
Rav Meir Eisenstadt was asked whether someone who is attempting to do teshuvah and wants to publicly confess his sin may do so (Panim Me’iros, vol. 2 no. 178). Rav Eisenstadt quotes the Gemara in Sotah (32b) which asks why we pray quietly. R. Yochanan quotes R. Shimon Bar Yochai who explains that the Sages enacted quiet prayer so as not to embarrass the sinners who confess during prayer. The Sages prove this concept from the fact that the chatas and asham are sacrificed at the same place in the Temple so that onlookers cannot tell whether the person bringing the sacrifice actively sinned. The only time it is obvious that someone is bringing a chatas is with the sacrifice for idolatry, which includes a goat. Anyone bringing the goat obviously committed idolatry. The ensuing embarrassment is part of the atonement for idolatry. From this, Rav Eisenstadt infers that the Torah prefers a sinner’s silence except for someone who committed idolatry. However, this only proves that a sinner is not required to reveal his sin. What if he wants to confess publicly?
The Gemara in Yoma (86b) contrasts two verses: “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Tehillim 32:1); “He who covers his sins will not succeed” (Mishlei 28:13). Is it proper to conceal your sins or reveal them? The Gemara offers two possible resolutions. It could be that one verse is discussing sins committed publicly; those should not be hidden because people already know about them. The other verse refers to private sins which should remain private. The other possible explanation is that interpersonal sins should be revealed in order to obtain forgiveness from those who were wronged; sins between man and G-d should be kept private.
Rav Eisenstadt points out that the Gemara does not suggest that one verse speaks about idolatry, which should be publicized, while the other verse refers to other sins. He explains that even idolatry is only publicized via the different sacrifice. Beyond that, it should be kept private. In fact, Rav Eisenstadt argues, you are required to keep those sins private. Perhaps the Torah is concerned about creating an environment in which sin becomes normal and even expected.
Embarrassed Over Failings
The Gemara (Sotah 7b) describes the process of the sotah. The beis din encourages her to admit guilt to forestall the process. They tell her that Yehudah and Reuven confessed publicly to their sins and received reward in the world-to-come. The Gemara asks why they confessed publicly, since Rav Sheishes says that someone who lists his sins publicly lacks shame. The Gemara explains that Yehudah did so to save Tamar’s life and Reuven did so in order to prevent his brothers from being suspected of the sin he committed. They only confessed publicly to save others.
Rav Eisenstadt sees here a general prohibition against confessing your sins publicly. You should be embarrassed of your misdeeds, not proud of them. If you need to obtain forgiveness from individuals, reach out to them directly if possible. (See also Mishnah Berurah, Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 606:3.)
Rav Eisenstadt says that in his day, a new practice developed of confessing your sins publicly. He rejects that practice as improper and emerging from a foreign origin. The same could be said about today’s confessional fad.
However, if you are writing about your challenges and not your sins, the reason to refrain no longer applies. According to Rav Eisenstadt, the problem lies in revealing your misdeeds. If you avoid lashon ha-ra and discussing your religious failings, and instead discuss the difficult circumstances of your life, perhaps you are encouraged to reveal your story. The first source we discussed above, Sotah (32b), notes that someone struck with tzara’as must call out “impure, impure” (Vayikra 13:45), telling the world about his affliction. The Gemara explains that he announces his pain to the public so people will pray for mercy on his behalf.
Perhaps we can suggest that, similarly, when people write about the challenges they face in their daily lives, readers will pray for their success. If that is the case, then this kind of writing would benefit the writer with the help of others and offer readers the opportunity to pray for someone experiencing difficulties. If that is the goal, and the method achieves it, then it seems to fulfill this Talmudic model of confession to inspire prayer for mercy. And if the writing does not fall into either category of confessing sins or describing challenges, it is neither forbidden nor encouraged. Rather, it depends on the sensibility of the individual and on other, non-halachic considerations.