Question: Is it permissible for a Ba’al Teshuva who has transgressed many grave sins in the past, among them idolatry, and has since repented to tell his life’s story to others?
Answer: The verse in Tehillim (Chapter 32) states: “Of David, a Maskil, fortunate is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over.” The latter part of the verse refers to one whose sins are not known by others. Rav Kahana (Berachot 34b) states based on this verse, “It is audacious in my eyes when one recounts one’s own sins.”
Rashi (Yoma 86b) explains that the reason why one should keep one’s sins hidden is in reverence of the honor of Hashem, for the more publicly one sins, the more this minimizes the honor of Hashem. Indeed, when people see others sinning, their fear of Hashem cools off and the honor of Hashem becomes diminished. On the other hand, if one sins but others do not know about it, this is not as much of a desecration of Hashem’s name.
This teaches us that it is better for one to conceal one’s sins, as the Rambam (Chapter 2 of Hlichot Teshuva) rules that regarding sins between man and Hashem, it is considered brazen to reveal these sins to others; rather, one should repent and confess one’s sins only before Hashem. (There are many details regarding this law; we shall only discuss this in a general manner.)
Nevertheless, the Gemara (Sotah 32b) explains that the Torah commands one who has committed idolatry inadvertently to being a she-goat as an offering to the Bet Hamikdash. The Gemara asks why this is so if by bringing a she-goat to the Bet Hamikdash, everyone will know that this individual is bringing this animal because he sinned with idolatry (for all sins require offerings using other animals which others may interpret to be for and Olah offering as opposed to a sin-offering)? The Gemara replies that since this individual transgressed the grave sin of idolatry, Hashem commanded that he bring such an offering so that everyone will know what sin he has transgressed; the shame that ensues will serve to atone for the individual’s sin.
Based on the above, we see that one who has transgressed the sin of idolatry and repents fully nevertheless requires shame to atone for his sin. Indeed, the Mishnah (Megillah 25a) states that there were certain Torah portions that were not translated publicly for the congregation so as not to shame the individual mentioned in the Torah who had sinned (for instance, the sin of Amnon son of King David is not translated in public in order to preserve the honor of King David). The Mishnah states that the Torah portion delineating the sin of the Golden Calf is read and translated publicly. The Gemara explains that although reading the Torah portion describing the sin of the Golden Calf causes a measure of shame to the Jewish nation, this is nevertheless worthwhile, for the shame this causes them to feel will serve to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. This is another source for the fact that the sin of idol-worship requires one to be ashamed to achieve atonement.
Thus, regarding our scenario where this Ba’al Teshuva also committed idolatry in the past, there is a basis for this individual to tell others what he has done in order to atone for his sin. Nevertheless, the above applies only when one is recounting this before several individuals in a manner which will cause him shame for what he has done in the past and this will not cause a desecration of Hashem’s name since those listening will immediately realize this person’s sorrow and remorse. However, if the individual recounts his past sins in a calm and complacent manner and certainly if he enjoys what he is telling over, this is forbidden, for this causes a desecration of Hashem’s name. The Shaare Teshuva (Chapter 607) quotes the Panim Meirot who writes that one should never recount one’s sins, even that of idol-worship, in front of many people. He proceeds to explain this matter there. Nevertheless, if one is doing so in a remorseful manner, especially if one exclaims that he has been punished as a result (See Bet Ha’Levi, Bereshit, Chapter 18), to several people, one need not bring anything to the attention of the individual telling the story. If, however, one is telling this over in a nonchalant manner, especially in public, this is certainly forbidden. (Response written by Hagaon Harav Yaakov Sasson).