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We hear about forgiveness every year at the High Holy Days. We seek God’s forgiveness in shul from Selihot through the final prayers of Yom Kippur.
But most years, I don’t feel I’ve sinned much. I nod in recognition, and tap my chest when we chant the lists of sins we’ve spent generations constructing and (more recently) reconstructing. I’ve got plenty of guilt about all sorts of things, large and small, but I don’t think there are many people I’ve really wronged, nor do I think of myself as a victim of unfairness or cruelty inflicted by others. Neither as a sinner nor as a victim do I embrace the concept of forgiveness as a big part of my life, once the High Holy Days have passed.
by Larry Bush
It took a political issue to get me thinking about forgiveness at all — when the UJA bestowed a humanitarian award on Thomas Middelhoff, the chairman of a German corporation that he had previously exposed as having collaborated with the Nazis [Middelhoff was fired by the company for separate reasons in July — Ed.]. There were eloquent defenders of the selection, in the spirit of "forgive and move on." There were equally passionate protesters who believed that "forgive equals forget" and that the award was a betrayal of the memory of Holocaust victims.
In exploring Jewish sources and my own feelings so I could formulate a position, I realized that the more I thought about forgiveness, the more complex it seemed. I began to recognize the issue everywhere —including in my own life. I was amidst a long estrangement from a male friend, and had another friend who was recently estranged from her husband. Were these relationships that could be revived by forgiveness?
For many weeks, my letter went unanswered. I decided that was his answer: No desire to reconnect. I felt some measure of closure because I’d expressed my feelings, and at least I knew: Friendship finished.
Two months later, he called and asked to get together. I was amazed and pleased. It would be such a relief to see him again, to do a little apologizing and a lot of forgiving — when he admitted the error of his ways.
We had two rather traumatic meetings. At the first, he accused me of horrible things he believed I’d done — things that would have been understandably hard to forgive. He seemed not to accept my denials. I was quite shaken: Knowing what he thought was even worse than not knowing for so long. He seemed simply crazy. It was time, really, to move on.
What I got at our second meeting was this: "I’ve decided I have to put all that behind me and get on with my life — so I forgive you." This was almost as surprising to me as the accusations had been. After a moment’s hesitation, in which I tried to focus on the spirit rather than the substance of what he’d said, I replied that I accepted his forgiveness —quickly adding that I wasn’t admitting to things I hadn’t done.
That was that. Gingerly but with relief, we went back to being friends.
What makes forgiveness cathartic and liberating is the choice of letting go. We decide that the positive value of a relationship outweighs the validity of the pain. Implementing that calculation really is empowering. Robert Karen says that forgiveness should ideally not be held hostage to apology. If we’re successful at what he calls "ferreting out the good" in others, we’ll recognize that we have the power to make our relationships better. He does note, however, that sometimes the acts of apology or forgiveness precede the feelings — a notion that strikes me as parallel to the Reconstructionist idea that behaving (and belonging) precede believing. This is a reversal of logic that seems true and strangely appealing to me.
It also helps me to put the issue of forgiveness in the framework so many have borrowed from Hillel: If I am not going to forgive, who will? (Not God.) I can’t necessarily wait for the other per-son’s apology.
If I am only for myself — focusing solely on my own resentments, and not on the needs of my family or colleagues or community — what am I?
And if not now, when will I be ready? When will enough time have passed for necessary scar tissue to have formed, but not too much so that the scar is too impenetrable?
But is it really Jewish to forgive? Hannah Arendt called Jesus the "discoverer" of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs, and we all know his exhortation to "turn the other cheek." I associated the Christian faith in general, and Catholicism in particular, with forgiving trespasses and granting absolution — which seems to contrast with the occasional vindictive passages we read in our own texts.
Buddha proclaimed that "to understand all is to forgive all," and his followers believe forgiveness means not absolution but an opportunity for the inner transformation of both victim and perpetrator: of acknowledging who the perpetrator has now become, and preventing hatred from perpetuating new suffering. Similarly, Hindus believe that with forgiveness one can escape from the karmic cycle of suffering.
What about our Jewish tradition, both ancient and modern?
Traditionally, a person is required to apologize publicly up to three times. If, after the third apology, forgiveness is still withheld, the wronged party now becomes blameworthy. The Talmud says that in matters of forgiveness "a person should be flexible like a reed and not hard like a cedar."
All of the following words of Jewish wisdom about forgiveness are found in our own incredible Reconstructionist Mahzor:
A recently published book, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation notes that forgiveness and reconciliation are now considered spiritual values that have significance for "life as it is lived." These values are moving out of the seminary and academy and into the world of public policy. The same book includes a twenty-page list of "worldwide organizations promoting forgiveness and reconciliation."
There’s more evidence that a Forgiveness Movement is upon us. An International Forgiveness Institute was founded in 1994. It publishes a newsletter called The World of Forgiveness and, of course, now has a website. There was at one time also a Campaign for Forgiveness Research that focuses on four areas: forgiveness and nations, forgiveness and health, forgiveness and the family, and forgiveness interventions.
There are theoretical books like Robert Karen’s The Forgiving Self, and self-help manuals like Lewis Smedes’ Forgive and Forget, Everett Worthington’s To Forgive Is Human, Fred Luskin’s Forgive for Good, and Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Connection.
In our annual High Holy Day mix of personal and communal expiation — which mostly involves seeking God’s forgiveness and/or forgiving ourselves — we all seek forgiveness symbolically, in order to move on with a "clean slate" into the New Year. Let us consider that another part of teshuvah is committing to do more: to extend to those around us a spirit of empathy and hope, and to bring forgiveness — both the seeking and granting of it — into our daily lives. We cannot change the past, but we can correct our present and redirect our future.
Just as Reconstructionist practice reminds us that we have both the opportunity and the obligation in every generation to create a meaningful Judaism and to connect meaningfully with other Jews, so too do we have the power to create ourselves and our relationships anew in every moment. Let us take hold of time, make the most of our present, and in the interest of tikkun olam, find forgiveness.