Linda Hirschhorn
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Forgiveness (5767)

© 2006..2009 Linda Hirschhorn

Delivered at Temple Beth Sholom - San Leandro

About a year and a half ago, a woman I'd been friends with and worked with for over 15 years said some unkind things about me to a mutual friend and colleague. I was hurt. I felt betrayed. We met to talk about it, but she didn't acknowledge any wrongdoing, and eventually we cut off contact. That's that, I thought, we are finished.

But somehow I wasn't finished. The scene of our last meeting kept replaying in my mind. I could hear us argue; I would think of things I wished I had said that would have proven her words to be untrue. I compiled lists in my head of all the times I felt she'd hurt me in the past, and I could hear myself developing a case. Over the next few months, I would tell the people closest to me about the incident, and invariably I would get the support that I thought I wanted — which was “What? She said that!!!!! Oh, how awful! You are so right to be so upset.”

So why I didn't I feel better? I kept thinking, if only she would say sorry, I would forgive her in a heartbeat. Jewish tradition requires us to forgive the person who comes to us. But she wasn't going to say “sorry”, so I wasn't going to have a chance to be munificent, to say to her “I forgive you.”

But in the meantime I was beginning to get annoyed with how much time in my life and how much space in my head these imaginary conversations were taking up. Surely there could be a better use of my time and my brain cells.

That's when I began to think about the word ‘forgiveness’; what is it, who is it for, how do we give it, how do we get it? I thought it might make a good High Holiday topic.

And then I got overwhelmed. It's such big topic — one that needs to go beyond the personal to the world stage, doesn't it? Wouldn't I have to talk about South African reconciliations, about German reparations, about Israel and Palestine? Where would I begin or end? And wouldn't I have to be well-grounded and knowledgeable in history to even begin to think about taking on such a topic? But then I decided that my personal experience is not an uncommon one: many of us have had friends or people in our families we've been angry with —or as my parents would say, broygez with— and didn't know what to do about it. So I might as well start with my one personal quarrel, and perhaps, in exploring my own process, shed a helpful light on what might be an issue for some of you.

I started by asking my friends, “What does forgiveness mean to you?” One friend said it's about letting go of expectations. Another said it's about not holding on to grudges, but that it doesn't mean letting an injustice stand. And yet another said it's letting go of grievances.

I thought about those words, ‘grudge’ and ‘grievance’, and I thought: yes, ‘grudge’ reflects the anger that I felt, and ‘grievance’ expresses the sadness I continue to feel for the loss of our friendship, and by holding onto that grievance, I was keeping her in my life, front and center, at the same time that she was no longer a part of it. Freud said “The reluctance to forgive may be a fear of premature closure, of too quick a disconnection.” Yet it has been over a year since we had our quarrel; perhaps I needed to follow Jewish tradition, which tells the mourners among us to recite kaddish for 11 months and then to move on.

I turned to some self-help books on forgiveness, and they all talked about letting go and moving on. Dr. Fred Luskin says forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves for our own wellness to free us from the past in order to move forward.

He says that it is essential that we recognize that we have no control over other people's behaviours. We can't make someone apologize, we can't change what they did or might do; all we have control over is how we feel and what we do about our own feelings. Forgiveness, he says, has nothing to do with the offender!

The psychologist Robert Enright agrees: Forgiveness he says, means “giving up the resentment to which you are entitled; it doesn't require the other person to recognize the harm they've done, nor does it necessarily require reconciliation. Those who refuse to forgive give away their power to this memory.”

These are very useful teachings, but is forgiving the same as letting go? And is it true that it has nothing to do with the offender? What, I wondered, did Jewish sources specifically have to say about forgiveness? I went searching, and found a wide range of opinions about the matter:

Starting with a simple story from the Talmud about Rabbi Eliezer and R. Akiba: R. Eliezer long prayed for rain but was not answered. R. Akiba came up to the Bima, offered a prayer of a few verses, and rain descended. A voice from heaven was heard to say, “It's not that R. Akiba is the greater man, but R. Eliezer remembers his wrongs and those who wronged him, and R. Akiba forgets them.”

I came across a discussion about whether a Jew can forgive a Nazi who asks for forgiveness on his deathbed. Rabbi Harold Kushner says the question is not whether to forgive; the real question is how to forgive without forgetting. He quotes the Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once stated, “Without memory, there can be no healing. Without forgiveness, there can be no future.” “Forgiveness,” Rabbi Kushner says, “happens inside us and represents letting go of the role of the victim.” It would mean saying “What you did was thoroughly despicable, but I refuse to give you the power to define me as a victim or to define the content of my Jewishness. And then the Nazi would remain chained to his past and his conscience, but the Jew would be free.”

But Susannah Heschel, dealing with the same question, felt differently and has a much stricter view. She said “I could forgive someone who has sinned against me, but not someone who has taken the life of another.” She says there are two sins for which there is no forgiveness: murder, and the destruction of someone's reputation; and all other forgiveness “requires both atonement and restitution.” Atonement, by definition, is compensation, or reconciliation, for a wrong.

Rabbi Shulweiss tackles the question of forgiveness in two ways. First he says, the pragmatic test of forgiveness is not reparation for the past but transformation of the character in the future, so that a genuine seeker for forgiveness no longer acts in the same way, and is able to say: “I have changed. I am another person, and not the same person who committed those deeds.” The second thing Rabbi Shulweiss says is that the option to forgive implies in some situations that we have discretion as to whether or not we take offense in the first place or continue taking offense long after the deed has been committed.

Rabbi Charles Klein says that forgiveness is an imperative stretching back to the Bible. “The Genesis narrative starts with fratricide —Cain and Abel— and ends with reconciliation —Joseph and his brothers.” “Therefore, that clearly delivers the Torah's message,” he says: “the only answer to hostility is finding a path to reconciliation.”

So the Talmud talks about forgetting, Rabbi Kushner talks about letting go of the role of victim but not forgetting, Susannah Heschel talks about reparations for past wrongs and its limits, Rabbi Shulweiss talks about personal transformation of the offender in the future and the options of the hurt person in how they respond, and Rabbi Klein talks about reconciliation.

Hmmmm… Disagreements? Not really. These are not contradictory or mutually exclusive viewpoints, but rather suggest different stages of forgiveness and different kinds of forgiveness that can address a variety of situations.


According to Rabbi David Blumenthal, there are actually three kinds of forgiveness: mekhilah, selikhah and kapparah.

The most basic kind is called mekhilah —forgoing the other's indebtedness— and this is if the offender has done teshuvah. Mekhilah is like a pardon granted by the modern state to a criminal who has served time. The crime remains; the debt is forgiven. Maimonides is decisive — We are required to grant mekhilah: “The person who has been offended is prohibited from being cruel in not offering mekhilah, for this is not the way of the seed of Israel.”

The tradition is quite clear, too, that one is not obliged to offer mekhilah if the offender has not taken concrete steps to correct the wrong. The principle that mekhilah ought to be granted only if deserved is the core to the Jewish view of forgiveness, what Rabbi Blumenthal calls the great Jewish ‘No’ to easy forgiveness.

This view is reinforced elsewhere in the Talmud that says there is no easy forgiveness of those who sin in many ways, or those who repent many times of the same sin; and as Rabbi Klein says, whereas Christianity encourages forgiveness even when no remorse is expressed, in Judaism it has to be earned.

The second kind of forgiveness Dr. Blumenthal talks about is selikhah. Selikhah is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the offender, and it is based on empathy. It might be an empathy for the troubledness of the other, or it might be an empathy rooted in compassion for the other's frailties. Selikhah, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy.

The third kind of forgiveness is kapparah, or ‘atonement’, a kind of existential cleansing which is granted by God for sins committed against God when we have confessed the wrongdoing and made amends by fasting, praying, or giving tsedakah.

So what did I learn from this discussion as it applies to my own story? First, it's clear to me that letting go and forgiveness are somewhat different: letting go is the first part of forgiving. Letting go is the private personal process — an acceptance of the reality of what happened that can't be changed and relinquishment of the role of victim, so that one can move forward. Forgiveness is about the dynamics of the relationship between ourselves and someone who has hurt us.

So, for step one, how does one let go? The self-help books prescribe things like visualizations, breathing exercises and the like. What do our Jewish sources suggest?

My friend Arlene Goldbard sends out a wonderful weekly blog, and a couple of weeks ago she discussed some of the teachings of the Ba‘al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement in the 18th century. The Ba‘al Shem Tov talked about three stages in the process of personal transformation.

First, hachna’ah, which means acceptance of what is. Very often, we increase our own suffering by denial and resistance to accept what's really happening. For me, this step includes the grieving process: accepting what happened and mourning the loss of my friend. The second stage is havdalah, or “distinction”, which entails placing things in perspective —how significant is this hurt in your life? In the scheme of things, my loss of my friendship is sad, but not the worst thing that ever happened. The last stage is hamtaqah, or “sweetening”, which suggests that we reframe the meaning of even the most difficult events in order to take them as lessons for the future, so that the same hurt might not occur. One of my lessons is an old one that I often forget to practice: to be clear in the moment in all my relationships; there had been signs of growing tension between us for months that I had been afraid to deal with. I also learned that being right has not made me peaceful.

So that's the letting go. What about forgiveness?

I thought a lot about Rabbi Blumenthal's description of the second kind of forgiveness, selikhah, as an act of the heart and the empathy that fuels it. I realized that empathy meant not only having compassion for my friend's human frailties and for the hard times that she might have been going through personally then, but compassion for my own frailties as well. Empathy means that I understand that I share in some of those weaknesses; I too, in another time or place, could and might have committed that kind or a similar kind of offense. She may not apologize, she may be too proud, but I know I too am often guilty of that kind of pride. My friend deserves the same kind of forgiveness that I would want.

The story is told of Shlomo Carlebach, the charismatic singing rebbe, who came to America from Vienna as a teenager fleeing the Nazis. Before he died, he returned to Austria and Germany to give concerts. Someone asked: “Why are you doing this? Don't you hate them?” His answer: “If I had two souls, I'd devote one to hating them. But since I have only one, I don't want to waste it on hating.”

Forgiveness is not an act but a process —a direction, a path to walk on. There is no prescription for how long it might take or how long it should take. In some situations, when you can't choose to walk away, reconciliation is imperative. In my story, I've started down that path, but I don't know where it's leading, and I don't know if my friend and I will reconnect. There are still days when I wake up to the old argument, but it doesn't have the same grip on my heart that it used to.

In the words of the song by Bob Dylan,

“I see my light come shining, come shining
from the west unto the east;
any day now, any way now I shall be released.”

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