Shall We Forgive

The road from Thousand Oaks to Palm Springs is a long one, at least twenty-five years long. That is how long I have not spoken to my uncle who lives in Palm Springs. It’s not just me. Most of the members of my family have not spoken to him and have no desire to. But I do, although I’m not exactly sure why. The year is 2015, and I am drawing to the end of my first tour of duty here at Temple Adat Elohim, just a few months before I leave Southern California forever (or so I thought at the time). Before I travel to my next congregation, I feel compelled to drive on the road from Thousand Oaks to Palm Springs. I just don’t know if it should be a road of forgiveness.

Like many family quarrels, the details are often unclear; they change depending upon whom one is speaking with. What I do know is that my uncle’s behavior is at times self-centered and hurtful, and at other times earnest and hilarious. We often want to cast people who have hurt us as all good or all bad, but that’s rarely the case. He is fun and funny, and he emotionally and economically hurt people I love. But he and I have never had a problem in our relationship. So why have I refrained from speaking to him for twenty-five years? Do I want him to apologize for the harm he caused others in my family? Given that I never hurt or angered him, do I want to know why he remained distant from me? This feels like a moment where someone should be forgiving someone else. However, I’m not convinced that forgiveness is always the proper course.

Last year, when I worked in Mahwah, New Jersey, I thought about the role of forgiveness. Mahwah is about 45 minutes from Manhattan, which looms large on the conscience of the region. While the superficial scars may be gone, 9/11 left deep psychic wounds that can surface unexpectedly. On one occasion, I remember speaking to a minister after a community clergy meeting. As we shared our ideas about repentance and sin, the discussion turned to 9/11. He told me that before the second building had fallen, he had already forgiven the terrorists. I realized he was exaggerating to make the point that forgiveness should be an automatic reflex. Exaggeration or not, his conviction forced me to consider whether forgiveness should be one of our highest virtues, bestowed automatically and fully. Perhaps because of this minister’s powerful words, or because we are in this season of the High Holy Days, or maybe because my uncle died this past year, I am struggling with the idea of forgiveness.

I know I am not alone in feeling confused and ambivalent about forgiveness. As their rabbi, people often share glimpses of their lives with me. Sometimes they reveal that they are not speaking to someone in their family or, even more painfully, that someone in their family is not speaking to them. But even more than the pain of separation, a twinge of shame often threads through their emotions, as if to imply that this is not only sad but also a moral failure. And at some level, estrangement is a failure—at least, a failure to forgive. But is estrangement a moral failure? Are we required to forgive? I know that, for many, like me, this topic touches close to home. But that’s exactly why we should explore it—not to engender guilt or to deepen our sense of loss, but to plumb our tradition’s wisdom so that we can enhance our lives.

The struggle over when and if we should forgive is woven into the earliest threads of our tradition. It’s easy to dismiss Judaism’s earliest roots—when we sacrificed animals to God—as something primitive, and I’m certainly not advocating returning to animal sacrifice. But buried in that system is an important thought, which this quick-to-forgive minister may have missed: Forgiveness must start with contrition.

The Torah’s system of animal and plant sacrifices were kind of like grand gestures directed toward God. Think of it this way: If a parent misses an important childhood celebration because of a deadline at work, the parent might want to express their regret, so Mom or Dad buys a big present for their child as a grand gesture. At one level, that’s what sacrifice is, bringing something of value to assuage God. We transgress a rule, we bring a goat; if we transgress another rule, we bring another goat. If we miss a childhood event, we bring a present; if we miss another childhood event, we bring another present. But the Prophets tell us that sacrifices don’t suffice. Speaking on God’s behalf, the prophet Amos says, “I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I won’t accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings (5:21–22). . . . You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses, you’ll never live in them (5:11).” In other words, Amos is saying that sacrifices are not enough if our hurtful behavior remains. How many times can a parent miss an important event before the sophisticated child says, “I don’t want your gifts. What I want is to be more important to you.” God is like the child, or spouse, or sibling, who is not appeased by empty gestures or words. As Amos suggests, if sinners do not recognize of their mistakes and offer no contrition, no commitment to change their behavior, then we don’t have to forgive them. We’re left to ask: When should we forgive and when shouldn’t we?

It takes me the better part of three hours to drive to Palm Springs. As my uncle answers the door, I can see the toll that the cancer is taking. We embrace and sit down together to catch him up on my entire adulthood. I think about the times when I was struggling and wanted to reach out to him, and I feel a deep sadness that he has never met my wife, Sandy, or my kids, now all grown. I learn about his life over the past twenty-five years and meet his partner. I learn they never married and actually maintain separate households. He smiles wryly. “We both like our own space, but we only want to be with each other.” The conversation turns from the mundane stories of our lives to the rift in our family. He wants to tell me his side of the story, but I’m not there to judge who is right or wrong. I’m asking a different question: Is forgiveness and reconciliation possible? Often there is a clear perpetrator and a clear victim. But, perhaps just as often, both sides contribute something to a breach in a relationship, although maybe not in equal amounts. When siblings argue, when spouses argue, when business partnerships break down, there is a good chance that upon reflection, each side can identify its pieces of the broken puzzle.

So I wonder: Does he believe that he caused harm? Does he take any responsibility for harm that he may have caused? Were there ways in which he, too, was wronged? Ultimately, does he want to be forgiven? It becomes clear to me that he doesn’t see himself as responsible for harming others; in fact, he views himself solely as the victim. Whether or not his perception is right, it’s clear that he doesn’t see the need to change his behavior, so reconciliation and forgiveness just isn’t possible.

But then that other nagging question begins to take form, the one that I couldn’t previously put into words: Is the separation worth it? For my uncle or for anyone who is neither seeking forgiveness nor seeking to forgive, we can ask if being separated from the family is better than reconciling and being together again? Hidden in the crevasses of my soul, I had one other question for my uncle: Was it worth his being away from me?

I hadn’t realized how much my being separated from my uncle hurt. But his decision to not seek forgiveness was not about me, nor was my family’s decision to not offer forgiveness. Both my uncle and my family, each in their own way, refused to entertain ideas of forgiveness because the distance protected each of them from pain and harm. That’s what distance and estrangement often does—it protects us. Sometimes the pain is psychological, and sometimes the harm is tangible and ongoing.

According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of the book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, the Rabbis said that we are not required to forgive someone if the harm done to us is permanent or ongoing. The idea of preemptively forgiving the 9/11 hijackers would have been dismissed by the Rabbis. They specifically said that we cannot forgive people for the wrongs they may have done to others. Rabbi Telushkin tells a story about a nun who was one of several women sexually assaulted by a serial predator. When the police asked her first to identify and then testify against the man, she refused because, she said, “I have already forgiven him for what he did to me.”

Good for her, but the threat to other victims is ongoing. She may have been able to forgive him for herself, but it was not her place to forgive him on behalf of others. Her first responsibility was to the other victims, both current and potential. Nor was it the minister’s place to forgive the terrorists when he did not suffer the direct harm. But does that mean that forgiveness is not that important? On the contrary. It just means that sometimes forgiveness isn’t always mandatory. However, often it is.

What if the threat against us is not ongoing? The Rabbis suggest that even if someone harmed us and then stopped, we are not required to forgive. But sometimes the person who harms not only stops but wants to make things right. This process for making things right is called teshuvah. Translated as “repentance,” teshuvah literally means “turning,” in the sense of turning around one’s conduct. It’s the process by which we demonstrate to others and commit ourselves that we will no longer cause them harm. Even beyond stopping the harm, the process of teshuvah involves repairing the damage we may have caused, if possible. Teshuvah involves readily acknowledging the pain we have caused another person and then committing to stop those behaviors; admitting the mistakes both privately and publicly; repairing the harm, if possible; and, finally, refraining from making the same mistake again. Many variations of these general steps exist, including the 12-step program from Alcoholic Anonymous, but they all are meant to signal to the victim that the harm has stopped and—with ongoing work—will not return. However, let’s be clear. The Rabbis were not naïve. They recognized that the path of teshuvah is not a straight one. Even if someone sincerely desires to change, many false starts may occur. The Rabbis knew, as do we, that sometimes people only act as if they are on a path of teshuvah. It’s hard to know whether or not a person is earnestly trying or cynically lying. If we feel we may still be harmed, we are not required to forgive. That would be like the person who brought a sacrifice to the ancient Temple but still committed injustice to their neighbor.

What about forgiving someone who does earnestly embark on a path of teshuvah? What of someone who is truly repentant? What if they acknowledge the harm they have caused? What if you sense that they feel genuine remorse within themselves, that they are doing what they can to repair the damage they have caused and are actively trying not to repeat it? In this case, the Rabbis say that we are usually required to forgive. In fact, if someone honestly and earnestly performs teshuvah and asks our forgiveness for their mistakes on three separate occasions, we take on a sin of our own if we refuse to forgive them. Because the Rabbis recognized that experiences of loss, betrayal, and hurt are inevitable parts of the human condition, we need a path to repair our inescapable mistakes if we are to survive as individuals and as a community. We need not always forgive, but we always need forgiveness.

Still, something crucial missing is from the Rabbis’ discussion and through many other discussions of forgiveness. We often think of forgiveness as an all-or-nothing endeavor: either we grant it or we don’t. For many, this black-and-white thinking prevents individuals from providing a measure of forgiveness to others and even of relief for the self. But even if we forgive, we can choose the degree of forgiveness. According to Rabbi Mordechai Finely, who based his view on the teaching of Solomon Schimmel, the lowest level of forgiveness is simply releasing the desire for revenge or retaliation. Anger protects us like armor, but armor is heavy, restrictive, and uncomfortable. Resentment and anger make us acutely sensitive to anything that may feel like an ongoing threat, even if the threat is trivial. Once we are convinced that the threat really is gone, reaching this first level of forgiveness and releasing our own anger may help us as much as it helps the repentant person who harmed us.

The second level of forgiveness is letting go, decreasing our need for moral estrangement and increasing our willingness for social connection. It may only be a nod of the head from across the room, but this, too, is a higher level of forgiveness. A third level is deciding to have a minimal relationship beyond a simple greeting. It may be guarded chitchat or serving on a project team with the person who caused the harm. The fourth level is to slowly and tentatively open a relationship, perhaps talking about what is happening in one’s life or work. Finally, the highest level of forgiveness is full reconciliation, that is, fully restoring the relationship and trust.

When the Rabbis of old tell us that we must forgive a person who honestly performs teshuvah, they don’t tell us how much to forgive the person. That is left in our hands. Knowing that forgiveness may only mean releasing our anger but not lowering our guard, we may choose to superficially connect rather than deeply trust; we have more choices about how we can meet the repentant person along their path.

My uncle and I hug each other goodbye after 25 years, and he says he would like to get together soon. I do, too, but because it is 2015 and I know I will soon be moving out of state as I travel around the country as an interim rabbi, I think it’s unlikely at best. As I watch him grow smaller in my rearview mirror, my hopes of our families’ reconciling grow smaller as well.

I expect to be disappointed as I drive home. But, strangely, that is not what I feel. Rather, I realize that it’s the role of a jury or historians to judge whether our harm is only caused by the person we blame. The more important questions, the more empowering questions—the questions we should all ask on an ongoing basis—are: How am I contributing to this conflict and the pain that everyone might be feeling? Did my actions make this situation worse in some small way? Am I still contributing to my own pain and the pain of others? We shouldn’t ask these questions to blame a victim of harm, rather we ask because this is the one question that gives us the greatest power over our lives. As I apply these questions in my own life, I wonder if there was some small way that I contributed to the relationship rupture. If I did contribute, then I can own my small part and decide if a measure of forgiveness is called for. At the very least, I can choose to improve those actions that may have contributed to the problem to prevent problems from happening again. After all, isn’t that what teshuvah is for—people taking responsibility so they will prevent future harm and pain?

We are not required to forgive someone who causes us permanent harm. Nor are we required to forgive someone who is likely to harm us again. But if we choose to withhold our forgiveness, let’s do it thoughtfully. Let’s maintain as much choice and control as we can so we can feel the power to lift ourselves up, even when those around us cannot. May we be open to forgive and worthy of forgiveness.