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Finding Forgiveness

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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.

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. 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?

In the High Holy Day liturgy, we are reminded that while we seek from God forgiveness for sins against God, we must turn to one another to apologize and reconcile over sins against people. With this in mind, I decided to try to get past the silent estrangement between my friend and me. There had been earlier, albeit rather tentative, efforts on my part to revive the friendship, but, in the spirit of the season of atonement and new beginnings, I decided to try again. I wrote a letter expressing both regrets on my part and the hurt this friend had caused me. The letter was carefully crafted to be gracious and honest. I told him that I valued and missed his friendship, and that while it probably couldn’t ever be the same (we no longer live blocks apart and I have a time-consuming young son), I was interested in trying.

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.

He called again, a month later, and when I said I wouldn’t see him, he assured me that I’d want to hear what he had to say. Aha! I thought, an apology for the accusations.

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.

Perhaps what we sometimes need in order to find forgiveness is not more clarity and precision, but more “fuzziness.” Perhaps we need to acknowledge that our own offers of and reactions to forgiveness will never be totally comfortable or express all feelings for either party. That’s part of how my friend and I forgave one another: We chose “selective memory” over the temptation of holding a grudge. Enough time (five years) had elapsed for us to be able to look back fondly on our friendship of fifteen years and choose to recapture it. Getting there wasn’t easy, but so far — now for more than a year — I think it was worth it.

Forgiving can be quite hard. I have another friend who is now separated from a husband we always liked. For their sake and that of their kids, we’ve been hoping she’d somehow be able to forgive him for the shock, hurt and shame he caused her. To me as a long-distance observer, he seems to have fulfilled the requirements of teshuvah, and her forgiveness might enable their family to be reunited. But there’s too much anger, mistrust and uncertainty — and in this case, it seems that more time won’t help. In fact, my friend’s choice not to forgive her husband seems to be a source of power for her. As Robert Karen observes, for both individuals and groups, there’s a security in resentment. “One of the misconceptions about forgiveness,” he notes, “is that if you are a nice person, you just do it.” He discusses why it’s a difficult, often lengthy process — not a discrete event but a way of being.

Is forgiveness an imperative toward which we should strive? Despite the difficulties, I believe it is, because I believe the essential qualities that comprise forgiveness are good:

  • The primary requisite and benefit is self-understanding — based on the honest introspection that is at the heart of our Yom Kippur agenda. It starts with very basic questions: What are my feelings? My regrets? My hopes?

  • We then move outward in a positive direction, mobilizing the second requirement and reward of forgiveness: empathy, an understanding of the imperfections of others, tempered with the recognition that the “sins” they committed may not have been directed at you, or may simply be a product of their own inner mishegas.

  • The third needed ingredient for achieving forgiveness is accepting the ambiguity that will remain in its wake. Forgiveness won’t erase hurt or change the pardoned person — who was probably not evil to begin with and certainly won’t be purified afterward. Forgiveness, although it may involve a dramatic gesture, is not a magical transformation. It’s an accommodation to ambivalence.

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.

Just as I’m more comfortable with the concept of godliness than God, I find forgiveness more palatable if I frame it as a forgiving attitude rather than as a magical moment. Although forgiveness often constitutes a turning point in a relationship, perhaps if we view it less as an absolute — and certainly not as absolution — it will seem more possible to get to, through, and past those moments.

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?

Like many Reconstructionists, I’m uncomfortable with traditional notions of sin, judgment, divine intervention and redemption. I want to see forgiveness as a human responsibility and a source of power and growth not dependent on a supernatural god; I want it to be a striving to connect with godliness in our connections to others. Forgiveness is one aspect of the spirituality found both within us and around us, because it combines self-understanding with more self-sacrificing acts towards others. If I include not only the tangible benefits of self-renewal and connecting with others, but the less tangible notion of connecting with the Kaplanian “force that makes for redemption,” I can indeed see forgiveness as a humanistic trace of God.

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?

Teshuvah (“turning,” or repentance) is said to have been created even before Creation. There is no person for whom teshuvah is not possible, nor a time or a place where it is unavailable.

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:

  • From Martin Buber: “Forgiveness is the great yes. Acting in accordance with the highest ideals of our tradition, I do not have a choice of whether I should forgive you, but whether or not I will. And I must if I want to be alive.”

  • From Leila Gal Berner, answering Hillel’s “If I am only for myself, what am I?”: “What makes us human … is our “response-ability” … to ourselves and to the world.”

  • Sheila Peltz Weinberg poses this challenge: “Where in our hearts is the capacity to reach out beyond the known, the limited, the failures of our lives to imagine something different? Our ancestors have bequeathed it all to us — the covenant [with the Creator], the memory, the compassion, and the imagination. Do we dare accept our inheritance?”

  • Rami Shapiro advises: “If we seek to understand and forgive, we must forget our own expectations and assumptions, encountering others as they are at a particular moment. In meeting others and ourselves ‘where they/we are,’ we follow God’s example in the Ishmael story, finding hope and opportunity in places and times that otherwise might be filled with hopelessness and despair.”

  • Richard Hirsh builds on the traditional High Holy Day imagery to ask: “Is the book of life a ledger, in which we settle for being mentioned [or with keeping score, engraving grudges —S.C.]? Or is it a book of living, in which we write our chapter by living our story?”

  • In David Teutsch’s kavanah on the Amidah he tells us: “Now we have the opportunity to do what we have been trying to do for hours, days, weeks or even months. We have an opportunity to forgive those who have hurt or have wronged us. We might be willing to do it for their sake, but if not, we should be willing to do it for our own. Resentment, grudge-bearing and antique anger contaminate our lives. Forgiving those who have wronged me allows me to jettison the pollutants of my soul.”

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 also at one time 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.

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