Is it Jewish to Forgive?

By Amy Eilberg

I frequently find myself in conversation with Jews who believe that forgiveness is not a Jewish practice. “The other person has to do teshuvah (make amends) first.” “How would society enforce social norms if forgiveness were offered too quickly?” Or even, “Forgiveness is a Christian concept, not a Jewish one.”

There is much to consider in these questions, but there is no doubt that forgiveness is a critically important part of Jewish theology and practice. The Jewish law codes include forgiveness as a mitzvah that is incumbent on every Jew. Every night, before reciting the bedtime Shema, we are to offer forgiveness unilaterally to all those who have hurt us, praying that such people will not be punished on our account.

During the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance) and on Yom Kippur, we not only repent for our own sins but must be ready to offer forgiveness to others. The Maharil (Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, 19th century Russia then Jerusalem) writes, “On the eve of Yom Kippur, people walk barefoot to synagogue and forgive each other with a full heart.”[1] In many communities people approach one another throughout the ten days, asking for forgiveness for ways in which they have hurt one another. The tradition clearly urges us to grant such sincere requests for forgiveness, as in Maimonides’ words:

It is forbidden for a person who has suffered injury to be cruel and not to forgive the one who caused the injury. This is not the way of the Jew. Rather, since the person who caused the injury has asked and pleaded for forgiveness once or twice, and the offended party knows that the offender has repented from the sin and regrets his or her evil deeds, the offended party should forgive. Whoever hastens to grant forgiveness is praiseworthy and is regarded favorably by the Sages.[2]

On Yom Kippur itself, one of the passages repeated more often than any other is the recitation of the thirteen attributes of mercy, in which God describes Godself as “God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” (Exodus 34:6­7) We recite this passage again and again to remind God, as it were, of God’s forgiving nature, and to give ourselves the strength to confess our sins, confident that we will experience forgiveness. These divine attributes of mercy, including a willingness to forgive, are precisely those aspects of God that we are repeatedly exhorted to emulate, in expression of the image of God planted within us. That is to say, we are commanded to cultivate a forgiving heart.

How is it, then, that so many resist or deny the obligation to open our hearts to the possibility of forgiveness, especially when the person who has hurt us is repentant? There are many complexities here, and the classical sources also teach that there are exceptions to the obligation to forgive. Some sins are unforgivable, and stepping back into relationship with an abusive or dangerous person is unwise and unkind to ourselves.

However, I think that even in less extreme circumstances, we sometimes resist the mitzvah to forgive because it is so hard to open our hearts when we have been hurt. The wounded heart clenches shut to protect itself, so our minds tell us that we have no obligation to work toward forgiveness. Our instinct may be to clench our teeth and nurse our anger, insisting that only the offender must work on his or her soul.

But the capacity to forgive is a central part of our own soul work, and it is fundamental to the process of redifat shalom (pursuing peace). When there is conflict between people, wrongs have been committed. It is true that the other has hurt us, sometimes grievously. Such is the nature of human relationship. There is no question but that sincere apologies must be offered and amends must be made for harmful words and actions. But without the possibility of forgiveness, no conflict could ever be resolved. As such, a person who aspires to be a rodef shalom (pursuer of peace) must seek to cultivate a heart that is ready to forgive when the circumstances are right.

At this sacred season, the Pardes Rodef Shalom Communities Program, which I direct, http://www.pardes.org.il/program/pcjcr/pardes-rodef-shalom-communities-program/ has created a study guide exploring some of the complexities of forgiveness from within Jewish texts, and offering guiding questions to relate the texts to the personal practice of forgiveness. http://elmad.pardes.org/2016/09/is-it-jewish-to-forgive-a-prsc-study-guide/.

I believe that our world would be a better place if more hearts were open to consider forgiving those who have harmed us.  May the new year usher in a time of more repentance and more forgiveness. This is surely the kind of world we pray for, and that the Source of Peace desires for us.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the Director of the Pardes Rodef Shalom Communities Program.

 

[1] Sefer Maharil, Laws of Yom Kippur.

[2] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hovel Umazzik, 5:10 (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, Spain, Egypt, 1135-1204)

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