Working T’shuvah – What is Forgiveness?

I grew up in a non-religious family, and then became Christian as a teenager, and then converted again to Judaism as an adult. I learned as a teen that forgiveness is freely and completely given. It is not earned. We are obligated to forgive, because we have been forgiven.

It never sat right with me. I could not understand how it was my responsibility to forgive someone who had abused me and had not addressed the abuse, how it would be a marker of moral righteousness to forgive, to create an opportunity for my abusers to experience forgiveness, which might then change them. What about my own pain, grief, and sorrow? Who was going to take care of that? Reading Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock’s Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us helped to raise the question, but did not resolve the concern. Why was I obligated to forgive an abuser who had never repented? What does it mean to forgive? And are some things unforgivable?

I gave us this question to work with mainly because I needed an opportunity to work out forgiveness in a new paradigm. Because it is different in Judaism. Really different. Sins are split into two sorts: sins between people and sins between a person and Hashem (Gd). For sins between people, it is the obligation of individuals to seek teshuvah (repentance) from the person who was wronged. For sins between a person and Hashem, a person seeks teshuvah in their own heart and in prayer. The Gates of Teshuvah are open to us at any time, and this work is especially emphasized during the Yamim Noraim – the 10 Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

What’s really interesting to me about forgiveness in Judaism is this teshuvah process for sins between people. Maimonides lays out 9 steps of teshuvah in his Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance). If you harm another person and you want to seek teshuvah, you:

Recognize what you did and that it was wrong or hurtful.
Feel remorse about your actions.
Stop doing harm.
Remove the wrongdoing from your thoughts.
Resolve to never do it again.
Make restitution for damages you caused.
Appease the person you hurt.
Confess to Gd about your wrongdoing (or the universe, a higher power, the source of Life, or whatever moral authority your heart points to).
When faced with the same situation or opportunity, you do not do the harm again. This is how you know your teshuvah is complete.

How does forgiveness happen? Like this. These are the steps. They are clear and recognizable. But there is still a question: What if a person never recognizes how they harmed you? What if they don’t feel remorse? What if they never stop harming you?

And, to come back to my original questions: What if you can’t forgive? and Are some things unforgivable?

What has been most unfathomable to me is the idea of forgiving a person who has never acknowledged the harm she has done to me. Who, when told directly about the harm, told me it never happened. Who it is not safe for me to be around. It is unfathomable to me that I am supposed to just forgive her, so we can move on (which is how she feels about it). In my heart, doing so would be the same as pretending that the harm never happened.

I can’t forgive someone who has not asked for forgiveness. Someone who hasn’t expressed remorse, who has continued to violate my boundaries, who has acted as though there was no harm, because she believed she had a right to act as she did. If someone refuses to see the harm they caused, they cannot repent. If they cannot repent, we are not in a process of teshuvah.

I think often about what would happen if she asked for forgiveness. I have long thought that I would not be able to forgive her. I wonder, though, about how I might feel if I knew that her teshuvah process followed Maimonides’ steps. The question about unforgivability might really be addressed if I had faith that there was genuine recognition, remorse, resolution, appeasement, and change. I want to believe that this is possible. Badly. I want to believe that if she came to me a truly changed person, I would be able to forgive her. I know, though, that my entire ability to do that, should it even arise as an opportunity, is entirely predicated on my ability to trust that true teshuvah had happened.

One impact of my many years as a Christian means that every year during the Days of Awe, I consider again: should I forgive her? Even though she has never asked for forgiveness. Even though she has not made any redress. Even though I have been made to feel like the failure of our relationship is my fault, not hers. In these times, these steps remind me: I am not obligated to freely forgive her. Questions about whether or not I can forgive her can arise if and when she makes steps towards teshuvah.

I have no reason to think that she will ever make these steps. The harms, they happened a long time ago now, and I wonder if I will ever be able to be free from them. But forgiveness is not the thing that will release me. What will release me is grief. I don’t need to forgive her to grieve. I don’t need her to recognize the harm she has done to be able to grieve. To grieve, what I need is: grounding in my life here and now, trust that the grief will not obliterate me, belief that there is a freer me beyond that grief, and the will to be able to imagine a life that is not defined by the pain of this burdened, failed, and harmful relationship. Sometimes, all we can do is bear witness to the painful experiences and relationships of our own lives, to release ourselves from them, and to know that other people are there, standing with us in love.

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