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  • Saying Sorry: On the Meaning of Forgiveness and Forgiving

    Posted on July 20th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    This week’s installment in our Saying  Sorry series comes from Dr. Dalia Marx,  assistant professor of Liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Marx’s expert understanding of liturgy brings us back to a fundamental question in the process of teshuvah, the relationship between the forgiver and the one asking for forgiveness.


    It takes two to forgive –one who requests forgiveness and one who grants it. Forgiving is a two way process – it is a inter-personal social act, aimed at mending an injured relationship. In this sense, forgiving is a speech act, a thing we do with words, as John L. Austin put it. The intention is not enough; it has to be clearly articulated, as Dr. Rick Sarason taught in his blog post. At the same time, forgiving is a self reflective ongoing process. Even when we know we need to forgive, some times our soul is reluctant to do so.

    Dr. Dalia Marx

    Forgiving is both an act and a process, an interpersonal affair and a personal matter. What do we do when we know that we should forgive but still are resistant to doing so? Can it be that granting forgiveness (to somebody) and forgiving (in our hearts) are two completely different things? Don’t we sometimes doubt that we can forgive those who wronged us, truly forgive them?

    Furthermore, forgiving is possible only when there is injustice, injury or insult. Paradoxically, grave injury begs magnanimous forgiveness but at the same time makes it harder for the offended party, who may feel that it is unjustified, to forgive,. Can this paradox be mitigated? More so – this depicts an alienated world, a world in which each side of the equation is alone in dealing with his/her own perspective of the unfortunate encounter.

    Yotam Benziman, an Israeli philosophy professor, suggests a useful direction. He claims that one cannot nullify the pain, and that regretting and repenting will not “make things right”. Instead of “forgiving and forgetting”, Benziman suggests a “dialogic forgiveness”. The offender is dependent on the offended for forgiveness because s/he can’t forgive her/himself (although there are those who claim that this is possible). The offended party must forgive the offender precisely because s/he offended him/her. This specific bond is unique to this relationship – both carry the burden of it and no one else is part of it.

    The Hebrew term לבקש סליחה (asking for forgiveness), reflects the dependence of the offender on the offended party for forgiveness; one can’t force forgiveness, one may request.

    Benziman’s proposal rejects the New-Age notion according to which “we are all in charge” and therefore “we are all guilty”, and consequently “no one is [really] guilty”. The relationship between the parties is not egalitarian but it can be,  if the offended agrees to relate to the offender as an individual, – one who chose to do wrong and now chooses to atone for it and to make things right.

    סליחה, forgiveness is possible only between two individuals who believe that we have the ability and the responsibility to make choices.

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    One response to “Saying Sorry: On the Meaning of Forgiveness and Forgiving”

    1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmJew HUC-LA and HUC Germany CloseUp, Hebrew Union College. Hebrew Union College said: Dr. Dalia Marx's expert understanding of liturgy brings us back to a fundamental question in the process of teshuvah: http://bit.ly/bwGcZv [...]

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