Posted on July 20th, 2010 1 comment
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.
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.
Posted on July 13th, 2010 1 comment
Often we think of saying sorry in terms of how it can right the wrongs that we have committed. This week’s This week’s installment in our occasional summer series on saying sorry suggests that there is much more at stake when we engage in teshuvah. Dr. Aaron Panken, Assistant Professor of Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature at HUC-NY challenges us to think about how saying sorry can change the person who says it.
Most of us are probably familiar with the rabbinic dictum that privileges repentant sinners above even those who are wholly righteous. It first appears in a passage in Bavli Berakhot 34b:
And Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: all the Prophets themselves prophesied only regarding penitents, but as for the wholly righteous, “no eye has seen, only God alone” (Isa. 64:3). He disagrees with Rabbi Abbahu, for Rabbi Abbahu said: In a place where penitents stand, even the wholly righteous may not stand, as it is written: “Peace, peace, to one who was far and to one who is near” (Isa. 57:19) – first to the one who has been far, then to the one who has been near all along.
Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion (as cited by the Amora Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba) is somewhat opaque at first glance. Rashi understands his interpretation of Isa. 64:3 to mean that all the good predictions and comforting statements found in the Prophets apply to those who will repent. This is eminently reasonable, as the prophetic voice is so often aimed at those who are behaving rather badly, and the impetus of reward has always been a favorable way to encourage sinners to cease their sinning.
However, Rabbi Yohanan’s message can also be read in a strikingly different way. Rereading his interpretation of Isa. 64:3, he could be saying that there is no such thing as a wholly righteous human being – in fact, “only God alone” can secure the position of the tzaddik gamor – the completely righteous being. Thus, his statement may be indicating that the Prophets spoke to sinners, and, in so doing, they spoke to everyone, because, in truth, we are all sinners, and there is no one who can do without a prophetic call to justice now and then. This implies, then, a recognition of an essential human characteristic – we all commit sins of some sort, and only God alone has the quality of being wholly righteous.
Philo Judaeus (Egypt, 20 BCE-50 CE) shared a similar position to Rabbi Yohanan regarding God and righteousness in his On the Virtues 1:176-7:
176 Now those blessings which are of the greatest importance in the body are good health, without disease; and in a matter of navigation, a successful voyage, without danger; and in the soul, an undying recollection of all things worthy to be remembered. And the blessings of the second class are those which consist of re-establishment, such as a recovery from diseases; a long wished for escape from and safety after great dangers encountered in a voyage, and a recollection which ensues after forgetfulness; the brother and closest relation of which is repentance, which is not indeed ranked in the first and highest class of blessings, but which has the principal in the class next to the first. 177 For absolutely never to do anything wrong at all is a peculiar attribute of God, and perhaps one may also say of a God-like person. But when one has erred, then to change so as to adopt a blameless course of life for the future is the part of a wise person, and of one who is not altogether ignorant of what is expedient.
Philo drives home the point of the second reading of Rabbi Yohanan’s statement: God has cornered the market on righteous perfection. Rather than hoping for complete righteousness (an unachievable and inherently frustrating goal for mere humans), individuals in search of righteousness ought focus solely on changing where they have erred, and heading toward righteousness as best they can, without any expectation of ever completing the process in its entirety. Further, to Philo, those who have sinned and repented are second-class, when compared to those who have never sinned.
Contrast this with Rabbi Abbahu’s comprehension: he views the repentant sinner as having a better position than even the most righteous of humans. After all, one who has repented has (as it were) sampled from both buffets, and even with intimate and personal knowledge of the delights of sin, has taken hold of the path of righteousness. In this strong act of casting off sins, the one who was far (from perfection, from righteousness, from God…) can now become near (to perfection, to righteousness, to God…).
Saying sorry involves, of course, the recognition that the act we committed caused hurt to another. But, for Rabbi Yohanan and Philo, repentance also involves a deeper self-understanding: that we are not perfect, that we are not better than others, and that we, as limited humans before an unlimited God, simply will not be able to achieve such righteous perfection. To Philo, though perfection will ultimately evade us, such re-establishment of ourselves for the better is wholly honorable and the right path to a brighter future. Coupling this with Rabbi Abbahu’s divergent idea of the exalted position of the penitent gives us hope and encouragement toward self-improvement and the relief that can come from conscious turning from sin.
From wherever we begin, saying sorry is the first step to bringing ourselves from far to near – closer to the way we ought to be.
Posted on June 29th, 2010 No comments
This week we have the second in our occasional summer series on Saying Sorry. This week Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD. the editor of this blog shares some of her reflections of the shape of forgiveness.
Person one: Ani Mevakesh S’licha U’michila
Person two: Ani Noten S’licha U’michila
I ask for forgiveness and absolution
I grant forgiveness and absolution
A few years ago, just before Rosh Hashana, I sat with a friend and reviewed the past year. It was clear that there was tension in our friendship. As we discussed what had happened, I apologized for the hurt that I had caused. She accepted my apology. In the next breath she explained that despite this, she no longer wanted to maintain a connection.
Our tradition tells us a great deal about righting a wrong that we commit. Doing teshuvah means following up on apologies with changes in behavior. As Maimonides teaches, we are obligated to forgive. But while we can measure changes in bad behavior, can we measure forgiveness? In other words what does forgiveness look like?
Recently another friend was confronted with this question. A woman who had hurt her badly in the past moved into her community. At the time of the betrayal, which had involved a sexual impropriety, forgiveness has been sought and my friend had been unwilling and unable to grant it. Five years later, the woman had written my friend a letter of apology, which my friend judged as sincere, but still my friend was unable to forgive. She had thought the man involved would one day be her husband and the woman her maid of honor. A few months ago, when a mutual friend re-introduced them at Temple, the old friend acknowledged their past by saying that she they had known each other when the old friend was “younger and very, very foolish.” As my friend reported, forgiveness had been actively sought three times.
In many ways my friend had moved on from the old place of hurt and anger. In the intervening decades, my friend married a wonderful man with whom she has built a family. She is happy with her life and freely admits that had she married her then boyfriend it would not have been nearly as happy. Until this woman moved into her community she had not thought of her in years.
My friend has assumed that the distance from the events and the lessening of feelings constituted a form of forgiveness. But when the old friend reappeared, my friend was not so sure. With another newcomer to the community, my friend would have opened the doors to her home for Shabbat, offered advice on schools and camps but in this case she did not.
When repentance is sincere we obliged to forgive, but how do we know when that obligation is fulfilled?
In counseling my friend, I pointed out that in many ways she was acting on her forgiveness. She had not brought up the sins of the past. She was not shunning this woman or besmirching her name in the community. For all intents and purposes, she was allowing this woman to live the teshuvah that she claimed to seek. As Solomon Schimmel has explained in his book Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness there are levels of forgiveness. IWe do not have an obligation to re-embrace an individual with no memory of their transgression or the hurt it caused but we are obligated to allow them to act the fullness of their teshuvah. We do not have an obligation to return to a world that existed before the rupture occurred.
This concept is echoed in our tradition which distinguishes between mechilah –the letting go of a grudge- and slicha –the letting go that happens deep in the heart – and kapparah – the complete wiping clean of the slate.
When we ask for and are granted forgiveness it does not lead to earthly kapparah. We have to realize that in transgressing, we can never go back to the way the world was before we acted. Our actions have consequences and while we may be able to do a full teshuvah we cannot expect that the forgiveness will mean a full embrace by those we have wronged in the past. When we agree to grant mechilah we take the first step in a process with the hope that we will arrive at some day at a state of full slicha. But the final forgiveness, the full letting go is not ours to give, that level of forgiveness belongs only to God.
 רמב”ם הלכות חובל ומזיק פרק ה הלכה י
ואסור לנחבל להיות אכזרי ולא ימחול לו ואין זו דרך זרע ישראל אלא כיון שבקש ממנו החובל ונתחנן לו פעם ראשונה ושניה וידע שהוא שב מחטאו וניחם על רעתו ימחול לו, וכל הממהר למחול הרי הוא משובח ג ורוח חכמים נוחה הימנו.
Posted on June 22nd, 2010 1 comment
This week we begin a occasional summer series on the topic of saying sorry. As we prepare our hearts and actions for the work of Elul, we hope that the words of the HUC-JIR faculty and staff will help deepen our own understandings and insights. This week, Dr. Richard Sarason, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought on the Cincinnati campus brings ancient wisdom to bear on some of our contemporary culture of apologizing.
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Readers of a certain age will recall this ad-line for the 1970 film version of Erich Segal’s short novel Love Story, which was all the rage in pop and campus culture at the time. I remember thinking—even then—how fatuous (and sentimental) that statement is. For Jews, love means precisely having to say you’re sorry, but not just saying.
As I am writing this piece, two prominent apologies have just been noted in the press. First, Tony Hayward, the CEO of British Petroleum, began his testimony before the U.S. Congress with an apology to the American people for the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which he acknowledged should never have happened. To many, this must have felt like cold comfort and empty words after the fact, particularly when BP’s safety record has been so problematic for years. The establishment of a $20 billion dollar fund to compensate those whose livelihoods have been ruined by the spill (after some arm-twisting from President Obama) is at least an attempt to make good on the apology. Words must be followed by actions if they are to be given any credence, because deeds have consequences.
Two days earlier, British Prime Minister David Cameron had issued an official apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killings by British troops of 14 unarmed demonstrators in Londonderry—and he, too, used words similar to those of Tony Hayward: “What happened should never, ever have happened.” But of course it did, and there’s the rub. Only deeds can atone for deeds—but words can have profound symbolic significance as an outward expression of an inward change. As John F. Burns noted in The New York Times Week in Review on June 20, “Seen from the historical viewpoint, this was an act of reconciliation to be listed alongside . . .[those of] other penitents throughout the ages.”
Which brings us full circle back to a religious perspective and to our own Jewish tradition as we prepare once again for the High Holy Days. (One of our sons as a child used to refer, not incorrectly, to Yom Kippur as “I’m Sorry Day”).
I always carry around in my head a little verse that I memorized as a first-grader in religious school, from Dorothy Kripke’s children’s book, Let’s Talk About God:
God and friends and parents
Forgive wrong things we do
If we can say, “I’m sorry,”
And really mean it, too.
Herein is both the problem and, perhaps, a way toward a solution. Talk is cheap. Words do not, cannot, undo deeds. But words can at least begin the process of restitution and reconciliation as an outward expression of an inward change, as an acknowledgement of responsibility for one’s actions, as a way of reaching out to the other.
Maimonides’ definition of teshuvah (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Hamada’, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:1) notes that the process of teshuvah must begin with a verbal confession (vidui)—in words, out loud—so that one’s inward resolution is given outward, public expression. (And if this verbal confession is hypocritical, the person is like one who immerses in a mikveh still holding onto a dead creeping thing, a primary source of impurity; Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:3—what a powerfully concrete analogy!). Expanding upon M. Yoma 8:9, Maimonides continues, “Transgressions against one’s fellow, as for instance, if one wounds, curses or robs one’s neighbor or commits similar wrongs, are never pardoned until the injured party has received due compensation and has also been appeased. Even though he has made compensation, the wrongdoer must also appease the one he has injured and ask his forgiveness. Even if a person only annoyed another in words, he has to pacify the latter and entreat him until he has obtained his forgiveness” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:9-10).
So, while words alone do not suffice for full repentance (they must be accompanied by compensation and a change in behavior), they are a necessary part of the process: words are our first line of social communication as adults. (We socialize our children by saying: “Use your words.”) But our words must truly express who we are and what we mean when we wish to make amends and to change relationships. And then we must stand by our words with deeds—“and really mean it, too.”