For Jews, forgiveness is complicated

Perhaps it’s not wise in this penitential season to cast suspicion on the idea of forgiveness. After all, Jewish practice approaching the High Holidays encourages us to ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged and to grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Our liturgy imagines Divine forgiveness.

But we live in a culture that has made a fetish of forgiveness. The popular media, and even many professional publications, elevate forgiveness into the ultimate virtue. Regardless of what’s been done and whether or not there’s been regret, it seems that if you’ve been victimized, you’re to be faulted if you don’t forgive the victimizer quickly and without qualification.

The North American conversation about forgiveness draws on the Christian understanding of forgiveness as an absolute good, a sacred act to be lovingly and unconditionally bestowed upon the undeserving. This idea has travelled to popular psychology. We repeatedly hear that to “move on” from some damaging or traumatic event, you need to “forgive” someone who has wronged you, or else you remain stuck in your anger, trauma and wounding. You must “forgive” yourself for wrongs you’ve done, so you’re not mired in your past, so you don’t remain captive to the self you once were, but free yourself to become the best self you can be. You can’t forgive others until you forgive yourself, and you can’t forgive yourself until you forgive others. In this way of seeing things, forgiveness becomes a kind of rebirth, a way to wipe the slate clean.


The Jewish tradition sees forgiveness in more complicated terms. As Jews, we see forgiveness not as a non-negotiable imperative, but as the result of a difficult struggle that involves behavioural change and gestures of restitution. The Jewish concept differs from the Christian ideal of turning the other cheek. Before Yom Kippur, the Jewish practice is to seek the forgiveness of someone we’ve wronged and, when possible, to make up for any damage we’ve caused. If need be, we’re enjoined to keep coming back to the person we’ve wronged to convince him of the sincerity of our contrition and our resolution to change. Only then does our tradition stipulate forgiveness as an absolute imperative. In this way, forgiveness becomes a process and the product of a relationship between the one wronged and the one who did wrong.

In that sense, the Jewish paradigm of forgiveness isn’t a unilateral move that flows from the one to the other, unsought or undeserved. Without the interaction of the two parties, forgiveness is not necessarily an innate good. Why should it be? To use popular psychological parlance, isn’t it possible to “move on” without forgiving? It’s right – and important – to call deliberate hurtfulness, abuse or evil by name. One can remember such acts without being obsessed with them.

A debate in the Talmud about God’s mercy uses the familiar metaphor of the heavenly scale of justice, which weighs a person’s merits against his sins. The school of Hillel suggests that Divine mercy can tilt the scales in favour of a person who repents. The rabbis of the Talmud wonder about the mechanics of this operation, imagining that God leans down on the side of the “good” side of the scale, or takes away from the “bad” side of the scale. Whatever the procedure, the Gemara cautions that this act of Divine forgiveness is not without conditions. If a person goes on to repeat objectionable behaviour, that tilting of the balance can be reversed retroactively.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that we do away with forgiveness. My life would be much impoverished if people did not forgive me. But we should be suspicious of some popular notions about it that circulate in our culture. As our tradition suggests, if forgiveness is to be truly life-changing, the process leading up to it, and the enduring aftermath, are complicated, difficult and demanding.