Exoneration Blues

zioncoupleBeing Jewish is awesome if you’re a liberal-humanist-progressive-type person like me. There are just so many things to feel good about—

We’re tolerant. We don’t yell at strangers in the street about how they’re going to hell. We have strict codes regarding how people should treat animals, workers, the poor. Also, we’re wise in the ways of grief and mourning. We’re so evolved.

Of course, one can argue that the reason being Jewish fits so well into the contemporary liberal identity is that Judaism built the contemporary liberal identity. After all, psychology is a cornerstone of our age, and psychology is—well, pretty Jewish. Right?

So it only makes sense that when we sit shiva after someone dies, that experience matches up nicely with what our therapist has suggested we do to best to handle death. When we find ourselves in a 12-step program, the rhetoric there is likely to mirror our sense of Jewish moderation.

This time of year, Judaism and psychology mesh together especially well. As we enter the Days of Awe—the season of Tshuva—Judaism requires us to face our wrongdoings. It instructs that we repent and return. In short, it teaches us to apologize. Our therapists are thrilled!

And how we apologize. Jews love apologizing to each other. None of that confessional-booth hocus pocus for us! We don’t need no stinkin’ priests. We’re evolved! We’re Jews! We know that God only forgives people once they make peace with each other. So each autumn, we wander around, asking each other for forgiveness.

Yes, we do this psychologically astute, enormously human thing—apologize to those we’ve harmed, confront ourselves, vow to do better. Then we put on our best shoes, and go to synagogue, where we smooth everything over with God. After that, we eat some brisket and have a glass of wine. The book of life is sealed and all is well with the world.

Ta da!

It’s a wonderful time of year. Everyone feels good. We all get our forgiveness, and we all get our apologies. Plus, we all feel nice about our evolved religion. Everyone wins.


But now—a story:

A guy calls me up this week. It’s a Tshuva call. He’s repenting. He’s returning. To the scene of the crime. We’ll call him an ex-boyfriend.

We’ll imagine that this ex-boyfriend has recently begun to work through his past, and as a Jew nearing the Days of Awe, feels compelled to ask my forgiveness for his terrible treatment of women. Namely me.

Um, okay.

Crappy Ex-boyfriend: “I’m really sorry I deserted you that night twenty years ago, on that couch at Kevin’s place, after the Dead show, so I could hook up with your cousin. I wish I hadn’t done that. I should have at least left you the car. And I probably should have told you I had the clap before we had sex. Do you forgive me?”


The truth is that I’ve long long ago forgiven this asshat. I know about his addiction, his childhood abuse. I understand his issues with women, his lack of control. And he really does sound sorry. It was probably hard and embarrassing to make the call. He’s to be commended for it. This is real Tshuva!

So I say, “Okay, whatever. I forgive you, sure.” Then I hang up. And really, it feels pretty decent to forgive him. It’s easy to forgive someone you’re not actually mad at anymore. A chance to be evolved, the bigger person.

But afterwards, I tell a friend about the weird phone call, and she says to me, “Wow. You’re so matter-of-fact about it. I never could have forgiven him. It would have torn me up to get a call like that. I’d have started crying.”

And that gets me thinking…

How would I have felt if I wasn’t already past the memory? What if someone had called me out of the blue, asking for forgiveness for something that had actually traumatized me? What if I’d long-ago buried a memory, and a Tshuva call brought it bubbling to the surface? Or what if the topic of such a call had been the beginning of a really destructive pattern in my life, something I’d been living with ever since?

Can you imagine what such a call would feel like if you were already depressed, and you suddenly had ten little days to process the apology, and you knew you were supposed to forgive?

This brings me to my point—

All my life, I’ve been proud of how Judaism demands this time of self-reflection. I’ve appreciated how the Days of Awe force people to be honest. How this season brings us together, and gives everyone a chance to clear the air.

I’ve always thought it was an amazing thing that, as a Jew, if you make a sincere apology three times, and the person you’ve harmed refuses you forgiveness, you get a clean slate anyway. Remember—I’m a liberal-humanist-progressive-type person. I believe in rehabilitation.

But now, today, I’m suddenly aware that while Judaism has taught me how to apologize, it hasn’t said much about how to forgive.

For a moment, let’s set aside the question of whether the asshat should have called me up like that in the first place, the question of whether Jews have a responsibility to consider what their Tshuva may do harmed parties… (what would Hillel say of bringing up that kind of pain?) I don’t have time for that in this essay.

But once an upsetting Tshuva apology has been made, what on earth is the injured party supposed to do? In therapy, we talk a lot about how we recover, how we process, how we make our way—slowly—towards forgiveness. And as I’ve already suggested, therapy and contemporary Judaism are usually pretty in line with one another. So then why haven’t I heard anything about how to forgive in synagogue? For all the yearly sermons I’ve sat through on Tshuva, I’ve never heard a rabbi suggest how to let go of pain and anger. Nevermind letting go of pain and anger in under ten days!

Surely, I thought, I just haven’t been paying attention. So this afternoon I went looking for Jewish teachings on forgiveness. I emailed everyone I knew to see if they had any ideas—and everyone sent me looking for Maimonides. Everyone said he’s the expert on Tshuva. Guess what Maimonides had to say—

Anybody who does not want to forgive is a sinner.

Hmmm… not a lot of help with the how.

Equally useful was this gem:

It is forbidden for one to be harsh and non-appeasing. One should rather be forgiving and slow to anger, and whenever a sinner asks one for forgiveness one should grant it wholeheartedly. Even if the sinner had distressed one considerably and sinned against one a lot, one should/may not take revenge or bear a grudge, in the manner of a true Jew, and not like that of idolaters, who always bear grudges.

Now, I’m no Talmud scholar, and I’m sure that a lot of lesser known authorities and New Age Jews have explored this topic. But really, wouldn’t you think that at least one of my various rabbi friends could have pointed me towards, say, anything useful?

What this informal and totally unscientific poll suggested to me was that as a rule, in synagogues across America, this is just something we don’t talk about very much.

Why is that?

Maybe because we’ve all been so firmly instructed that we must grant forgiveness, we skip over the rest. Maybe because anyone we refuse to forgive will get a clean slate anyway. So what’s the point in over-thinking it?

I mean, if the asshat is going to get his clean slate no matter what, why should I go and struggle, and do a bunch of actual soul searching? It won’t matter in the end. The result will be the same, and I’ll be emotionally exhausted.

Please understand me—I’m not saying Tshuva is a bad thing, or that we shouldn’t forgive. I like this process we go through. I believe in self-examination. I just wonder whether we could stand to spend a little time coming up with some best practices for those on the receiving end of a difficult apology.

This pat answer of “you must forgive” is standing in the way of the involved, difficult process of thinking out how we truly accept an apology. It’s standing in the way of emotional development, mental health. This is frustrating to me, as a liberal-humanist-progressive-type person. I’m accustomed to my religion being evolved. I don’t like bumping into this kind of rigidity.

I decide to call my friend Yoni for advice. He’s the kind of liberal-humanist-progressive-type rabbi a girl like me needs.

“Help!” I cried.

And Yoni said, “Look, Laurel—the thing is that Maimonides died in 1204. Back then, relationships were not relationships as we know them now.”

Yoni suggested that the way we understand forgiveness now has far more to do with the emotions of others than it has historically. He offered that maybe we need to rethink Jewish forgiveness, knowing what we now know about the process of healing.

After that, I called my sister, who’s smarter than me. I told her what Yoni had said, and she said, “Well, yeah. That sounds right. Back then, religion was really law. So forgiveness would have been about setting up a code of conduct. But now we have a secular legal system for all that stuff, and so we’ve transferred this idea of forgiveness into something much more personal and emotional.”

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. If Yoni and Emma are right, what we mean by “apology” is different now than it was for Maimonides, and what we mean by “forgive” is different now too. God’s law used to be about the law of the land. Now it’s more about our ethical or loving treatment of each other as individuals.

But if this is all true, then this vestigial, traditional automatic way that many of us go about doing Tshuva is not true to the spirit of the season, because the season itself has changed, as we’ve redefined all our terms.

By today’s standards for emotional honesty between two individuals, (as defined by my favorite therapist), when forgiveness is required, the relationship between the forgiver and the forgiven is an illusion. So, really, we’re turning each other into confessional booths with our Tshuva. We’re robbing each other of free will when we take away another person’s right to refuse. We’re making it impossible to think about how to forgive when we take away the decision of whether to forgive.

Ugh. So where do I go from here?

I don’t have an answer. I only have a longer, deeply tangled version of my question. Which seems appropriate as I begin this season of reflection. So I’m happy with it.

But to you, who has stuck with me through this puzzling, meandering essay, hoping to come away with something useful, I owe an apology. Because it is the season for such things.

Here—I’m sorry. Deeply sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me, and this essay, our inadequacies and our faults.

We meant to do better. We wanted to do better. And we do hope you’ll forgive us. Though it doesn’t really matter if you forgive us or not, does it? We’ll be forgiven either way.

It’s really only a question of whether you’ll choose to sin…or evolve.

Laurel Snyder is a contributing editor to KtB, the editor of Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, and the author of a poetry collection, The Myth of the Simple Machines. She’s also written several books for children, including the forthcoming title, Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher. She lives online at LaurelSnyder.com.