After my last blog, in which I shared a letter (anonymously, of course) from a student who had been abused, many people have asked me to share and expound upon my response to this wonderful young woman. Seeing as we are on the verge of Yom Kippur, I thought: “Could there be a more appropriate topic to write about than the question of letting go of the past, or forgiving someone who has terribly wronged us? What could be more fitting than tackling the thorny question of whether or not one must forgive (or in the case of an abusive parent – even honor and respect?) someone who has so deeply wronged us? However, as fitting and important as this topic may be, I admit that I was hesitant, and I approach this subject with great trepidation: it is so complicated, volatile and deeply disturbing and hurtful to so many of us.
Questions arise such as: Do you have to forgive someone who has not changed at all and is still hurting you deeply? Do you have to forgive someone who has not apologized nor asked for your forgiveness, and who has made no amends for their wrongdoing? What happens when to forgive someone, or even to apologize for one’s own wrongdoing in the scenario, sets oneself up for more abuse – as is so often the case with abusive people? What do you do with people who simply cannot see where they went wrong, or who refuse to fix their ways (the two usually go together)? And what constitutes abuse vs. being human and making mistakes. After all, there is no such thing as the perfect parent – we all mess up! How many times have I heard a parent say: “I was just doing what was best for them.” And, add to all that the fact that there are many different levels of abuse. Like I said, it’s complicated.
It becomes even more complicated when you’re dealing with a parent who is to be respected, looked up to, emulated and most of all – loved (this can also apply to any person in a position of authority – e.g. a teacher or leader). What if that parent betrays you? What if that parent does not act like a parent at all? What are your obligations to said parent? How can we expect a child who has any self-respect at all, to show respect for a parent who abuses them? That old saying: “Forgive and Forget” is not a Jewish concept – forgiving maybe, forgetting never. We Jews have the longest memories known to mankind! Which still leaves us with the problem of forgiving. So without further ado, I present to you my letter of reply.
First, let me start by saying that I totally identify and empathize with your situation. I really feel your pain and struggle. You have every right to feel as you do. It is a human being’s right and need, especially a child’s, to be loved. It is part of our God-given DNA – a built-in character trait – that we humans need to love and be loved. It is especially hurtful and damaging when a parent not only does not provide their child with love, but does exactly the opposite; establishing a home filled with hatred and violence, which is expressed in the form of verbal and physical abuse.
You mention that you are not sure what God wants from you. I can tell you that no matter what, God is on your side, always. God is also your Parent. God loves and cares for you, and wants what is best for you. I know there are many different halachic discussions, and different ways of coping and behaving in your situation: emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. But let me make two things clear: 1) I do not believe that it is your responsibility to “fix” the situation in any way. I get very upset when people make the victim into the bully. What I mean by that is, that when the victim actually stands up for themselves, or calls things as they are, people tend to think the problem is the victim and they land up taking the bully’s side. Do not worry about what people will think or say about you. Hashem knows the truth. 2) I am absolutely not of the school of thought that: “You were given the perfect parents for you” – and I have heard this line so many times over the years from teachers/coaches/therapists/counselors/social workers etc. To be honest, I find that way of thinking to be demeaning and belittling. It takes away from the awesome responsibility that parents have – and all humans really – to act with compassion and care towards their child/fellow. To say that any form of abuse is “destined from God” is to besmirch what God really wants from each and every one of us in the first place:
“Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil… You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” – Devarim 30:15-19
I am also aware of how many of these well-meaning individuals insist that the Jewish way is for a child to show respect for their parent at all costs, no matter what. After all, the Torah states:
“Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.” – Shemot 20:12
But does anyone seriously believe that God is asking the child to put themselves in harm’s way? And does not honoring come from acting honorably? In fact, we know from the verse in Vayikra (19:3): “Every man shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Sabbaths. I am the Lord, your God.” Rashi states that the commandment to honor one’s parents is juxtaposed with the commandment to keep the Shabbat, in order to teach us that one must fear their parent unless they tell you not to keep the Shabbat (or any of the other mitzvot in the Torah). So too, it is certainly a mitzvah in the Torah to guard one’s life and bodily health, so I would say that one cannot listen/obey/honor one’s parent if it contradicts this mitzvah!
As the sages taught in Bava Metzia 32a:
From where is it derived that if a kohein’s father said to him: ‘Become impure’, or that he said to him: ‘Do not return a lost item that you found’; he should not listen to his father? It is derived from the verse: “Every man shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Shabbatot; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:3). Since the verse concludes: “I am the Lord,” it is derived that: You are all, parent and child alike, obligated in My honor.
Both parent and child must act honorably!
Having said all this, we still have the questions of honoring/mourning a deceased abusive parent; and of whether or not one is required to forgive an abusive parent.
While I cannot give you a dispensation from going through all the laws and rituals of aveilut/mourning, I can tell you this – you should use this time to finish, rather than start, this period of mourning. That is to say, that although for most people, aveilut is a time of intense grief and learning to cope with their new loss; for you (and for all abused children), it should be a time of letting go of all the grief, sorrow and pain that you have lived with your entire life. Psychologists all concur that holding on to pain causes more pain. That is not to say that you can/should/or have to “forget and forgive” or erase the past. Rather, it is to say that you will not allow the pain to have power over you, nor direct your life anymore. Bury the destructive feelings along with the deceased. Use this time to start your life anew.
That brings me to my final point. You do not have to forgive someone who has not asked for your forgiveness in any way. And even if they have asked (a rare but not impossible occurrence in the case of an abusive parent); if they have hurt you so badly, that will not be enough. We know that in Halacha there are all kinds of levels of making amends and of “paying” for one’s sins against their fellow (see Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva). One of the most meaningful conversations on this topic, in my opinion, is found in Sherri Mandell’s book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart. She is asked by an Italian TV crew if she will ever be able to forgive the terrorists who murdered her son. This is her answer:
“I answer, ‘I will never forgive. What they did was unforgivable.’ But I will not live my life in anger; I will not answer hate with hate; rage with rage. It is not my job to forgive. It is the murderer’s job to ask forgiveness. Judaism is not a religion of instant forgiveness…If a person wants to be forgiven, he needs to ask for forgiveness. But no terrorist has asked for my forgiveness…Jewish Law tells us that a person should ask for forgiveness at least three times until his apology is accepted. If the person he has wronged refuses, he should continue to ask – but the wrongdoer has fulfilled his own repentance.”
I hope that I have helped you and comforted you in this letter. During Shiva, we say “HaMakom Yenachem Etchem Betoch Sh’ar Avelei Tzion VeYerushalayim” – “May The Makom/Place (Hashem) comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Why do we call Hashem that name – The Place, and isn’t shiva a time for humans to comfort us? The answer is: 1) We are saying that Hashem is everywhere, in all places, including right there with you now. 2) Only Hashem, our ultimate Parent, can really comfort us, for only He truly knows what we are going through.
Sending love, strength, comfort, and sincere condolences for everything you have been through,
Rebbetzin Sara Krengel