Steven Bayar
Steven Bayar

Forgiving Is Not a Commandment

Thank God the High Holy Days are over. We now have a year’s respite from remonstrations for forgiveness.

As a pulpit veteran, I often spoke about the need for forgiveness: to relieve the burden of anger and hurt accumulated in our lives. Forgiveness is a way to stop living in the past and begin to face the future – and while I believe this holds true for many, it does not hold true for all.

In his September 12 essay in The New York Times, Rabbi David Wolpe accurately and succinctly states that forgiving “steals the satisfaction of resentment,” and that there is a “savage self-righteousness to public shaming.” He is on the mark. There is an edgy-satisfaction in standing on the moral high ground and a dark enjoyment of playing the victim longer than necessary.

But he has forgotten nuance. There is no such thing as “cookie cutter” forgiveness, as the actions that would require it run the gamut. You cannot generalize. I learned this when I started working with the survivors of sexual predation.

Evan Zauder was a well-known youth worker in the Jewish community sentenced to prison in 2014 for, among other things, sex crimes against children. It is a matter of public record that 50 respected members of the Jewish community wrote the judge asking for leniency because he “was a good and decent person” and always “honorable and respectful and caring.” They cited his potential for good and asked that he not be unduly punished for his “mistakes.”

What about the victims/survivors? Did anyone consider them? Could anyone honestly assert that a victim/survivor should be asked to forgive his or her predator? The ways in which our community chooses to interpret the tradition cedes control to the perpetrator, not the victim/survivor. It should be the other way around.

Asking forgiveness often benefits the perpetrator more than the victim/survivor. Allowing the perpetrator to ask forgiveness from their victim/survivor can be more damaging and toxic to a survivor. The victim/survivor should be given the control (previously denied them by the predator) of the process. Let the victim/survivor decide to initiate if they so choose. And if they don’t, the perpetrator should have no rights in the matter.

Thus began my journey through nuance. Should an abused daughter give her father access to the grandchildren? He has asked forgiveness and seems penitent – but allowing him access to the children means she will have to be there (for her own peace of mind) and being in his presence brings back traumatic memories. Why should she pay for his epiphany?

I am in awe of those who are able to forgive their abusers and actually sit down to lunch with them. But just as asking forgiveness is not one of the 613 commandments (really it’s not!) so forgiving is not a commandment either.

There have been people who have hurt me in the past. I place them into two categories: those who care for me, and those who don’t.

The greatest hurts have come from those who love me – and I can forgive them for I have come to understand their actions. And there are those who savaged me for their own private reasons. I got through the anger and the hurt – it is never easy and it’s far from perfect – a work in progress.

But the last thing I want is for them to ask forgiveness. I don’t associate with them and I don’t want to. To be clear: I am not angry with them and I am no longer hurt – but that doesn’t mean I have forgotten. It doesn’t mean I want them anywhere near me. Their need for forgiveness does not mesh with my need for distance.

And for those who like to quote Jewish ethics and Maimonides, let me quote from his commentary on Ethics of the Ancestors:

There was a wicked man whose wicked deeds were widely known.

Once however, he was seen to perform a deed, which seemed to

be positive and good action – and yet it contains a slight possibility

of being evil. The right thing to do is to be careful and wary of him

and not believe it is good since it contains the possibility of being evil.

This is not savage self-righteousness. Rather, it is assertive control over experiences and feelings. The victim/survivor should have the right to heal in his or her own manner, and if it interferes with the perpetrator’s need for validation – then they are still guilty of ignoring the needs of those whose lives they have destroyed.

What I do know is that someone refusing to be part of the process has not sinned – nor should there be any public shaming for their refusal to do so.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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