Author Archives: Rabbi David J. Blumenthal

Rabbi David J. Blumenthal

About Rabbi David J. Blumenthal

Rabbi David R. Blumenthal is Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University, Atlanta. His books include Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest and God at the Center.

Is Forgiveness Necessary?

This piece is excerpted from "Repentance and Forgiveness," which appears in the journal Crosscurrents and is reprinted with permission of the editors.

Sin disrupts our lives on the human level; it distorts our relationships with other persons, social institutions, and our selves. Sin also disrupts our spiritual lives; it distorts our relationship with God and our deepest inner spiritual being. Because sin alienates us from humanity and from God, there is more than one kind of forgiveness.

In a civil contract, one party incurs a debt to, or obligation toward, or claim against another. In such a situation, the creditor can forgo the debt, waive the obligation, or relinquish the claim. The creditor can do this for no reason at all, although the creditor usually has some grounds for being willing to forgo the debt. Similarly in the matter of sin. When one sins against another, one incurs an obligation to right the wrong one has committed. This is a debt toward the offended party borne by the offender. The more serious the wrong, the more serious the obligation to set it straight. In rabbinic thought, only the offending party can set the wrong aright and only the offended party can forgo the debt of the sin. This means that, if I offend someone, it is my responsibility to do whatever it takes to set matters aright and, conversely, if someone has offended me, it is my responsibility to allow the offender to do teshuvah, that is, to correct the wrong done to me. Teshuvah [return] is part of the structure of God’s creation; hence, the sinner is obligated to do teshuvah and the offended person is obligated to permit teshuvah by the offender.

The most basic kind of forgiveness is "forgoing the other’s indebtedness" (mechilah). If the offender has done teshuvah, and is sincere in his or her repentance, the offended person should offer mechilah; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of the offender, relinquish his or her claim against the offender. This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes me anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mechilah is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven.

Spiraling Towards Repentance

This piece is excerpted from “Repentance and Forgiveness,” which appears in the journal Crosscurrents, and is reprinted with permission.

Teshuvah [return] is the key concept in the rabbinic view of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. The tradition is not of one mind on the steps one must take to repent of one’s sins. However, almost all agree that repentance requires five elements: recognition of one’s sins as sins (hakarát ha-chét’), remorse (charatá), desisting from sin (azivát ha-chét’), restitution where possible (peira’ón), and confession (vidui). 

“Recognition of one’s sins as sins” is an act of one’s intelligence and moral conscience. It involves knowing that certain actions are sinful, recognizing such actions in oneself as more than just lapses of praxis, and analyzing one’s motives for sin as deeply as one can. For example, stealing from someone must be seen not only as a crime but also as a sin against another human and a violation of God’s demands of us within the covenant. It also involves realizing that such acts are part of deeper patterns of relatedness and that they are motivated by some of the most profound and darkest elements in our being.

“Remorse” is a feeling. It is composed of feelings of regret, of failure to maintain one’s moral standards. It may also encompass feelings of being lost or trapped, of anguish, and perhaps of despair at our own sinfulness, as well as a feeling of being alienated from God and from our own deepest spiritual roots, of having abandoned our own inner selves.

“Desisting from sin” is neither a moral-intellectual analysis nor a feeling; it is an action. It is a ceasing from sin, a desisting from the patterns of sinful action to which we have become addicted. Desisting from sin involves actually stopping the sinful action, consciously repressing thoughts and fantasies about the sinful activity, and making a firm commitment never to commit the sinful act again.

“Restitution” is the act of making good, as best one can, for any damage done. If one has stolen, one must return the object or pay compensation. If one has damaged another’s reputation, one must attempt to correct the injury to the offended party.