Is Forgiveness Necessary?

Righting a wrong requires two parties.

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For example, a woman who has been battered by her husband, or abused by her father, is not obliged to grant such a person mechilah unless he has, first, desisted from all abusive activity; second, reformed his character through analysis of sin, remorse, restitution, and confession; and third, actually asked for forgiveness several times. Only then, after ascertaining that he is sincere in his repentance, would a woman in such a situation be morally bound, though not legally obligated, to offer the offender mechilah.

The principle that mechilah ought to be granted only if deserved is the great Jewish "No" to easy forgiveness. It is core to the Jewish view of forgiveness, just as desisting from sin is core to the Jewish view of repentance. Without good grounds, the offended person should not forgo the indebtedness of the sinner; otherwise, the sinner may never truly repent and evil will be perpetuated. And, conversely, if there are good grounds to waive the debt or relinquish the claim, the offended person is morally bound to do so. This is the great Jewish "Yes" to the possibility of repentance for every sinner.

The second kind of forgiveness is "forgiveness" (selichah). It is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving an empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selichah, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace. A woman abused by a man may never reach this level of forgiveness; she is not obliged, nor is it morally necessary for her, to do so.

The third kind of forgiveness is "atonement" (kapparah) or "purification" (tahorah). This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness. It is an existential cleansing. Kapparah is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God. No human can "atone" the sin of another; no human can "purify" the spiritual pollution of another.

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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.