What Is Forgiveness?
Before engaging in forgiveness, a person first needs to understand what is meant by “forgiveness.” There exists a fundamental dispute among psychologists, contemporary theorists, and researchers as to how to exactly define the term.
According to the proponents of what are known as “process-based models” of forgiveness (or “emotional forgiveness”), forgiveness should be understood as a process in which a person does away with negative feelings — such as hatred, anger, hostility, resentment and desires for revenge — that he or she is experiencing towards someone.
In contrast, the proponents of “decision-based models” of forgiveness (or “decisional forgiveness”) explain forgiveness as the cognitive decision not to let the negative emotions that one feels towards someone influence one’s outward behaviors towards that person. This finds expression in the statement of “I forgive you.”
In other words, a process-based understanding of forgiveness demands that you emotionally forgive the person, which may take a considerable amount of time and effort on the part of the forgiver; a decision-based understanding of forgiveness requires that you forgive on a cognitive-behavioral level, which takes place when one decides and says “I forgive you.”
There is a markedly similar disagreement among Jewish legal authorities as to how to define forgiveness. According to the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, 1878–1953) and other rabbinic authorities, the concept of forgiveness should be viewed as something that has to take place on an emotional level — ensuring that one does away with negative emotions that are felt towards another, which may require some time and effort on the part of the forgiver.
By contrast, Rabbi Yosef Engel (1859–1920) and other rabbinic authorities were of the opinion that forgiveness occurs when one says the words “I forgive you” (or “I forgive so-and-so”). Even though Jewish law is most definitely concerned about the negative emotions that one feels towards others — and offers mechanisms to deal with such emotions, for example, through respectful and sensitive dialogue (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 6:6–9) — these authorities maintained that when it comes to forgiving someone, we should focus on the actual declaration of forgiveness.
Judaism offers specific guidelines as to when one should grant forgiveness and when one need not do so. (In my book, “Fundamentals of Jewish Conflict Resolution,” the section on “When One Is and Is Not Obligated to Forgive” is useful background.) In situations when it is appropriate to forgive someone, the potential benefits of forgiveness are manifold. They include:
Social and Relational Benefits: Research has shown that forgiveness can significantly contribute to positive social interactions, and can play a pivotal role in the formation and maintenance of happy and healthy relationships.
Emotional Benefits: Through forgiveness (either by way of a “process” or “decision”) one overcomes resentment, anger, hatred, hostility, rumination, desires for revenge, and other negative feelings, thoughts and behaviors. The repercussions of whether or not one is walking around in life with resentment, anger, hatred, hostility, rumination, desires for revenge and the like are enormous. The presence or absence of these elements may have a profound impact on one’s emotional states, psychological functioning and quality of life. (See Pesachim 113b, where the Talmud offers an extremely forceful, pithy description of the emotional suffering of “angry people.”)
Health Benefits: Researchers have found correlations between forgiveness and various factors that may contribute both to one’s mental and physical well-being. One such factor, which has been a major focus of researchers, is the relationship between forgiveness and stress. There is an ever-growing body of research that indicates that forgiveness may be helpful in reducing levels of stress, which, in turn, may have significant repercussions on one’s mental and physical health. (See Megillah 28a, where one of the Sages attributes his longevity to, among other things, his being a forgiving person.)
Character Development: Forgiveness is also inextricably intertwined with a vast array of middot (character traits). These would include both positive and negative traits, such as empathy, perspective-taking, tolerance, patience, humility, narrow-mindedness, hard heartedness, intolerance, anger, arrogance, and being harshly and unfairly judgmental. It is particularly noteworthy that the Talmudic sages characterize someone who is unforgiving (in cases when it is appropriate to be forgiving) as lacking in compassion and as exhibiting cruelty (Yevamot 79a and Bava Kamma 92a).
Societal Benefits: Forgiveness helps promote peaceful and harmonious coexistence, and it helps to forge strong, cohesive and thriving communities. (See Maimonides’ explanation for the mitzvah of not bearing a grudge; Mishneh Torah, De’ot 7:8.)
Spiritual Benefits: There are some very significant spiritual benefits inherent to forgiveness. Forgiveness is inextricably intertwined with a number of biblical commandments, such as “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17), “You shall not take revenge,” “You shall not bear a grudge,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), and “You shall walk in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9), from which we may derive that just as God forgives sins, so too should we follow His example and be forgiving (see Avraham ben HaRambam, “The Guide to Serving God,” page 97). One also fulfills a specific mandate of Jewish law that requires one to grant forgiveness. (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 606:1, and Choshen Mishpat 422:1.)
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17a) teaches that when an individual is forgiving and overlooks the offenses that were committed against him, God will reciprocate in kind by forgiving and overlooking that person’s sins. (See Mishnah Berurah 606:8.)
Kabbalistic sources discuss the “spiritual harm” that is incurred when one is angry. The Zohar (2:182a) cites the biblical verse “He who rips apart his soul in anger” (Job 18:4) as indicative of some of the spiritual harm that an individual may suffer through anger. Assuming that anger plays a major role in refusing to forgive, these sources may be highly relevant when considering the spiritual consequences of refusing to grant forgiveness.
Forgiveness, when appropriate, can serve as a concrete and powerful expression of one’s emunah (belief, or faith) and bitachon (trust) in God. In forgiving those who have wronged us, we can demonstrate that we believe that ultimately it is God who is “running the show,” that He loves us and wants what is best for us, and that, even though it may not be readily understood, and may even be beyond our comprehension, ultimately all of the hardships that we have encountered in our lives are, in some way or somehow, for our benefit.
“Fundamentals of Jewish Conflict Resolution,” by Howard Kaminsky (Academic Studies Press, 2017), pages 299–405.
(Howard Kaminsky is a research fellow at the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, and serves as a mediator for Community Mediation Services in Queens, NY. He has an EdD in religion and education from Teachers College, Columbia University and rabbinic ordination from Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem. He is the author of “Fundamentals of Jewish Conflict Resolution: Traditional Jewish Perspectives on Resolving Interpersonal Conflict,” published in 2017 by Academic Studies Press.)