The Difficult Path to Forgiveness

Though you can’t fix what can’t be fixed or undo the past, you can improve the future.

This story comes from the JW archives.

by Rahel Musleah

In the airy, light-infused sanctuary at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Manhattan, the Avodah Dance Ensemble dances the dance of forgiveness.

Sometimes the dance is spare, silent, interrupted only by quiet percussion and the thud of bare feet on the wooden floor. Sometimes the four dancers beat their breasts, moving in jerky, agitated motions to a throbbing drum—marionettes on a string. Sometimes they bend and reach out to one another, supple as tree branches, or leap and clutch. Then wind chimes and beads, the rhythms of release: The dancers, each holding a hurt, share it by pouring it like water into the others’ cupped hands. Finally, the dancers look upward and the dance ends.

At least, it does on stage. As Jessica Sehested, one of the dancers, says: “Usually, every time we do a piece it gets easier. But this piece is so layered with emotional depth that I can’t ever get to that place. It’s a huge journey every time.”

Avodah’s journey into forgiveness mirrors our own. The complex dance of forgiveness is the stuff of everyday life and the heart of headline news. It is choreographed from childhood hurts and adult grievances, from trivialities and tragedy. Its dramatic, human and philosophical aspects have been spotlighted in the aftermath of school shootings and sex abuse scandals and the all-too-frequent terrorist acts that afflict our world. Studies have shown that forgiveness is good for our health. But how do we forgive others? Ourselves? Whole communities? God? Are there some things that are unforgivable?

Say forgiveness and the Christian concept of “turn the other cheek” comes to mind; the English overtones of the word, like those of “healing” and “prayer,” may veil its Jewish depth. But forgiveness is a basic Jewish value, says Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the National Center for Jewish Healing. Judaism encourages teshuva (literally, return)—acknowledging and articulating wrongdoing; fixing what needs to be fixed (such as returning something stolen); and conditioning oneself not to repeat the wrong—both during the High Holidays and every day. While the High Holidays focus on the communal aspect of forgiveness, we can choose to confront it privately three times a day through the words of the Amidah: s’lah lanu avinu ki hatanu (forgive us, God, for we have done wrong).

“Judaism doesn’t believe in mindless forgiveness,” Weintraub says. “It’s not simply returning a slap in the face with love. Ideally it’s a two-way process between the people doing and receiving the forgiveness. But often, the person who has done the wrong is not around or the deed can’t be undone. In a case of abuse, for instance, I wouldn’t glibly say, ‘forgive.’ Still, that doesn’t close the door.”

One way to forgive is to prevent further suffering, he says. “Even if you can’t undo the past, you can improve the future. Forgiveness lies not in fixing what can’t be fixed but in the concept Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called pikuah neshamah: saving a spirit—your own or that of others. It can translate into tikkun olam: repairing the world.” People who are ill or bereaved may especially feel that empowering urge. “They may not be able to do much about cancer, so they direct their energies toward salvaging relationships or addressing injustices. It’s a strange but wonderful blessing,” Weintraub says.

Rabbi Charles Klein, author of How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget (Liebling Press), says that forgiveness is an imperative stretching back to the Bible. “The Genesis narrative starts with fratricide—Cain and Abel—and ends with reconciliation—Joseph and his brothers,” he says. “That clearly delivers the Torah’s message: the only answer to hostility is finding a path to reconciliation.”

Klein, rabbi of the Merrick Jewish Center in Merrick, N.Y., distinguishes between Christian and Jewish understandings of forgiveness. Christianity encourages forgiveness even when no remorse is expressed. Judaism argues that it has to be earned. That doesn’t mean that Klein advocates letting hurt and anger fester. “If you let it consume you, it removes you from life and limits your relationships. But letting go is not the same as forgiveness.”

Forgiveness lies not in fixing what can’t be fixed but in saving a spirit --your own or that of others.

His lengthy rabbinic career has given him insight into long-standing estrangements that are perpetuated across generations, and those extensive fault lines upset him enough to write a book. “For a people known for the strength of family, I was witnessing the Jewish family structure weaken because people didn’t see forgiveness as a real or desirable option. They were willing to discard relationships that didn’t work for them.”

JoAnne Tucker, founder of the Avodah Dance Ensemble, says the Jewish community needs to wrestle with forgiveness more openly. In fact, the idea for Avodah’s “Forgiveness Project” came from the Rev. Lloyd Casson, head of the Episcopal Church of Sts. Andrew and Matthew, an African American/Anglican church in Wilmington, Del., which had booked a performance. When Tucker asked what the company should turn its attention to next, Casson suggested that she read Bishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness. In it, Tutu expresses his discomfort about German–Jewish relationships.

Through the Internet, Tucker found a near mirror image of herself in Ulla Schorn, a dance educator and therapist born into a Nazi family in 1942. Tucker was born in 1943 but lost no direct relatives in the Holocaust. Schorn agreed to explore forgiveness with the dancers. Together, they spent a week at Westchester Reform Temple in New York. Cordial outside the workshop settings, Tucker and Schorn didn’t feel comfortable being together on the dance floor until the third day.

By then, the “obstacles started to break down,” Tucker says. “Ulla and I started to interact. The result left me in tears, unable to speak. I didn’t know how to relate to this woman. I stepped into the complexity of forgiveness. If I felt empathy for her, then I felt uncomfortable that I felt empathy. On the other hand, she is a human being. She has inherited this guilt from her father.”

The group studied provocative texts, from the Joseph story to Maimonides to Simon Wiesenthal. One quote from Shlomo Carlebach, the charismatic singing rebbe, made an impact on Tucker. Carlebach came to America from Vienna as a teenager fleeing the Nazis. Before he died, he returned to Austria and Germany to give concerts. Someone asked: “Why? Don’t you hate them?” His answer: “If I had two souls I’d devote one to hating them. But since I have only one, I don’t want to waste it on hating.”

With a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Avodah developed the piece during four community residencies: at Sts. Andrew and Matthew; HUC; Westchester Reform; and the York Correctional Institution for Women in Connecticut. In pre-performance workshops, community members created their own images of forgiveness and some chose to participate in special segments when the piece was performed. As in the onstage performance, Tucker guided them to share a hurt by putting it in their hands. But, she said, “Take a little hurt so you can manage it.” Too big a hurt can be overwhelming, Tucker says. “I have to be sensitive to allow people to open up, yet conscious that I am not doing therapy.”

Arline Duker does do therapy, in Teaneck, N.J. But her perspective is much more personal. Her daughter Sara, 22, and Sara’s boyfriend, Matthew Eisenfeld, were killed in a Jerusalem bus bombing in 1996. “Without an acknowledgment of wrong, forgiveness seems irrelevant,” Duker says. “What’s the point of pardoning someone who doesn’t want it? In my situation, it’s a person who says, ‘I’d do it again. It’s the right thing to do. I’m glad your daughter is dead.’ My greatest wound is their greatest joy.”

Letting go can be part of forgiveness, or it can stand on its own, she says, but no single path leads to it. “When Sara was killed, I was so sad and devastated I couldn’t even feel anger. I was just empty. When I finally felt anger, it was a relief—at least I felt something.”

Motivated to find “purposeful acts to bring healing,” Duker began supporting anti-terrorist, educational, and environmental causes. She and the Eisenfelds sued the government of Iran in U.S. District Court. By proving that Iran trained and provided weapons to the terrorists, the families were awarded $300 million in punitive damages. Because Iranian assets in the United States had been were frozen from the days of the Shah, the funds remained uncollected. [Under the Iran deal of early 2016, the families will receive a settlement from the U.S. government.—the Editor.]

Eventually, says Duker, the “need to be angry just wore out. I didn’t want it to be the focus of my waking hours. I had a wonderful daughter. She had a wonderful boyfriend. I wanted to appreciate their lives, and if I was just raging, I was concentrating on the wrong things.” She made a conscious decision to let go. “That doesn’t mean accepting what happened was okay. Some things are never okay.”

She advises others: “Don’t deny the hurt, but don’t let it be so central or powerful that you feel like a victim. Ask yourself, ‘If this were out of my life, how would my life be different?’ If the answer is that it would be better, consider how to make that happen. If the answer is that you’re not ready to let go, that needs to be respected too.”

Is it all right to want revenge? “Why not?” answers Duker. “It may not be politically correct, but appropriate kinds of revenge can be healing. It’s normal to want justice, as long as it doesn’t lead to violence.”

Laura Blumenfeld confronted the question of revenge or forgiveness in her search for the man who shot her father in Jerusalem in 1986. Rabbi David Blumenfeld survived, but a decade later, his daughter went looking for the shooter and traveled the world researching stories of revenge. Then a reporter at the Washington Post, Blumenfeld wrote Revenge: A Story of Hope (Simon & Schuster) to record the unfolding drama. “At some point in every country and in every person’s life, a choice presents itself that defines one’s soul,” she writes. “You have been hurt. What will it be? Turn the other cheek, or an eye for an eye?”

On the West Bank, she found the gunman’s family, but didn’t reveal who she was. She introduced herself simply as Laura, a journalist writing a book about revenge. She began corresponding with the shooter, Omar Khatib, who was in an Israeli prison, to find out who he was and why he had done it, and to allow him to slowly discover who his victim was. In an early letter to her, he said he had shot at a ‘military target.’ Challenging that mindset became her goal.

Blumenfeld found a third option to forgiveness or revenge: transformation. At a medical hearing to determine whether Khatib could be freed, she spoke on his behalf—and only then revealed who she was. Though Khatib remained in jail, he later wrote a letter to David Blumenfeld: “God is so good to me that he gets me to know your Laura, who made me feel the true meanings of love and forgiveness. She was the mirror that made me see your face as a human person deserved [sic] to be admired and respected.”

The battle over forgiveness or revenge, and what form either of them should take, raged during the Holocaust as well. In 1944, a band of Jewish guerrillas called the Avengers joined the Russian Army in its attack on Vilna, blew up a Nazi train, and after the war, smuggled enough poison into Nuremburg to kill 10,000 Nazis. In The Avengers: A Jewish War Story (Knopf), author Rich Cohen reports that the exact number killed was never clear. The group’s leader, Abba Kovner, eventually tried to convince his friends that they should give up the fight in Europe to build Israel. “You can fight for your revenge right here,” he said. “And here you will fight for the future, not for the past.” Kovner convinced most of the Avengers, but some called him a traitor.

Whether one’s wounds are the everyday variety or as unimaginable as those inflicted by the Holocaust, experts say forgiveness is good for emotional and physical well-being. The Stanford University Forgiveness Projects has documented reductions of 70 percent in feelings of hurt; 27 percent in physical symptoms of stress, including backache, headache, and stomach pain; 27 percent in physical symptoms related to sleeplessness, listlessness, and dizziness; and 13 percent in long-term anger. Interestingly, 80 percent of those who responded to advertisements recruiting participants were women. Several groups of victims of violence in Northern Ireland participated, even women whose children had been murdered.

Dr. Frederic Luskin, the project’s co-founder and director and author of Forgive for Good (HarperCollins), says people can’t forgive because they confuse specific offenses with the process of forgiveness. “People think that forgiving lets people off the hook. In fact, it doesn’t mean forgetting, or even reconciliation.”

In Luskin’s definition, forgiveness means “learning to make peace when something in your life doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. It’s an inner quality not dependent on anyone else, an assertive and necessary life skill rather than a specific response to a particular life situation. People who are hurt have a narcissistic perspective that it’s unusual to be hurt, but in fact it’s common. When you understand how common it is, you can forgive life.”

Luskin culled his “secular” approach to forgiveness from various religious traditions as well as from personal experience. The sudden end of a long and close friendship left him a “whining kvetch. I saw the destructive impact of my inability to move on. I had become embittered not because of what happened but because I couldn’t cope with it.

“The thing I’m most impressed with is that people can learn to forgive, and in a relatively short period of time,” he adds. View your mind as your house, he urges, and figure out how much space you rent to your wounds. “We can rent our grievances the master bedroom and build them a hot tub out back,” Luskin writes. “Or we can restrict them to a small room in the back.” Give up expecting things from other people, or life, that they do not choose to give you.

You can’t force forgiveness, but it’s inside everybody, Luskin stresses. “A life well lived,” he concludes, “is the best revenge.”

Rahel Musleah leads tours of Jewish India and speaks about its communities.