Must Jews always forgive?

For forgiveness to take place, the person who did wrong and the person who was wronged each have responsibilities. The person who did wrong needs to do teshuvah (recognize their wrongdoing, feel sincere regret, resolve never to repeat the action, make amends and ask for forgiveness). And Jewish law asks the person who was wronged to open their heart and grant forgiveness (assuming that the person who did wrong did teshuvah and asked for forgiveness). Even when there is no apology and request for forgiveness, it is often better to forgive or at least to let go of grudges and resentments. Jewish law specifies when forgiveness is required, optional and forbidden. Only the victim can forgive the act of wrongdoing, so we cannot forgive offenses committed against others.

An expanded curriculum is available for this topic.

  1. Who do you think benefits from forgiveness more: the person being forgiven or the person granting the forgiveness?
  2. When the Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick was asked whether it was appropriate to forgive the Nazis, she responded, “‘I forgive you,’ we say to the child who has muddied the carpet, ‘but next time don’t do it again.’ Next time, she will leave the muddy boots outside the door; forgiveness, with its enlarging capacity, will have taught her. Forgiveness is an effective teacher. Meanwhile, the spots can be washed away. But murder is irrevocable. Murder is irreversible…Even if forgiveness restrains one from petrpetrating a new batch of corpses, will the last batch come alive again?…Forgiveness is pitiless. It forgets the victim. It cultivates sensitiveness toward the murderer at the price of insensitiveness toward the victim.” How do you understand Ozick’s statement, “Forgiveness is pitiless. It forgets the victim”?
  3. Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Edith Eger, author of “The Choice: Embrace the Possible,” had a slightly different response to this question: “I don’t have any godly powers to forgive anyone for anything. I have the power to choose, to acknowledge that revenge is a very temporary feeling… The way I see forgiveness [is that]…I can assign the shame and guilt to the perpetrator and to begin to forgive myself that I survived. So forgiveness is truly a gift that I give to myself that I don’t carry the Nazis with me, that I don’t live in the past.” How do you interpret Eger’s statement, “I have the power to choose”?
  1. Watch this video of Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama, making the case for why we should give people second chances. What is Saban’s argument? How would you feel if you were the football player Saban was talking about? Why is it important to give people second chances? What holds us back from giving people second chances?
  2. In the following article in Moment Magazine, rabbis from across the religious spectrum answered the question, “Are there things that can’t be forgiven?” Choose the one or two perspectives which provoked your thinking the most. Then write a journal entry explaining why this idea piqued your curiosity.
  3. Listen to our “Unpacking Israeli History” podcast episode, “The great debate about German reparations.” What were David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin’s arguments for and against accepting reparations from Germany after the Holocaust? If you had been the first prime minister of Israel, what do you think you would have done?
  1. Reflect on your own experiences seeking and granting forgiveness:
    • What’s an experience you have had apologizing to someone? How did you apologize? Was it in person, on the phone or on a messaging app? How did the person react? How did it impact your relationship?
    • What is a time when someone apologized to you and asked you for forgiveness? How did you feel? Did you grant the person forgiveness? Why or why not?
    • Do you think that every bad action is forgivable, or do you think there are some things that can never be forgiven?
    • If someone has done teshuvah and asks you for forgiveness, but you’re not ready to forgive them, what could you do to get to a place where you are able to forgive?
  2. The woman in the video said she was most impacted by the following quote by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “What is absolutely fundamental is that Judaism represents, for the first time in history, a morality of guilt rather than shame… In guilt cultures, there is a fundamental distinction between the person and his or her acts. It was the act that was wrong, not the person.” Are you persuaded by Rabbi Sacks’ idea that we should differentiate between a person and their actions? Do you think this makes it easier to forgive?
  1. Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, “Did Joseph ever forgive his brothers?
  2. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “What it takes to forgive (Vayechi 5778),” “Consider forgiveness
  3. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Forgiveness
  4. Edith Eger, “The Choice: A True Story of Hope
  5. Rabbi Alan Lew, “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared
  6. Simon Wiesenthal, “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

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