The discipline of forgiveness

The discipline of forgiveness

It’s gotten so that if I call a loved one during that period of ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they’ll just ask, ‘Is this the phone call?’

Stock photo of an older woman on the phone

© istock/DragonImages

© istock/DragonImages

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One of my favorite Jewish tales is one that is also deeply Unitarian Universalist—a story about the imperative to live our lives true to our (best) selves: Some Jewish scholars and rabbis were debating what happens after we die, and what that means about how we should live and what models to emulate. Rabbi Zusya, who was elderly and nearing the end of his life, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

I love that story. I return to it again and again to help me find my way, including the way I live my faith: Unitarian Universalist, influenced by my Jewish heritage.

My father was raised Orthodox Jewish. His Judaism was deeply cultural as well as religious. And the cultural heritage won out, since he left the faith as a teenager but never left his identity as a Jew. He handed it on to me and my sister. We were raised Unitarian Universalist and our whole family is still actively UU—and also partly and inescapably Jewish, which, thankfully, is fine for our Unitarian Universalist faith and congregations.

That Jewish-UU duality of my nature will always be active for me, both personally and congregationally, because I am an individual and a parish minister. Jewish theology and tradition have informed my personal vocation as a Unitarian Universalist minister and also now my congregation’s life and traditions. This happens in myriad and still unfolding ways, but the one that’s had the most impact on my life is forgiveness.

Jewish theology holds that forgiveness has to happen on the mortal plane, between individuals, before any larger (or divine) forgiveness can take place. This is a big deal because of the high holy days, beginning with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and ending with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when tradition holds that all people are judged by God as to whether they deserve another year written into the book of life. Forgiveness is required in order to be in good standing, pardoned, or absolved of guilt. Forgiveness is not optional, it’s critical; your life literally depends on it.

Ultimate forgiveness can’t even begin to happen until we’ve made things right on the mortal plane with the person we’ve hurt.

Not surprisingly, this means there’s a lot in Jewish tradition and practice about forgiveness. Perhaps the most important point according to the Jewish system is that the onus to invoke forgiveness is on the wrongdoer, not the wronged. The wrongdoer is the one responsible for winning any forgiveness that might follow on what they have done. The system is very explicit about what is owed and what must be done. These steps are non-negotiable:

  • The wrongdoer does a bad thing, which hurts someone else. The person who has been hurt can just stay hurt. As far as forgiveness goes, they don’t have to do anything. Which makes sense, because after all, they’re the one who has been injured, and it’s enough that they have to deal with that injury and whatever fallout it entails.
  • It’s up to the person who did the injury to
    • own up, admit what they did
    • apologize, and ask for forgiveness
    • offer to make it up to the injured person, however they can, however the injured person chooses.

Here’s the crucial part. The wrongdoer must take all these steps with the actual person they hurt. It’s not enough to process it oneself, resolve to make it up in ways we think make sense, or to talk it over with a therapist or other confessor. In Judaism, no absolution can take place unless the admission and atonement happen with the person who suffered the wrong. The human dimension of this model is so critical that ultimate forgiveness—the kind that gets people written into the book of life for another year every Jewish New Year—can’t even begin to happen until we’ve made things right on the mortal plane with the person we’ve hurt. This is true no matter what, no matter how much we go to worship services or pray privately, no matter how many good deeds we do to atone or outweigh the wrong, there’s no access to larger forgiveness.

Here’s another kicker: We’re not off the hook unless the person we’ve wronged says we are. In other words, if we wrong someone and go through the steps of admitting it to them, asking truly for their forgiveness, and asking to make it up to them somehow, they can say no. They can refuse to forgive us, and refuse to allow us to make it up to them.

At this point, things get complicated. According to Jewish law, this exchange goes back and forth three times. If forgiveness is still refused, then the rabbi can be brought in to help out. While the onus is on the wrongdoer to initiate this interaction, there is also some pressure on the one wronged to eventually forgive. Forgiveness is not just a whim, and not something we can just withhold if we’re feeling grouchy. If we’re going to withhold it, we need to take that very seriously and have a really good reason. This is not only about the relationship between two parties, or about the care and ethical treatment that human beings owe each other, it’s also still about God. Divine forgiveness doesn’t come into play—it just can’t—unless obligations on the human level have been satisfied. If those obligations don’t take place, the results are very tangible: One doesn’t get written into the book of life at the next New Year. It’s not about burning later in hell; the threat is much more immediate: You put your life here and now in jeopardy when you walk around with unforgiven wrongs attached to you. So we have to do our best to win forgiveness, but also the wronged person needs to try to rise to the occasion and forgive us when so much depends on their forgiveness.

These implications support the ethics of the system. The apology and the forgiveness have to be genuine in order to be meaningful—which enjoins the wrongdoer to really offer an authentic apology. On the receiving end, being authentically apologized to, and receiving offers to make it up to us, even if there’s nothing more to be done, hopefully makes it more possible to accept the apology and find in our hearts the space and spirit of forgiveness.

Because of the Jewish High Holy Days’ dependence on forgiveness and atonement, this interaction of the wrongdoer and the wronged is a particular tradition at that time of year. Along with other rituals enacted at home and at synagogue, Jewish people make a point of having conversations with their friends and family to clear the boards and make sure all is right with everyone, even if they’re not aware of doing anything wrong.


Because this discipline of forgiveness has great appeal for me, I also practice it, and because the Unitarian Universalist new church year roughly coincides with the Jewish New Year, I find it a good time for my own atonement. I don’t know how many UUs make these Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur phone calls, but I have done it for years. It’s gotten so that if I call a loved one during that period of ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they’ll just ask, “Is this the phone call?” Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it becomes the phone call, even if originally I dialed for another reason, since it’s hard to delay that sort of conversation once it’s been suggested.

This kind of speech has to be authentic. It has to be done right. If it is, its redemptive power is great.

I’ve also preached on it and commended the practice to my congregation, and some of them have followed up on it. Because the atonement process shouldn’t only be a Jewish, once-a-year conversation. The convention of an annual tradition only exists to make sure people don’t enter the new year with blots on their souls’ escutcheons. It serves as a sort of safety net, in case some hurt or wrong gets missed or ignored along the way. But this model of apology, forgiveness, and atonement is good year-round. It’s a lesson in being a good person regardless of which end we’re on. If we’re the forgiver, it’s good to be asked for forgiveness and to have some sense of obligation to forgive. And if we’re the wrongdoer, it is far more fair that the burden to enjoin forgiveness lies with us. We should have to ask for another’s pardon and to offer not only our confession but also our commitment to atone, because confession is not always enough to make things right.

Genesis says that God spoke the world into existence. God didn’t use gestures, or ingredients; in the absence of everything but the ultimate void, the word was the creative foundation of all. Words have ontological power in Judaism; that power is an essential component of the Jewish model of forgiveness. This kind of speech has to be authentic. It has to be done right. If it is, its redemptive power is great. And if it is done wrong or inauthentically, its damning power is great, just as we feel a terrible burden when we hold onto accusation, blame, and condemnation.

There is a lesson and a power here for all of us. The accountability, relational nature, and intentionality of this system of forgiveness make it profoundly relevant for any people in any time. This is a human-based religious system of forgiveness. For those of us ultimately concerned with how we live in this world, that makes its ethical dimension very powerful. It is a theological system of right relations that says we are under obligation to those we’ve hurt.

On the other hand, we have the turn-the-other-cheek model of forgiveness. This counsels us to lift ourselves, if we have been wronged, above pettiness and retribution. This approach arguably diminishes the moral sense of individuals and of society at large by encouraging us to target the injured, holding them inexplicably accountable for unsolicited forgiveness or acceptance. To be unshriven is a bad state of affairs, but to be unforgiven surely ought to be worse. And it makes no moral sense for us to gratuitously excuse or forgive ourselves when we have not sought forgiveness from one we have wronged.

If we inform Unitarian Universalism with Jewish understanding of forgiveness we gain invaluable perspective. What does it mean to us as liberal people of faith if we say that we cannot live or act alone, accountable only to ourselves? It means living into our Principles: affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

What do we gain when we believe that we hold each other’s lives and futures in our hands? It means a more meaningful life. It means truer and deeper community is available to us all. It means living with greater closeness and honor with those we love. That’s what it has meant for me. It makes me a better person and a better Unitarian Universalist.


Excerpted with permission from Jewish Voices in Unitarian Universalism, edited by Leah Hart-Landsberg and Marti Keller (Skinner House, 2014).

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