Something I see in the news fairly often is a terrible crime followed immediately by the family’s “forgiveness” of the perpetrator, often with vague Christian overtones. People often heap praise and awe on such families. While I don’t want to deny survivors any form of psychological comfort that may be available to them, I’ve never understood what it means to grant forgiveness before the perpetrator has been held accountable and accepted responsibility, and while I understand there may be psychological benefits to such an act, I don’t believe that such an act can possibly be healthy on a communal level.
I’ve also seen some bad group therapy sessions led by facilitators who push participants to ‘forgive whoever they need to forgive in order to move on,’ without any forethought that some people in the room might actually have the problem of being too forgiving and being pathologically unable to hold others accountable for hurting them. Here, I suspect there’s a breakdown amongst gender lines. I suspect the blanket advice “forgive, forgive, forgive” is probably more pertinent to men, who are already trained to stand up for themselves and protect their honor, and probably more harmful for women, who are already trained to yield and forego slights.
So, in the face of all the toxic Christianity-infused and patriarchy-poisoned ideas about forgiveness floating out there, what’s the Talmud’s model, and do we want to learn from it?
One of the closing sugyot in Yoma, the masechet about Yom Kippur, we see four tales about forgiveness. It is important to emphasize that nowhere in Yoma have I found any tale involving a very serious crime. I have not yet found a Talmudic example of someone forgiving after murder, rape, or any other life-changing act of violence. The relative silence is telling. The masechet, by contrast, is replete with tales of smaller slights. I won’t argue that the lessons here can necessarily be applied to bigger issues, nor that they cannot. Still, we will see a very different model of forgiveness emerge from the one valorized by secular media.
R’ Abba Sits in the Trash
ר’ ירמיה הוה ליה מילתא לר’ אבא בהדיה אזל איתיב אדשא דר’ אבא בהדי דשדיא אמתיה מיא מטא זרזיפי דמיא ארישא אמר עשאוני כאשפה שמע ר’ אבא ונפיק לאפיה אמר ליה השתא צריכנא למיפק אדעתךR’ Jeremiah had once offended R’ Abba, so he went and sat at his front door. The maid came out to dispose of dirty water and threw it on R’ Jeremiah’s head. He said, “I’ve been turned into a trash heap.” R’ Abba hurried out and said, “Now I’m the one who needs to be forgiven.”
This is a Talmudic admission, as I understand the story, that sometimes the original victim in the story will become the perpetrator. (Again, keep the context of a minor interpersonal slight in mind, not serious acts of malice.) In this story, R’ Abba had no intention of disgracing R’ Jeremiah. It was just an accident. He knew, however, that as long as he was withholding forgiveness from a repentant wrongdoer, R’ Abba’s actions were going to be scrutinized closely. Even accidents could be misinterpreted as cruel. When we withold forgiveness, we need to understand that the people who wronged us are very sensitive to our treatment of them. We are not allowed to “put people in the doghouse,” and we must be on guard that our actions not be interpreted as such. The series of 4 stories thus opens with a perpetrator-focused moral tale. Don’t worry, things get a little better from here.
Rabbi Zeira’s Process
ר’ זירא כי הוה ליה מילתא בהדי איניש הוה חליף ותני לקמיה וממציא ליה כי היכי דניתי וניפוק ליה מדעתיה
Rabbi Zeira, whenever someone had offended him, used to make excuses to pass in front of them, to always find himself near them, so that they would come out and the matter could get resolved.
Here we have a very different wronged party than the above story. Rabbi Zeira has already made up his mind to be appeased. Someone has wronged him, and he’s ready to forgive them. He’s so ready, in fact, that he’s making himself a common sight in front of his perpetrator, showing how available he is for the other person to come up and speak to and any point. I see two more major takeaways here:
As the wronged party, once we are ready to forgive, we need to avoid the temptation to avoid the other person. One of our responsibilities is to remain available to the person seeking forgiveness. They may need to see us in community a few times to realize it’s OK for them to approach us and apologize.
But more importantly, forgiveness is an interpersonal process. It’s not unilateral. Rabbi Zeira could have held a press conference and told reporters that he forgives the other party. He could have written a moving Facebook post talking about his own journey toward forgiveness. Instead, he knew that what he really needed in order to forgive was the other party approaching him and asking for it.
Rav Kills a Butcher
רב הוה ליה מילתא בהדי ההוא טבחא לא אתא לקמיה במעלי יומא דכפורי אמר איהו איזיל אנא ‘ לפיוסי ליה פגע ביה רב הונא אמר ליה להיכא קא אזיל מר אמר ליה לפיוסי לפלניא אמר אזיל אבא למיקטל נפשא אזל וקם עילויה הוה יתיב וקא פלי רישא דלי עיניה וחזייה אמר ליה אבא את זיל לית לי מילתא בהדך בהדי דקא פלי רישא אישתמיט גרמא ומחייה בקועיה וקטליה
Rav had once been offended by a certain butcher. The butcher didn’t come to Rav by Erev Yom Kippur. Rav said to himself, “I’ll go to him myself and allow myself to be appeased.” On the way, he ran into Rav Huna. Rav Huna asked him, “Where are you going?” He responded, “I’m on my way to extract an apology!” Rav Huna responded, “No, you’re on your way to kill someone.” Rav continued the journey anyway. He found the butcher still at work, chopping heads. When he looked up and saw Rav, he yelled, “What are you doing here? Get out! I have nothing to say to you!” In the moment of distraction, a bone flew and lodged in his throat. He choked and died.
Rav presents a balance to R’ Zeira’s method above. He also takes initiative to grant forgiveness. The only problem is that the butcher, who was the perpetrator, hasn’t approached him yet to ask for forgiveness and Yom Kippur is bearing down. Rav is so zealous to forgive him that he goes out of his way to find him. He even ignores a colleague’s warning that this is a dangerous decision. The ultimate result is the death of the butcher. In the Talmud’s characteristic hyperbolic style, the point is clear: Rushing this process when the perpetrator is not ready to be held accountable is extremely ill-advised.
Why in this story is it the butcher who dies, and not Rav? Why does the Talmud say that the danger in rushing the process is for the perpetrator instead of the victim? Isn’t it the victim who could be re-victimized by an unrepentant perpetrator?
Here, I think it’s important to remember the context of a minor slight. Rav’s overeager desire to forgive is all about Rav. He wants the spiritual satisfaction of having forgiven someone. He wants the emotional resolution. But in doing so, he denies the guilty party the process that is actually needed — that of taking responsibility first. Ultimately, the outcome will be that neither party merits resolution.
So we can add an addendum to our takeaway above: When we, as the wronged party, are ready to forgive, we must avoid the temptation to completely avoid the other person. We must allow them to see us in community several times and give them the chance to work up the courage to speak to us. But we cannot actually enter them into that conversation. It’s critical to the process that they take the initiative to open the dialogue. They will never gain true forgiveness if they don’t make the move toward accepting responsibility.
When Someone Refuses to Forgive
רב הוה פסיק סידרא קמיה דרבי עייל אתא ר’ חייא הדר לרישא עייל בר קפרא הדר לרישא אתא ר”ש ברבי הדר לרישא אתא ר’ חנינא (בר) חמא אמר כולי האי נהדר וניזיל לא הדר איקפיד ר’ חנינא אזל רב לגביה תליסר מעלי יומי דכפורי ולא איפייס והיכי עביד הכי והאמר ר’ יוסי בר חנינא כל המבקש מטו מחבירו אל יבקש ממנו יותר משלש פעמים ארב שאני ור’ חנינא היכי עביד הכי והאמר רבא כל המעביר על מדותיו מעבירין לו על כל פשעיו אלא ר’ חנינא חלמא חזי ליה לרב דזקפוהו בדיקלא וגמירי דכל דזקפוהו בדיקלא רישא הוי אמר שמע מינה בעי למעבד רשותא ולא איפייס כי היכי דליזיל ולגמר אורייתא בבבל
Rav was giving a lecture and Rabbi Hiyya came in. Rav went back to the beginning and started over. Then Bar Kappara came in. He went back and started over. Then Rabbi Shimon came in. He went back and started over. Then Rabbi Hanina came in. Rav shouted, “How many times can I start over??” He didn’t go back to the beginning. Rabbi Hanina felt insulted. Rav went to him to apologize. He went 13 Yom Kippurs in a row, but R’ Hanina wouldn’t be appeased. And how did Rav act like that? Don’t we have a teaching that one shouldn’t ask for forgiveness more than three times? Yes, but Rav is different. And Rabbi Hanina, how did he act like this? Don’t we have a teaching that when one readily forgives, God forgives all our sins? Yes, but Rabbi Hanina had seen in a dream Rav hanging from a palm tree, and he know that a dream vision of someone hanging in a palm tree means that they are destined for greatness. He wanted Rav to go away and become a great leader of Torah in Bavel.
Rav appears again in our final story, this time as the wrongdoer. He offends Rabbi Hanina (whose name, note means “grace.”) He apologizes and apologizes and apologizes. Rabbi Hanina simply refuses to forgive him. He wasn’t being cruel: he simply had other plans for Rav. With nothing else to do after having mortally offended a senior colleague, Rav simply packs up and leaves town. The ultimate result of that action? Torah is brought to Bavel. Rav goes on to found a central yeshiva there, and Bavel’s Torah will eventually outshine even that of Eretz Israel. This is the surprising origin story of the entire Babylonian Talmud — an unresolved dispute, a refusal to be appeased, a lack of emotional resolution.
Here I think we see our most important takeaway. Sometimes we simply have to live without forgiveness. Yes, it’s incumbent upon wrongdoers to apologize and it’s incumbent upon the aggrieved to forgive. However, when that process fails, one must move on. And sometimes moving on without forgiveness is the most generative and productive thing that one can possibly do.