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Spirituality & Health

Seeking Forgiveness in the World's Spiritual Traditions

Magazine Issue: winter 1999 Ann Kathleen Bradley

The world's major spiritual traditions have long taught the value of forgiveness as a tool for freeing ourselves and others from the tyranny of past judgments and perceptions — or misperceptions. The traditions may offer different rationales for why we should forgive, and different ways to go about it, but the ultimate goal is strikingly similar. For example, all three "religions of the Book" — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - emphasize that believers should model their actions on God's own forgiveness of human error, as recorded in their sacred texts. "Jewish tradition, as far back as late antiquity and especially in the medieval period, teaches that God is merciful and forgiving and that the apex of human existence is to emulate God," says Dr. Shaul Magid, chair of the Department of Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, points out that Judaism believes God also demands justice. "Forgiveness is not automatic," he explains. "It has to be earned through the process of teshuvah, a return to proper behavior and relations with the injured party and with God." That process requires that you 1) acknowledge you did something wrong, 2) apologize to the person you harmed, 3) compensate that person when possible, and 4) try not to repeat your error. "As a Jew I can forgive people only if they change - that creates an atmosphere of healing," explains Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of the Department of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-defamation League. Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are an annual period of prayer and penitence, when Israel asks God's forgiveness collectively and individual Jews ask forgiveness of those they have wronged over the course of the year.

The directive to forgive is also at the heart of the central drama of Christianity: Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. His words from the Cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," suggest that we should pardon wrongdoing at least in part because it springs from ignorance. They echo the prayer he taught to his disciples: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Jesus told his disciple Peter that he should forgive not seven times but "seventy times seven" — in other words, endlessly.

Dr. Lewis B. Smedes, Professor Emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and author of the best-selling

Muslims, too, are enjoined by the Qur'an to "pardon and forbear" [For] do you not desire that God should forgive you your sins, seeing that God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace?" They are reminded of this duty when they pray five times daily to "Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate" or invoke "God the Forgiver" or "God the Pardoner" - four of God's ninety-nine names. Believers also have the life of Muhammad to guide them, including stories about how the Prophet chose to forgive the killers of his uncle and, after being stoned,

rejected the angel Gabriel's offer to "cause the mountains to crumble" on his persecutors. Instead, he asked, "May it please your Lord to forgive my people, for they do not know" — another intimation that ignorance breeds wrongdoing.

Like Judaism, though, Islam emphasizes that forgiveness must be balanced with justice. And, because there is no doctrine of redemption, each person is fully responsible to God for what he or she does. Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, a professor of law at the University of Richmond and president of Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, explains that the Shari'ah (Islamic law) is based in part on God's declaration in the Qur'an that "'We ordained therein for them life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.' In other words, even though God's judgment comes in the afterlife, the victim or his or her family has a right to exact punishment in this life, as well as compensation."

Buddhism does not see us needing forgiveness for sins against a supreme God or the necessity of trying to model our own actions on God's mercy — for Buddhists, the problem is human ignorance. Until we understand that Sunyata (emptiness) is the supreme reality, and free ourselves from attachment and desire, they say, we will continue to create pain for all, and karmic bondage and rebirth for ourselves. "Grasping, hatred, and suffering arise because we think we are separate selves, because we feel incomplete and vulnerable and think we have to defend ourselves," says Dr. Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and founder and senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. "So if people cause you suffering, it's not because they're evil but because they themselves are acting out of suffering and pain. As we train ourselves to see and understand that, as we wake up spiritually, forgiveness becomes a natural letting go — a way of opening our hearts to what we have pushed away, of connecting again with the whole of life." Sharon Salzberg, the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of

She also points out that the practice of forgiveness reflects several other Buddhist truths: 1) that everything and everyone is always changing — we are not the same person we were when we made that mistake, nor is the person who hurt us; 2) that everything is conditioned — we might have acted the same way if we had lived that person's life; 3) that over many lifetimes we have all done everything, so no one should feel contempt for anyone else; and 4) that from a karmic perspective making others suffer also brings suffering on the doer, so that vengeance is unnecessary — and would only cause us more pain in return.

Karma is also a key concept in Hinduism, says Dr. Srinivas Chary, adjunct associate professor at New York University and a faculty member of The New School for Social Research, and ignorance is again viewed as the culprit. "It is because of maya (illusion) that we do not perceive what is real, so we develop a big ego and become very judgmental. The secret to being forgiving is to get connected to the supreme consciousness which is our true self, to pure love — and Hindus do this traditionally through meditation. Karma yoga," he adds, "also teaches us to focus on the present moment, to forget the past and the future and act egolessly in the present." "To the extent that we are able to forgive another we are stopping the negative cycle of karma" and progressing toward moksha or "liberation from the karmic gravitational field," says Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal.

Acharya Palaniswami, a Hindu monk and editor-in-chief of

transgression of the dharma, the spiritual law. In the end, this feeling of liberation — from our sense of guilt, from our shame and pain — is what all the faith traditions offer believers in response to human fallibility. Their message is that the freedom to create ourselves and our relationships anew in every moment may be the most powerful reason to extend the gift of forgiveness to ourselves and others.

Ann Kathleen Bradley's articles have appeared in

Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve, contrasts this perspective with a rabbi friend's assertion that God "treats people strictly according to the quality of their deeds and their character. If you're a bad guy he'll call you a bad guy, and he'll wallop you in the end." But the Christian, Smedes says, believes God is willing to forgive those who repent "even though we don't deserve it - because if we deserved it we wouldn't need to be forgiven. That's why it's called amazing grace. And once you experience that in your gut, the desire to get even slowly washes away." Theologian Paul Tillich declared in a famous sermon that "forgiveness means acceptance of those who are unacceptable. It is unconditional or it is not forgiveness at all." Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, explains that "We can never forgive others if we don't forgive ourselves — because we project a lot of our own discontent onto them." Hinduism Today, explains that "when a really devout Hindu comes to the end of his life he goes about asking and offering forgiveness — even to his enemies — so he does not carry that karmic burden into the next lifetime. An ancient text says, 'If you really want to shame your enemies, forgive them.' There is a practice for resolving your own resentments and other feelings by writing them down on a piece of paper and burning it," he says. A specific penance is also required for each Elle, Tricycle, Healthy Living, and other magazines. She is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary.

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Forgiveness and the Jewish High Holy Days

During the month preceding the Jewish High Holy Days, Jews spend time examining their behavior of the past year and asking

Are they required to forgive acts which may be truly unforgivable? Are there, in fact, acts which are unforgivable? Each fall as we approach the Days of Awe, victims of early childhood sexual abuse, and others who have survived psychological or physical abuse at the hands of those whom they loved and trusted may ask themselves these questions. They may never have reconciled with the perpetrator of the terrible acts against them; the perpetrator may have refused to even acknowledge the abuse or may have died without ever taking any steps to make amends. At the very time when we should be looking inward to examine our actions, and to make atonement to those whom we have wronged, the survivors of abuse may be overwhelmed by anger or resentment for the painful memories that continue to plague them.

When memorial prayers in the synagogue encourage us to laud the virtues of parents or spouses who have died, these survivors may feel even more isolated and alienated from the very community to whom they turn for support.

by Marcia Cohn Spiegel, M.A. forgiveness of those whom they have wronged. However for some people there is a dilemma. Judaism teaches us that a person who has committed an act against another must go to that person to ask forgiveness, to rectify their behavior, to do tshuvah. While we are not required to forgive the wrong doer, we are encouraged to do so. Asher ben Yehiel admonishes us "each night before retiring, forgive whomever offended you." But how does one forgive the perpetrator of early childhood sexual abuse, or violence that has left us with deeply scarred? When we are struggling with flashbacks and nightmares and a variety of ailments brought on by the abuse, forgiving the offender may be far from our minds, or our ability. While we may not be able to forgive, we cannot continue to live with rage, fear and anger. Perhaps we need to find a word other than forgiveness in order to move forward. Judaism has the concept of shlemut, wholeness, personal integrity and peace. Seeking shlemut may help us find our way toward recovery. During the Holy Days we may use the prayers that speak of forgiveness as a time to draw deep into ourselves to begin to heal the pain. When we say kaddish, the memorial prayer, we remember that we are not praising the dead, but rather praising God who acts in this world. We can use this season to look at our own actions so that we do not use what was done to us as an excuse for what we have done to others. As we grow in strength and courage we may eventually be able to leave the past behind, and for some forgiveness may be possible.

Marcia Cohn Spiegel, M.A., Hebrew Union College, is working to create change in the attitudes of the Jewish Community towards addiction, violence and sexual abuse. She is the author of "Women Speak to god: The Poems and Prayers of Jewish Women" and serves on the Center’s Jewish Advisory Committee.