Wednesday, September 04, 2002

A Jewish Survivor Reflects on the Meaning of Forgiveness

Harriet Lane Baggett, Ph.D., LCP
Staunton, Virginia
Originally Published on

L’Shana Tova! 

That is, Happy New Year! The evening of September 6th, 2002 marks the beginning of the New Year in the Jewish calendar, 5763. It is the beginning of a ten day period that we usually call “The High Holy Days,” marked at the beginning with Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and at the end with Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The entire ten days are referred to as The Days of Awe, or sometimes, The Ten Days of Repentance. Tradition holds that during these initial ten days of the year, God considers who will live through the year to see the next. Those who are clearly righteous will be written into the Book of Life on the first day, while those who are clearly wicked will be written into the Book of Death that day. For the rest of us, who fall somewhere in between, the Days of Awe are a time to make it all up, so to speak, so that God might finally write us into the Book of Life before sealing it on Yom Kippur. It is a time for us to closely examine our behaviors in the prior year, to evaluate our ethical and moral and religious standing, and to make repairs and repentance. Even those of us who do not really believe that God is up in heaven determining our destinies take seriously the basis of this tradition: that in order to have a sweet new year, we need to deal justly with the things we have done to sour the years that came before. Thus, the High Holy Day period is all about repentance and forgiveness, a topic that is so much at the core of the pain felt by victims/survivors of professional exploitation. 

My very first Jewish service was the eve of Yom Kippur 15 years ago, which I attended with several Jewish friends. I did not consider myself to be a very spiritual person; I was not practicing the religion in which I was raised, and was not inclined to seek out other paths. I went in order to support my friends, and perhaps with a bit of anthropological interest. 

But I was deeply moved. What most stands out in my memory is the part of the service in which the congregants recited what I now know to be Al Khet; this prayer is essentially a confession to a litany of sins committed during the prior year. Everyone in the congregation names every sin; some prayer books are more specific than others in the naming of the sins, but the implication is that we are all part of a community that has sinned against God in each and every one of these ways. So, on this first Yom Kippur, I stood with my friends as they set pride aside and spoke aloud all of these sins against God and asked for God’s forgiveness. This was an awesome contrast, for me, to the secret shame of the confessional on which I was brought up. What freedom, I thought, to let go of the chains of silence and secrecy and to say the shame out loud, as a group, acknowledging that we all have sinned.
It took a lot of years and a lot of thought and finally a lot of courage before I started attending synagogue services with the idea that I might actively participate, not just observe. Now I lived in a small southern town with not many Jews, and a neighbor, friend and synagogue leader took me under her wing. For more than a year I was almost like a member of her family, celebrating holidays, studying Torah and the prayers, enjoying traditional music and food, learning the rituals and language, and developing meaningful appreciation of Jewish theology. So much of the theology speaks to me. But the part that was most healing for me, that brought me closest to my spiritual center, was the theology around repentance and forgiveness. For me, it all went back to that first Yom Kippur: the healing power of open acknowledgement of wrongdoing. 

But, there is a catch in Judaism, a big difference from Christian theology: Yom Kippur only allows atonement for sins we commit against God. God does not grant forgiveness for sins that we commit against other people. For that, we must approach and make repentance to the person whom we have wronged; then it is up to that person to grant forgiveness. I took to heart this teaching, often explained by my friend and then reiterated by rabbis during High Holy Day sermons. I searched inside myself, I let go of my pride, I faced my shame and I sought out people, some of whom I hadn’t had contact with in years, and I acknowledged my wrongs. Some responded favorably, some did not. It was a gift to me when they responded with acceptance and forgiveness, but regardless of their response, I was free of the binds that had held me from authentic relationship with those people. I felt more relaxed, more at ease in all my relationships than I had in so many ages. With each reminder of this important piece of Jewish theology, whether sermon or reading or discussion, I remembered again to handle my current relationships with equal authenticity and clarity. It was a sweet and joyous time in my life, a time of connection with people and with God, the kind of connection and authenticity that I imagined must permeate the relationships of all people who are serious about their spirituality. Especially rabbis. 

It has now been almost five years since the beginning of my sexual exploitation by the woman who was my rabbi during the course of my conversion. The ensuing years have witnessed numerous additional betrayals by rabbinic and synagogue leaders as I have sought the kind of justice that I had been taught was at the heart of Jewish tradition. The High Holy Days have taken on a new, and confusing, significance. It is impossible for me to understand how these rabbis, with their flowery sermons urging us toward repentance to other people and not just to God, are able to face the High Holy Days, “The Days of Awe,” year after year without making honest repentance to me for the abuse and the collusion and all of the heinous consequences of these betrayals. 

There have been a few supportive clergy (Jewish and Christian) who have helped me to hold to my faith and my theology, and to continue to hold the rabbis accountable for their sins against me. Ironically, the rabbi “supporters” have been more likely to tell me to “forgive and forget,” that phrase so dreaded by victims of clergy sexual abuse. Or they might say, “forgive but don’t forget,” in the mixed up belief that somehow that meshes better with our theology. 

But I cannot forgive. Repentance has not been made and, in Jewish tradition, my tradition, there is no context for forgiveness when there has been no repentance. (A corollary to this Jewish teaching is that another cannot forgive the offender in my place; in other words, in the absence of meaningful repentance, the synagogue or rabbinic leadership cannot forgive my perpetrator even though I don’t. This is an important point for many clergy abuse victims, who have seen their congregations “forgive” their perpetrator while the victim is left to hang in the wind.) 

To be honest, I’m not sure I even know what forgiveness would look like. How can I know when there has been no repentance? There seem to be so many definitions of forgiveness; it is very subjective. Based on my experiences in other situations, I think forgiveness would mean that I can verbalize acceptance of, belief in, the regret expressed by the offenders’ gestures of repentance if they made them; this, in turn, would mean more open and authentic relationship with them, a potential for growth. Perhaps forgiveness would be my “gift” to them of lifting the pain of their guilt and shame by allowing for future meaningful, healing relations…meaningful relationship that can only come from both parties being open and honest with themselves and each other, which can only come when repentance has been made. 

The dictionaries I’ve looked at all seem to include “to pardon” in the primary definition; to me “to pardon” implies letting go of the expectation for justice. The second definition often includes “letting go of anger.” In the absence of repentance, I just don’t think I can do either of these things without compromising my personal ethics or diminishing my experience and feelings. I cannot in good conscience “pardon” the rabbis, excuse them from doing what their own ethical guidelines demand; I continue to expect them to adhere to their ethics and morals, to care about the justice on which their religion is based. Neither can I put a lid on my feelings of hurt and anger; they betrayed me, they have made promises not kept, and to “let go of my anger” would be to diminish the importance of the experience and the injustice. That is not to say, however, that I can’t grow. 

But first, while I’m not completely certain what forgiveness would look like, I do think I have an idea of what it would not look like for me. It would not mean forgetting, as the astute rabbis pointed out. It would not mean compromising the expectation for justice; justice is required for forgiveness in my theology. It would not mean becoming friends with the offender. But most important for me, one who has not received a just response, forgiveness does not equal “acceptance,” it does not equal “understanding” the perpetrator/colluders, it does not equal “moving on.” I can do these things without repentance or forgiveness. I have found that I am better able to accept that this has happened and that the rabbis are not who they claim to be. I am better able to understand their humanity, and the fact that in the unconscious (if not conscious) minds of almost all organizational leaders, the preservation of the organization’s image (and thus the leaders’ power) becomes more important than the ideals upon which it was founded. And, finally, I am becoming able to “move on” in many aspects of my life, even my spirituality. 

With the help of so many wonderful people (almost all of whom I’ve connected with through AdvocateWeb, directly or indirectly!), I have moved through the initial confusion and self-denial, through the raw pain of all the losses, through the desperate and angry attempts to claim justice and reclaim faith, through the excruciating moments of disillusionment and outrage, and through so many complicated feelings of wondering where God is in all this. I’m not done with these feelings; they are not all gone, and I don’t think they will ever go away completely, particularly not in the absence of justice. But neither are they as overwhelming nor as constant as in the first years. Now I can focus on acts of charity, I can paint a room in my house, I can savor a day on the water, I can converse meaningfully about topics that are not at all related to the exploitation. I have been able to meet new people, even to date. And now not a day goes by that I am not compelled to thank God for all the good things in my life, especially even those I’ve found through this nightmare: compassionate family, friends and advocates; moving new prayers and music; eye-opening new perspectives on life and God and all faith traditions; and even restful new vacation destinations where retreats were held. I am learning how to pray again by myself, and have even joined another synagogue (albeit 50 miles away). Perhaps I’ll even attend services there someday soon; maybe I’ll be able to do some of the home rituals in coming years…probably not this High Holy Day season, but maybe the next, or the one after that. And I am learning constructive ways to use this experience and the bad feelings it has caused; if I suppressed my angry feelings with premature “forgiveness,” there are so many good things I might not be motivated to pursue (such as writing, or supporting other victims). What I’ve finally discovered, by hanging on to my truth and surrounding myself with people who will hear it, is that THERE IS HOPE for claiming a new joy in Judaism and in life. The experience of hope is among the many blessings that I have learned again to count every day. 

I have not forgiven, I have not forgotten, I have not ceased my effort for justice, and in many ways I am still affected by the betrayals and the losses, as I always will be. But, I am moving on, healing and growing, learning to put my feelings to helpful purpose. I may not receive repentance, and thus won’t be able to grant forgiveness, but I will still find sweetness in this New Year. And so, I pray for L’Shana Tova for all of us.

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