How to Forgive
What a year it’s been. Last High Holiday season, we were coming off an awful spring and a slightly less awful summer, and awaiting what experts were warning would be a terrible winter. Many of us spent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur alone or with our nuclear family and pod, if we were lucky enough to have them.
Thankfully, despite the uncertainty of the Delta variant, this year is looking somewhat better. About half of the population in the United States is vaccinated. Many synagogues were planning to be open this year, which means that we can observe the fall holidays as they are meant to be celebrated—as a community.
Still, at this time dedicated to introspection, soul searching and forgiveness, there are mixed emotions: grief for the people who passed; sadness and empathy for those who got sick, lost jobs and suffered in quarantine. But what should we feel for people who refused to observe quarantine mandates or wear masks, who won’t vaccinate (for nonmedical reasons) or who spread disinformation about Covid-19? Or for those who perpetuated divisions in our society? What to do about all the emotions—even rage—at the stubborn ones who we think are responsible for our suffering?
I looked for answers to these questions about seeking forgiveness and forgiving others in two recently published books by Jewish authors—memoirist Susan Shapiro and the late Holocaust survivor and education activist Eva Mozes Kor, founder of CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Ind.
“My childhood rabbi once explained that on Yom Kippur, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, sins made before God in the past year were mercifully erased, but not offenses committed against fellow humans,” Susan Shapiro writes in The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology.
Judaism traditionally focuses on individual atonement and guides us in how to confess our misdeeds and seek forgiveness, Shapiro explains. “Yet what if the one who hurt you refuses to express any regret?” she poses in her book.
Shapiro, a New York Times best-selling writer, was not referring to this pandemic year, but to a once-beloved mentor—a therapist who helped her beat addictions to drugs and cigarettes. But the therapist deeply hurt her by lying to her, gaslighting her about the lie and then refusing to apologize. In response to those feelings of hurt and betrayal, Shapiro decided to research the idea of forgiveness. In her book, she interviews 13 people—including Holocaust and other genocide survivors as well as victims of sexual assault, infidelity and cruelty—to discover very different takes on absolution, from “forgive but don’t forget” to those who feel that “forgiveness is overrated.”
The book also explores what she calls a billion-dollar forgiveness industry—books, films, programs and organizations that promote the ideal of complete exoneration, or radical forgiveness, a term popularized by the late Colin Tipping, a British author and speaker who founded a personal growth movement around the idea of forgiveness.
Indeed, in America we are taught that we must forgive and forget. The culture we live in seems to believe that if you don’t forgive someone—no matter what they did—you are only hurting yourself. No matter what others have done, they are expected to trot out the standard apology, maybe a few. In time, unless their actions were criminal, we, the general public, and those who were wronged, are expected to forgive them and eventually forget.
But is that expectation right—or even healthy?
Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor came to believe that it is. In her posthumously published memoir The Power of Forgiveness, Kor, who passed away in 2019, recounts how she and her twin sister, Miriam, became “Mengele’s twins” at age 10. Dr. Joseph Mengele experimented on both in Auschwitz. While the rest of the family was murdered at the same concentration camp, Kor and her sister survived.
The Power of Forgiveness is not the story of her survival but what she does with her rage—at the Nazis, at her family’s decimation, at the health problems she and her sister experienced as the result of Mengele’s torture. “I was at odds with everything,” she writes. “And I was full of resentment—of course against the Nazis, who were responsible for it all. But also against myself because I couldn’t manage to free myself from these feelings.”
As a survivor, Kor felt bad about feeling bad. If someone who suffers the worst of the worst isn’t allowed to carry their rage, to be unforgiving, who in the world can?
The book describes her journey of forgiveness. She travels to Germany in 1993 and meets with a doctor who worked with Mengele. And Kor forgives him. “I didn’t need to get revenge, retaliation, or atonement in order to experience this sublime feeling—and I had never thought highly of the Old Testament approach of ‘an eye for an eye.’ I would forgive Dr. Mengele and finally be free,” she writes in a letter to the doctor.
“I was no longer the victim, passive and helpless, but the active person. That made me feel powerful. I realized that forgiveness was freeing—not for the offender, but for the victim.”
There’s that theme again, that by forgiving others you become powerful and liberated, and that by holding on to rage, to anger, to anguish, you only hurt yourself. It’s like the quote, sometimes attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
I love that mandela, presumably, could forgive those who perpetuated apartheid and jailed him for decades, that Kor could forgive the Nazis. However, I think it takes people of extraordinary character to rise above their past hurts and forgive. And it makes those of us who cannot—especially under less drastic circumstances—feel even worse about ourselves.
I reached out to Shapiro to ask her if, on her quest, she found an alternative to radical forgiveness.
“There’s a lot of contradictions about radical forgiveness,” she said. In talking to so many people about their hurts and what they needed for an apology, she learned that there is no “one-size-fits-all” rule that works, she said. “The theme of my memoir is actually how idiosyncratic and nuanced hurt, atonement and forgiveness are.”
She personally empathizes with the attitude of family friend Manny Mandel, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen whom she interviewed for her book: “He never forgave the Nazis and found a way to thrive in his life out of spite,” she said of Mandel, a therapist who has counseled many trauma victims.
In Shapiro’s book, Mandel explains that his secret to survival is “10 percent rage and 90 percent ‘thank God we’re still alive.’ Being here and successful said to Hitler, ‘Up yours! We refuse to let you control our life.’ ”
But there has to be something between living for spite and radical forgiveness, right? Between accepting rote apologies and holding on to resentment forever.
“I would say we need more sincere atonement, reparations and better, more concrete and effective apologies,” Shapiro told me. Maybe then people can consider forgiveness—not radical, not of Nazis, but of people who are actually sorry.
But what about people who refuse to apologize? How, in these Days of Awe, do we forgive unrepentant people, individuals as well as groups, for their trespasses?
Sometimes, Shapiro said, “we don’t.” Instead, we can “avoid them at all costs, to protect ourselves and our families.”
Perhaps that is the middle ground—between drinking the poison of resentment and complete absolution: Just walking away.
Amy Klein is the author of The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind.