by Rabbi Susan Schnur

Beyond Forgiveness

Women, Can We Emancipate Ourselves from a Model Meant for Men?

The story of how Joseph was betrayed by his brothers— how they cast him naked into a waterless desert pit and then hoisted him back up for a better deal (cash from some south-trekking caravaneers)—is classically invoked as a tale of astonishing forgiveness. For although Joseph’s brothers perpetrated against him the high criminal offenses of kidnapping and slave-trading (“If a man steal one of his brethren and treat him as a slave or sell him, then he shall die,” Deuteronomy 24:7), and although they hated his guts, Joseph—a regular hairshirt of a tzaddik—responds with love, slathering on forgiveness as if it could make seedlings grow and crops yield their fruits. . . yea, as if forgiveness could stop a famine.

“You will dwell in the region of Goshen, where you will be near me,” Joseph tells his brothers tenderly, in a classic moral determinist fable of criss-crossed fortunes: he, the victimized little boy, risen to become granary vizier over all of Egypt, and they, the sociopathic brutes, now (in Dickensian fashion) helpless themselves and dependent on—wouldn’t you know?—the boy they once put in a hole.

“You and your children and your grandchildren, your flocks and herds and all that is yours, there I will provide for all of you,” Joseph vows, “that you will no longer suffer want, for there are yet five years of famine to come.”

But how useful is it, we need to ask ourselves—or how destructive— to have Joseph, this paragon of boddhisattvic rahmones, held up to us as we wrestle our way out of our own desert pits, struggling to forgive those who have hurt us? For we sit in our High Holiday chairs as real—not idealized—people, wearing real stockings sticking with real sweat to our real thighs on these really uncomfortable metal folding chairs, and we stocktake, yet again, victimizations that—large and small—have insistently taken possession of parts of our lives, crippling our engagement in more positive things.

Yea, Joseph forgave his older brothers for wanting to murder him . . . but we can’t stop dreying over the fact that our next-door neighbor continues to park in our driveway even though we have unambiguously told him not to. Yea, Joseph forgave his older brothers for selling him as a slave, for god’s sake, but we have still not forgiven our older brothers for pedaling off ahead of us on the Atlantic City boardwalk forty years ago while we, terrified of getting lost, pumped frantically on our little trike, sobbing hysterically.

And as for more serious betrayals—a husband who has had an affair, a step-sibling who molested us, a dear friend who reneged on a substantial loan, a sister’s lifelong self-centeredness, a father who emotionally neglected us, a body that’s contracted multiple sclerosis, being middle-aged and unmarried and childless, being abandoned by society because we are fat . . . having Joseph held up to us as if his ability to forgive were normal. . . well, the truth is that working one’s way through such painful injustices is an arduous and punishing and solitary task—one that we master, if at all, slowly and in bite-sized increments, and over many years. And the process does not in any way resemble Joseph’s idealized and shallowly homileticized ability to forgive.

Furthermore, the place where we reach some resolution in our hearts in relation to the betrayal and are no longer ruminatively obsessed with the hurt or injustice, or actively under its omnivorous pall, may NOT be “forgiveness” at all, but rather indifference or detachment or unforgiving reconciliation. It may be partial forgiveness, or forgiveness with the stipulation that we will never again be in the same room with this person, or numbness or chronic ache. It is not, that is, that forgiveness is the bottom line, but rather that emotional resolution is. That is the real achievement and hard-won freedom.

And that might result in our feeding our brothers in Goshen, but —you know what?—it might just as legitimately result in our letting them starve. Indeed, the only clear thing about working one’s way through an emotional betrayal is the fact that, as our sages say, there is but one road through grief and pain, and that is the road through grief and pain. There are no shortcuts. And to the extent that received rabbinic Judaism, in general, holds up to us fairy tale models of hairshirt tzaddikim—not just Joseph, but plenty of others—that, too, betrays us real folk.

Because it also happens to be the case that this over-simplification of the process of forgiveness is not, in these last few years, trotted out in a vacuum, but rather in the context of a contemporary world that has suddenly turned “instant forgiveness” into a veritable industry—Oprah effecting two-minute reconciliations of family feuds that have lasted a lifetime; “Forgiveness Weekends” cropping up at spiritual retreat centers everywhere you look (“$425,” advertises one, “including aromatherapy, labyrinth, and a fully-equipped exercise gym”); and rabbis ratcheting up the rhetoric to suggest, as one recently did in his synagogue bulletin, that if we were truly good and moral people, we would just “do it.”

For women in particular, though, whose emotional learning curve typically involves trying to stop ourselves from being pathological forgivers, such “just-do-it” models can be pernicious, even adding fuel to our ever-ready sense of personal shortcoming. Simon Wiesenthal, that beyond-reliable participant-observer of life at its least humane, expressed dismay that “today the world demands that we forgive [grave injustices], closing the account as if nothing had ever happened. Forgiving,” he points out, “is an act of volition. Only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.’”

Indeed, in matters of the heart, it is not medieval rabbis or weekend gurus or even Oprah Winfrey in whom authority is vested; it is invested in each one of us—and in whatever fundamentally subjective process gets us to the other side

. . . . which brings us, during and after this Jewish penitential season, to a critique of the whole concept of forgiveness, which fails us on several counts.

First it is based on a faulty supposition: that forgiveness, in and of itself, is inherently worthy, is the only moral choice. Indeed, this is not the case. On the contrary, not forgiving can be a pre-condition for moving on into a reconstructed emotional life, especially, say, if your betrayer has impaired your sense of self, or mistreated you when you were young or were particularly vulnerable.

In a thoughtful new book by Jeanne Safer, Forgiving and Not Forgiving, the author describes a woman whose violent older brother used to terrorize her when they were kids, playing games that involved, for example, putting a screwdriver into her rectum. The family portrayed the brother not as dangerous or socio-pathic, but rather as benignly “[not knowing] how to be friends.” When the woman finally, after many years, takes a stand against this erasure of her experience—deciding that she will refuse her brother’s phone calls and letting her family know that she will not attend family functions if he is present—her parents’ “take” on her stance is that she’s the one “destroying the family.”

Safer describes the classic emotional double-bind that is often the lot of those who have been betrayed (especially women and children): On the one hand, we are harangued to “forgive and forget.” But on the other, we are told that there is nothing to forgive and forget. In the case of this woman with the abusive older brother, years of “forgiving” him only re-sentenced her to that ice floe where her family had long ago remaindered her. Forgiving sanctioned her collusion in the false reality that her family painfully instituted at her expense.

This woman’s healthy retaliatory measures—her refusal to take her brother’s phone calls or be in the same room with him (her refusal to forgive, that is) was not only necessary to her healing, but also set up the conditions for the whole family (if they so chose) to face the facts and grieve those facts and begin to heal. Sometimes not forgiving is but a stop—maybe a really, really long one, but nevertheless not the final destination—on the life-span road to ultimate forgiveness. Indeed, sometimes there is only one thing that makes forgiving possible: not forgiving.

Second, forgiving is generally understood to be a black-and-white matter—either we “forgive” or we “don’t forgive,” and either we do it “now” or we do it “never.” But this, in relation to deeply felt violations, is reductive, a misrepresentation of our experience, and a mockery of the complex continuum of resolutions that crystallize in the aftermath of a betrayal. We may partially forgive, vengefully forgive, contingently forgive, not forgive yet reconcile. We may mourn yet not forgive; achieve understanding yet only forgive certain parts of the betrayal; become indifferent; become detached. Forgiveness is comprised of lots of things.

And as for mandating that forgiveness happen now—during this spiritual season or this “forgiveness weekend”—well, that is likely to spawn only phony forgiveness, an experience of guilt and estrangement from our own real feelings that, for women in particular, points towards despair. Indeed, superficial “forgiving” actually interferes with authentic emotional resolution, putting true forgiveness—if it had been in the cards at all—^perpetually out of reach. The “real stuff”—the shlaymut (“wholeness”), as Marcia Cohn Spiegel puts it—that we work towards in our hearts, evolves in its own good time, as our lives—and those of our betrayers’—pick up speed and victories and losses.

An abusive father, for example, may be the object of his daughter’s hatred until she herself becomes a parent and witness first-hand her spouse’s loving fathering. Somehow that emotional experience ushers her into mourning what will never be—her own experience of having a father like that—which, in turn, frees her up to see her father three-dimensionally for the first time—not only as this abusive guy, but as a complex human being struggling with his own profound losses. And as her father softens emotionally (and becomes ill and dependent) in old age, he too changes: becoming a loving grandparent. In response to this, the daughter’s feelings transmute again, into something akin to compassion.

“Tincture of time,” as physicians call it, is always a primary ingredient in the work of shlaymut, of emotional resolution. If, this Rosh Hashana, your heart stays put in “not-forgiving land,” respect that. Forgive yourself, for a change. Take the posture of your heart seriously.

Third, forgiveness is advanced as a one-size-fits-all commodity, abandoning many of us non-forgivers to self-flagellation; Judy and Ben were victimized by Professor X just like I was—yet they’ve moved on and “forgiven,” what’s wrong with me? Nothing. The same betrayal means very different things to very different people.

If your sweetheart dumps you, say, just as she has dumped a string of other girlfriends before you, each one of you will respond to the abandonment from your own authentic subjectivity: this dumped girlfriend, say, finds a more supportive sweetheart and pretty much works the issue through; that girlfriend has childhood abandonments that get painfully stirred up again in the face of this fresh injury—it will take her a good while to stop feeling utterly bereft; this third woman believes that she will never have another romantic relationship in her life and that her own faults precipitated the break-up; this fourth girlfriend doesn’t consider being dumped an injury at all-she just sees the perpetrator as a sad sack with a lot of problems. None has the “right” response—there is no such thing. Each is simply being herself. As the psychologist Harriet Lerner puts it, “Being yourself is a job only you are qualified for.”

“Forgiving,” then, is a fundamentally unequal opportunity provider—no two people ever share the same context. Just because your husband has forgiven your daughter for a significant injustice doesn’t mean that you can. Indeed, his taking the “good cop” role might have relinquished to you the untaken “bad cop” one. Classically, family members take on roles very much in relation to one another, and in relation to who is more easily seduced into filling unclaimed vacuums.

Finally, and perhaps most important to LILITH readers, forgiveness, in and of itself, is a gendered issue. In the seasonal Jewish work of “forgiveness” that confronts us during the Days of Awe, this means that male liturgists and scholars through the ages have formulated their ideas about forgiveness in relation to male, not female, character—and males, as most of us can attest, typically struggle with the kinds of feelings that get aroused through both the granting of forgiveness (an act that can feel shamefully sissified) and the requesting of it (that can feel craven, too). As two college aged males in a recent workshop on gender put it, “Asking somebody to forgive you is a blow to your self-esteem. It makes you feel vulnerable and undefended, like a girl.” Added the other, “It’s worse than asking for directions.”

Indeed, ‘I did something wrong’ is much harder for most males to say than it is for most females—for good reasons. As children, males are shamed about their perceived “weaknesses,” and, as psychotherapists can attest, shamed children generally grow up to be people who find it extremely difficult to apologize. Also, most Dads don’t do much apologizing, so that becomes the model passed on to their sons.

The statements “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you,” then—the mene mene tekel ufarsin of the High Holiday season—fundamentally are meant to correct for male socialization. They are pro-social code-words meant to restore connection and interpersonal harmony. In my congregation the kids sing, “Let’s be friends, make amends, now’s the time to say ‘I’m sorry’” (a ditty, with plaintive hand motions, that continues, “please say you’ll forgive me” and “take my hand and I’ll take yours”), front-loading, of course, the social harmony theme of the Days of Awe. The in-your-face incantations of the season—”I’m sorry” “I forgive you”—need to be in your face if you’re a guy, as they are in opposition to almost all other behavioral injunctions and must transcend them. Asking for and granting forgiveness are, if you will, religious trump cards, an eleventh commandment that sanctions, for men, doing pro-social things without suffering shame.

Which brings us to female socialization, and the fact that women are systematically steered towards maintaining connections, even at great personal cost. If you imagine, say. King Solomon’s adjudication in relation to the two mothers who both claimed rights to the same baby (“cut the child in half”), and you change the parents into dads—well, the story kind of fizzles, it just doesn’t have the same emotional oomph, which derives not only from the mothers’ ferocity of attachment when they first come to see Solomon, but, more viscerally, from the real mother’s willingness to sacrifice herself, as it were, for this child. That’s, in particular, the part that deeply resonates as female.

We females, indeed, know that we say “I’m sorry” to a fault—even when we’re the ones being victimized! Forgiving is easy for us; it’s not forgiving that’s the struggle. We are over-socialized to stay connected, to “make peace,” to make sure nobody is offended, to forget to ask if we ourselves are offended. Indeed, this is perhaps the core of our gender socialization.

To give a favorite example—some years ago in Baltimore, the American Cancer Society received hundreds of calls from women who had been led into having a conversation with a man who claimed he was from the Society but whose questions, as the interviews went on, became increasingly sexually harassing. Later interviewed for an article, the women uniformly said that what distressed them the most was not, in fact, the guy’s obscenities, but their own response. They couldn’t switch gears fast enough. They heard themselves saying, politely, to their horror, “I’m sorry, but I really have to go now. I’m afraid I have to hang up.”

And in studies that examine how gendered norms become internalized in children, most men report that they learned what it means to be a male through being told things like “Boys don’t cry” and “You go right back out there and beat the shit out of that kid.” Women, on the other hand, learned what it means to be female through another set of shibboleths: “Be the bigger person,” “Let it go,” “Don’t be so sensitive,” “Let bygones be bygones,” “You’re more mature than your brother, let him have his way,” “He doesn’t mean it.” All of these speak to the issue of forgiveness. Classically, we are the ones asked to make the concessions, to forgive the unforgivable, to sacrifice ourselves for the greater cause. In ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, girls internalize the message, “Do it for shalom bayit [for family harmony],” a phrase that domestic-violence victims in this community invoke to explain why it takes them significantly longer (than non-religious women) to report abuse.

Socio-biologists would argue that there’s a reason for the female “forgiveness gene”: we females are less physically powerful than males; we know that it is dangerous not to “make constant nice-nice,” a phrase that a psychology client of mine—a rape victim-always used to characterize her and her sisters’ roles in their family of origin. Her brothers, she explained, got rewarded for their emotional tone-deafness. “If they walked all over you or pissed you off that was somehow more acceptable than if they, God forbid, were caught checking to see if they’d hurt you, if you were okay.” For males in this woman’s family, if you’re “sucking up to somebody”-that is, if you’re asking for or granting compassion— you lose face, you acknowledge a certain defeat.

“People who apologize easily feel empowered by saying, ‘I’m wrong,’” writes Lerner. Typically, those people are women, who feel better (or perhaps what they feel is ‘safer’) after saying, “I apologize.” But people who apologize with difficulty—many men, that is—associate apologizing with feeling worse, “with weakening the fabric of the self [and] with losing power or control.”

In the theological abstract, then, mandating “forgiveness” at this penitential season—that is, having male scholars and liturgists enshrine forgiveness as moral canon for their world of male worshippers and their male God—is a corrective, necessary response to the demands of the male ego in conflict with the communitarian goals of society. But asking women to enact compulsory forgiveness is an injury of a whole different color. Where’s our spiritual corrective?

What we women need from Judaism, then, is a confirmation of our tshuvah processour work towards shlaymut (spiritual and emotional wholeness). We need to get religious hand-holding like men get it. We need the autumn holidays to encourage our soul-searching and stocktaking in relation to our healing process.

Judaism’s liturgy and theology need to support women in our work towards responsible not forgiving, when that’s appropriate, so that we can come to believe that the world, indeed, won’t explode as a result of our failure to “make constant nice-nice.” Maybe we need to not forgive because Mom did—over and over—and it ruined her life. Maybe we need to not forgive because hating this person who has traumatically victimized us is the way we feel most deeply safe. For many of us, not forgiving is more difficult than forgiving, and having Judaism support us in our authentic journey towards emotional resolution would be a deeply religious experience.

Or, if we’re “attached” (after all, that’s what we do) to the canonical idea of forgiving, maybe we can try something refreshingly new this High Holiday season: forgiving ourselves. For many martyring women, this would definitely count as extremely high-level forgiving. Exhorting people to forgive, to put it another way, might be an important civilizing prod for men, but it’s harassment for some women, a victimization dished out from our religious heym (home), from the very place that we need also to feel embraced and understood and, indeed, forgiven.

Rachel Adler, the feminist scholar, writes about how liturgy and theology themselves can “belie or misrepresent [women's] experience, making us not only invisible, but making our invisibility invisible.” Such religious traditions, she argues, not only “violate integrity, [but] insult God.” And including women in prayer, she adds, means “including not only their bodies, but their prayers”—something that the biblical Hannah managed to push her way past over two thousand years ago. “However radically Judaism has changed, and however radically its prayer books have changed,” writes Adler, “one requirement that never altered was that women temporarily abandon the selves they really are in order to pray in the words of the community.”

“Prayer is not for lying to God,” as Adler puts it, “and prayer is not for hurting or excluding members of our community.” It’s time to recognize that this core concept of the most holy season of the Jewish calendar—forgiveness—can lead us to do both.


On Not Forgiving a Terrible Father

by Susan Schnur

In Gimme A Kiss, Lilly Rivlin’s sad but very real and very wise documentary, the filmmaker daughter interviews  her elderly, deeply unlikable father. He is a double amputee in a hospital bed who makes his leg-stumps mug for the camera, caressing them like breasts and cat-whistling. ‘Yoo hoo!” he says to his daughter, pulling off two cotton caps and shimmying burlesque-style, ‘You wanna take a picture of my legs?” It’s a revolting gesture full of unclaimed hostility, and it gives the viewer a heart-sinking glimpse of what Lilly and her siblings were up against having this crude man as their father. And that is what this film is about. J.B. (Julius Rivlin was not only emotionally abusive to his wife and children, he was also a proud sexual philanderer. Sometimes he combined both by promising his children a car ride to some thrilling destination, only to abandon them in the car for panicky hours while he disappeared behind the front door of some girlfriend or other.

But beyond the damage wreaked by this damaged man, the film depicts something quietly transcendent and heroic. For we hear middle-aged, once-traumatized siblings—all of whom seem still suffused in a kind of childhood sadness—speak in authentic, non-reactive voices about not forgiving their father. And we can feel, viscerally, how life-saving that is, what a feat of maturity. For in Julius’s family, not forgiving was the only way to survive psychologically intact, the only way to triumph over the masochistic roles that a father forced on his family, the only way to stake a claim for one’s basic right to have feelings, the only way to take on the dirty, thankless job of not colluding in Daddy’s reckless indifference to the truth.

At one point in the film, Lilly says to her father matter-of-factly, “Why do you think you don’t get along with any of your children?” “Who don’t get along?,” J.B. answers, “they don’t get along with me.” And in another scene, Lilly says, “Mom says you have a black son. I would like to meet him. Can I meet him?” “So you got a black brother?” J.B. laughs, and then denies having a black son, to which Lilly responds evenly, “You lie all the time.”

Though each of these grown children has lifetime scars, unlike their father, they do not mug for the camera. On the contrary, their hard-won self-regard has bathed them in a kind of telltale luminescence. They speak out of shlaymut, out of wholeness and emotional resolution, and they express great clarity about who they are, what they value, and what they need. They “speak their truth” in their own voices, not in anyone else’s, and they have each obviously struggled to love and forgive one person in particular: themselves. Lilly has become a truth-and-justice seeker; Dorothy, an advocate for both the getting and giving of love; Donny, a person who empathizes with people’s limitations (including his father’s and his own) and works towards the horizon of tikkun olam: His fathering, he tells us, has been a little bit better than Julius’s, and his sons’ will be a little bit better than that.

Standing at the gravestones of her parents, eight years after J.B.’s death, Dorothy describes the last time she saw their father: “He was in intensive care. I said, ‘Dad, I want to ask you, please. One thing you’ve never said to me in all my life, is that you love me. Now, if you can hear me, Dad, tell me, just one time, tell me you love me. Make me happy today. Tell me you love me.’ And I’m sitting there talking to a dead man. ‘Please tell me you love me,’ and he wouldn’t.”

Sometimes, indeed, learning not to forgive is the only thing that guides us towards redemption.


…and Then There’s Obsessional Not-Forgiving

by Susan Schnur

NOT forgiving can be a completely appropriate resolution to traumatic abandonment or pain, but it can also be an inappropriate one. How do we know the difference? Fundamentally, if the issue is still unduly preoccupying us, if we brood about it, if it can still provoke an intense reactivity from us, if our distance or cut-off from the betrayer is but a step away from a cauldron of emotions that makes contact too difficult for us, then, indeed, we are not yet in a place of shlaymut, of resolution. (The Hebrew word has the same roots as shalom, peace.)

The feminist psychologist Harriet Lerner, in her trademark bull’s-eye fashion, speaks to this issue in her new book, The Dance of Connection;

We can become attached to our pain .. to the idea that if we stay angry long enough, and keep thinking about it hard enough, the person who wronged us will realize how terribly they’ve treated us—which won’t ever happen, of course. It’s hard to give up the magical fantasy that hanging on to justified rage will someday force the other person to suddenly see the light and come groveling back to apologize and, most important, to feel equally, if not more, miserable than we ourselves feel. And while we’re sitting there ruminating about the terrible actions of our [betrayer], that person may be out having a wonderful day at the beach. The fact that we’re the only one suffering may be the best argument for stepping back from a negative attachment.

Did Mary, for example [summarily abandoned by her fiancé], have to forgive Bob? Of course not. Nor should she forget what he did to her, because what happened is a very real part of her history. But she did need to make Bob less of a force in her life. Negative intensity preserves our [connection) with the other person as surely as does positive intensity. Mary's anger was the glue that ultimately kept her stuck. "Moving on"—months or years after the betrayal—doesn't mean forgetting or whitewashing the other person's behavior. It means [refusing to let] chronic anger and bitterness rule our lives, dissipating our energy and sapping our creativity. If five percent—or 75 percent—of our energy is directed toward hating someone who has wronged us, then that same percentage is not available for other pursuits.

The challenge for Mary was (to work towards allowing] her negative feelings to recede, so that she could feel more powerful, peaceful and whole. She needed to honor and protect herself by refusing to let painful emotions loom so large in her day-to-day life. She [had to give up] wanting him to suffer in the way that he had made her suffer—a perfectly normal human impulse.

Later Mary told me that the hardest part of the whole ordeal was her belief that Bob didn’t really feel sorry. “I’m innocent, and I’m the one who’s suffering. He’s a shmuck who doesn’t look back. I’d like to think that what goes around comes around.”

But more important than whether or not Bob pays a price for his behavior . . . is that Mary stopped holding on to her pain as a way to prove what damage Bob had done.