For Jews, the beginning of the New Year is the season of repentance and forgiveness. Judaism tends to make a big deal of teaching that forgiveness can only come once you have reconciled with the person who wronged you. I have seen this often translate into pressure on people who have been abused, in many different fashions, to forgive their abusers.
Let me make this clear: You absolutely do not need to forgive your abuser.
The rhetoric of forgiveness in this world today is such that it can be employed as a bludgeon against victims of abuse. “You need to forgive your abuser so you can both move on with your lives.” “You’ll feel better about yourself if you forgive them.” “You’re too invested in your victimhood to see the bigger picture.” “Your abuser is a human being too, with feelings.”
Otherwise well-meaning people easily fall into this “both sides” trap, which warps and inverts the actual nature of abuse and victimization. I’ve seen this happen more times than I can remember. It’s insidious, and abuse victims aren’t immune to it—or to pontificating about it to others: Charles Blow valorizes this attitude in an otherwise decent New York Times article in today’s Sunday review: “I had to stop hating Chester to start loving myself. Forgiveness was freedom. I simply had to let go of my past so that I could step into my future.” As a victim of abuse myself, these words are incredibly chilling to me.
If you achieve personal liberation or wholeness some clearer sense of being right with the world through forgiving your abuser, that’s fantastic, and I, honestly and sincerely, am really happy for you. However, I cannot get behind the ideology that says that this is the way you must be in order to be a good right-thinking human being. That perspective does victims of abuse a disservice: it tells us that our feelings are not real, that our abusers’ feelings are more important than the pain and destruction they caused. It tells us that we are without worth on our own, outside of reference to our abusers. It tells us that we will always be victims, and then berates us for “desiring victimhood”. It tells us that we are incomplete, that we are fundamentally broken people, that we deserved to be abused because we are not good enough to be the kind of person who would forgive their abuser!
This attitude subverts healing. It turns victimhood on its head. It is toxic, harmful, and destructive. Victims of abuse are valid, and their feelings and experiences are real. You are not required to forgive your abuser. Period. Full stop. End of story.
Judaism traditionally divides wrongdoings into two categories: bein adam la-makom “between a human being and God”, and bein adam le-ḥaveiro, “between a human being and their fellow”. The Mishnah famously states that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, grants forgiveness for wrongdoings that are of the first category, but as for wrongdoings that are of the second category, you cannot be right with God until you are right with the other person.
On the face of it, this sounds good, because it seems to shift the responsibility to the person who has wronged another to make things right. But it is too often subverted to shift the responsibility the other way: it makes the wronged party responsible for absolving the person who wronged them. With abuse, when you shift responsibility for forgiveness to the abused person, you place them in an untenable situation, and you make an already bad situation worse.
Again, if this is your path to fulfillment, more power to you. But if you valorize it or exalt it or hold it up as an example to be followed or make it a mandatory requirement for people who have been abused to forgive their abusers, you might think you are doing good, but you are in fact doing harm.
May this season of repentance and forgiveness bring us closer to truth with ourselves. May those of us who have been abused find healing in whatever way is right for us, and may we all have the equanimity to not force our particular way upon others.
G’mar ḥatimah tovah—may we be inscribed and sealed for a good year.