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Jewish Journal

Yom Kippur 5769: The Art of Forgiveness

by Jane Ulman

October 1, 2008 | 10:28 pm

Beit T'Shuvah's Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader, <br />
and Harriet Rossetto, founder and executive director, <br />
led a one-day workshop on forgiveness.<br />
Photo: Jane Ulman

Beit T'Shuvah's Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader,
and Harriet Rossetto, founder and executive director,
led a one-day workshop on forgiveness.
Photo: Jane Ulman

On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in 1995, Eva Kor, then 61 and a real estate broker in Terre Haute, Ind., stood outside a gas chamber at the infamous camp and offered her forgiveness out loud to the late Dr. Josef Mengele for the inhumane medical experiments he had performed on her and her twin sister.

She forgave every other Nazi, as well.

"I, Eva Mozes Kor, a twin who survived as a child of Josef Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz 50 years ago, hereby give amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others," she said that day, reading from a prepared statement. Even in our culture of apology, where "I forgive you" flows freely and often speedily from the mouths of perpetrators and politicians, parents and children, spouses and complete strangers, Kor's apology stands out.

"I call forgiveness the modern miracle medicine," she said last January in an address to congregants at the Nachshon Minyan in Encino.

Many people believe that forgiveness is an all-purpose panacea that can free people from rage and resentment, from deep depression and high blood pressure. Over the past 10 years, in fact, the John Marks Templeton Foundation and others have donated $7 million in a Campaign for Forgiveness Research to fund more than 45 projects studying forgiveness benefits. Books and Web sites devoted to the topic have become ubiquitous, including forgivenet.com, where a person can anonymously send an e-mail requesting forgiveness, along with a book or flowers.

In Jewish tradition, the act of seeking forgiveness from someone we have harmed is clear and specific.

"For transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another," the Talmud states. But the act of granting forgiveness, especially to someone who is not repentant or who has not transgressed against us directly, is more complicated and controversial.

Mark Borovitz, rabbi of the spiritual and therapeutic Beit T'Shuvah community, makes a distinction between unnecessary pain and existential pain, which he said is part of the human condition. He maintains that happiness is a choice.

"You can get rid of resentment, but forgiveness is something [the other person] has to ask for," he said at a forgiveness workshop on Sept. 7, attended by about 70 Beit T'Shuvah residents, their families and others.

David Wolpe, senior rabbi at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood, maintains that forgiveness can actually equalize a relationship.

"When you hold a grudge, you create an imbalance," he said. "That is, you feel superior, and the other person is less, because they feel bad."

Wolpe also believes there is such a thing as "unearned forgiveness," which can be offered to someone who has not sought it.

"You are not obligated to forgive, but you may," he said, pointing out that anger can take a steep toll on your internal life.

"Forgiveness is in the power of the forgiver, ultimately," he said. And vicarious forgiveness does not exist in Judaism; you can only forgive someone who has harmed you directly.

For Karen Fox, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and licensed marriage and family therapist, Judaism and psychotherapy do not separate on the forgiveness issue.

"The question is: How does this burden benefit me? Can I look at the potential of forgiveness as a way to clean some of what I carry?" she said.

Sometimes, as in the case of a rape or an abusive parent, for example, when forgiveness isn't forthcoming from the person who caused the harm, you have to forgive yourself, she said.

"Unexamined hurt ultimately hurts the one who's holding it." Not letting go can lead to obsession with the incident, which isn't healthy, she said.

But the ideal doesn't always easily translate into real life. This has been the experience for James, 44, a resident of Beit T'Shuvah whose last name has been omitted for this article.

James had worked as a chef for a certain caterer for more than three years when he was abruptly and abusively fired last November.

"I should have seen it coming, but I was his confidant because of all my experience," James said, explaining that he had often witnessed the man acting bitterly and vindictively toward other employees as well as his own wife.

In addition to firing James, the caterer also fraudulently reported his tax liability to the Internal Revenue Service, essentially doubling James' taxable earnings and making it appear James had lied to the IRS on his tax return.

James is currently in contact with the IRS, straightening out the financial damage and feeling good about standing up for himself. Still, he doesn't expect any communication from the caterer.

"It feels like unfinished business," he said, adding that he's reviewing his own actions to try to figure out his own part.

While he's reserving a final decision on forgiveness, he said he's relearning that he doesn't have to make everything right.

"I'm grateful for the situation," he said. "Life doesn't ever have easy answers."

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