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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

When Forgiveness is Not Teshuvah

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

On Yom Kippur, we ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, and we grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us. We consider this process of forgiveness to be an important component of teshuvah -- loosely translated as "repentance" but literally meaning "return," as we return to the path of righteousness, to the selves that God intended us to be.

But what about when we find ourselves unable to forgive? At what point is an inability to forgive representative of our own transgressions, and at what point is the inability to forgive its own form of teshuvah?

This past year, I was the victim of transphobic abuse. The worst part was that it came from someone I trusted.

The transphobia was soul-crushing, and my first impulse was to flee, to retreat into myself. But since it was from someone I had a relationship with, I immediately put us on the path of teshuvah, a path of returning to the relationship of trust we had prior to the act of transphobia. I opened my heart to the transgressor, letting them know how hurt I was by their actions.

However, instead of responding sympathetically to my pain, the transgressor doubled down on their actions and defended their behavior, regardless of the outcome.

For months I waited for an apology. I knew nothing could take away the sting of the attack, but any acknowledgement of wrongdoing would be enough to help repair the damage done. I needed to know I didn't deserve to be attacked in a transphobic manner, and I needed to know the transgressor would do everything they could to not repeat the transgression.

I did eventually receive an apology -- but not the one I had been waiting for. I found in my email a lackluster letter that said, "I'm sorry that you were hurt by my actions."

There are a lot of ways to read this kind of apology. Is the person sorry for their actions, or are they only sorry that someone got hurt? Do they believe they did something wrong, or are they willing to repeat their same behaviors with the hopes that the next time no one is hurt by them? Are they content to continue acting in transphobic ways followed by apologies when necessary, or are they prepared to learn how to act differently to prevent hurt to begin with?

I considered the apology for a long time before responding. What was this apology communicating, and how did it make me feel?

In Mishkan HaNefesh, Rabbi Ellen Lewis explores the act of forgiveness: when is forgiveness teshuvah, and when it is not teshuvah.

After writing about how healing forgiveness can be, Rabbi Lewis writes: "The machzor challenges us to forgive, leading many of us to berate ourselves for why we can't. If we think of 'forgiving' as the right thing to do and 'not forgiving' as wrong, we limit ourselves to the perspective of a struggling young child. Only if we reframe the question -- not "What's the right thing to do?" and "Why can't I just forgive?" -- but rather, "What stops me from forgiving?" -- can we get unstuck from the old narrative and move toward more satisfying possibilities. Ask a question that opens up a sympathetic investigation rather than the one that closes off possible new avenues of inquiry. Imagine what it would look like if we could forgive. And what will it look like if we can't?"

When we find ourselves resisting acceptance of an apology, ask yourself why. Is it your pride? Is it the belief that you were right? Is it anger, is it sadness, is it grief? Is it the inability to accept in others the faults we cannot accept in ourselves?

I realized why I couldn't forgive the person who had hurt me. She gave no indication that she believed what she had done was wrong. She apologized for my feelings, not for her behaviors. She admitted no guilt or culpability, and she said nothing of whether or not she would repeat the behavior in the future.

Maimonides says that the most basic actions necessary for teshuvah are to declare you are repenting, to admit what you did was wrong, and to promise to the best of your ability to not do it again (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1). That's the most basic path to atonement. Without 1. apology, 2. admission of guilt, and 3. a promise to avoid the behavior in the future, it is not a complete atonement, and you may not be granted forgiveness as a result.

I recognized that this apology only covered #1, and was missing steps 2 and 3. When I realized that this was why I felt I could not accept the apology, I decided it was upon me to let the person know. I wanted to forgive the person, I wanted teshuvah. I responded to say I was unable to accept the apology because it did not communicate that a mistake was made, and that the mistake would be avoided in the future. I told the offender that I am open and willing to accept a new apology that addresses these concerns. Instead of denying the apology outright, I offered the opportunity to try again, detailing exactly what I needed to hear in order to forgive, drawing from Jewish tradition and wisdom.

I did not receive another apology. Instead, I received blessings for my marriage. The person let me know that they received my message, but refused to give me the full apology that Maimonides says is necessary for atonement. They refused to admit wrongdoing; they refused to commit to doing their best to avoid the transgression in the future.

Rabbi Lewis continues: "Even if we create a different and more satisfying narrative, still we might not find forgiveness as a possibility in this moment. Despite all the benefits that forgiveness promises, it does not make sense in all situations. If we find ourselves caught up in a relentless cycle of being hurt and then forgiving, our haste to forgive might actually be appeasement masquerading as forgiveness. In this case, forgiveness is less an act of generosity than it is a seductive trap that merely allows for prolonged abusive behavior. When hate is the response to an offer of love, forgiveness is not the right path. Better to be kind to oneself than to offer premature forgiveness." (Mishkan HaNefesh, xxvi)

Crushed by the refusal to offer an apology beyond the surface-level "sorry," I reassessed my position. I asked myself what was it that I could not forgive. Am I so proud that I cannot forgive the transgression of transphobia? No, for if that were the case I would have never asked for a more complete apology. If it were my pride, I would have refused to accept any apology at all, even if it included all the requisite components. No, it was not my pride that was preventing me from accepting the apology; it was her pride in being unable to admit she made a mistake.

Transgressions are not sins. They are mistakes. They are times we missed the mark. And although everyone makes mistakes, although we all transgress, it does not mean that our mistakes can be ignored, and that our responsibility for them can be eschewed. Transgressions are not blemishes on our characters that cannot be erased, but they cannot be healed unless we confront them.

As we face this Day of Atonement, as we ask and offer forgiveness, we also confront our own mortality. We recite confessions, which in Judaism are given only during the High Holy Days and on our deathbeds.

The first time I ever received a deathbed confession, the person in the hospital bed offering his confession wanted to atone for the transgression of transphobia. Approaching the end of his life, he confronted all the ways he perpetuated the transphobia he had learned from society.

With tears in his eyes, he admitted he had been transphobic before meeting me. He thanked me for showing him an alternate path free from transphobia. He assured me he would not return to his transphobic ways of thinking. And lastly, he asked me for forgiveness. With my own eyes brimming with tears, I accepted his apology, opened my heart to him, and fully and completely forgave him for his past transgressions of transphobia. He showed me the power of an honest apology, and the healing strength it provides.

I am so grateful for that chance to receive that person's deathbed confession, and to join him on the path of healing. I saw that transphobia can be forgivable, because true repentance is possible. Admitting we have made mistakes and turning away from those mistakes is the real meaning of teshuvah.

Forgiveness is only possible when we acknowledge the wrong committed, and when we vow to do better in the future. How can we forgive transgressions that the transgressor feels no remorse over? If I had forgiven the person who apologized without admission of wrongdoing, I would then owe an apology to every single trans person that may be hurt by this person's future actions.

I have forgiven people for the transgression of transphobia, and I will continue to forgive people for the transgression of transphobia. My heart grows each time I receive the apology Maimonides says is necessary. When we are able to lower our pride and admit wrongdoing, others are able to lower their pride and help us back onto the path of righteousness.

If we cannot accept an apology, sometimes it truly is because our pride is preventing us. If someone follows all the requisite steps to apologize -- they ask forgiveness, they admit wrongdoing, and they promise to do better -- we need to take a hard look at ourselves to ask what it is that is preventing us from accepting the apology.

But when apologies are mere lip service, with no admission of guilt or steps to improve, those false words of atonement are stumbling blocks on the path of righteousness. As much as we are commanded to forgive, it is not incumbent upon us to honor meaningless apologies that do not offer a path forward. To do so would not only harm ourselves, but could potentially lead to harming others who may be hurt in the same way by the same people.

On this Day of Atonement, I am honoring those who have put in the work to properly atone for their transgressions. I am also honoring all of those who are unable to forgive. For those of us who are victims of discrimination, bigotry, and abuse, we are not obligated to forgive anyone who has not shown us that they are on a different path.

This Yom Kippur, as I reflect on the person who was unable to provide a proper apology, I grieve the loss of that relationship. And when I offer forgiveness today, I offer it to myself. I forgive myself for beating myself up for not being able to forgive this person. I forgive myself for thinking it was my own character flaw that brought on the transphobic attack. I forgive myself for losing trust in others, for being fearful of being hurt again, for approaching new relationships with trepidation.

If you find yourself in a position where you are unable to forgive someone who has hurt you, I offer you this opportunity to forgive yourself for holding onto that guilt. Only those who do teshuvah deserve our forgiveness, and teshuvah requires one to admit their wrongs and change their ways.

God is a God of mercy and forgiveness, and I truly believe that God will forgive us all when the time comes. But until then, I will open my heart to forgive those who return to the path of righteousness. For those who believe they don't need to return, for those who believe they are already on the right path with no change necessary -- I know that it is for God to forgive them, not me.


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