When Does Judaism Say Forgiveness Should Be Granted?

Dear JITC-

When should forgiveness be granted? If someone did something really awful – how do we know the apology was sincere and not just lip service? When are we supposed to forgive if the iniquity wasn’t done to us but disgusts us? What does forgiveness look like? Is it tolerating the abuser? Allowing him to fully re-integrate?


Dear Jacqui-

Thanks for your question. My answer to this is going to look something like a “greatest hits” compilation of things I’ve written here and elsewhere, so check out the various links.

For starters, let’s review something I wrote as an example here just a few months ago:

Let’s say that a person in a particular community is a chronic offender in a certain religious matter and the local authorities want to censure him but there’s a concern that doing so might drive this person farther away from Torah observance. Should they go ahead with the reprimand? I think we can agree that there are a lot of variables in this scenario. How big is the chronic offense? How are others being affected? How likely is the possibility that the chastised offender would actually leave Judaism altogether? If he did, would it be because he was sincerely discouraged in his religiosity or would this be a political move on his part, designed to get back at the religious authorities? So the question, “Should we punish a chronic offender if it might drive him farther away?” is one that doesn’t have a “one size fits all” answer ….

The difference between my example above and your question is that I addressed the question of whether to administer a reprimand while in your scenario, the punishment may have already been delivered. (You don’t say as much but, reading between the lines, I suspect you are referring to people who have been imprisoned and are now out – why else would an offender need to “re-integrate?” So I’m going to include that assumption in my response.) The obvious similarity between the two cases is that, in neither situation, is there a “one size fits all” approach.

Let’s assume that someone was released from prison. If so, the first question is, why were they there? Cheating on their taxes? Sexual assault? Child pornography? Hiring a hitman to murder his wife? Crashing the economy with a giant Ponzi scheme? (These are not hypotheticals; each of these examples is based on a real-life case, though I doubt the one who crashed the economy is ever getting out.) The degree to which a crime was violent or victimless will certainly play a role and if you, or a loved one, was personally affected (God forbid), that’s going to make a difference in your feelings. (If you were personally victimized, the offender is obligated to apologize and make amends to you. You need not forgive him without this.)

The second question is, how convinced are you of the person’s guilt? I know a woman who went to prison for allegedly defrauding the state of Iowa (long since released) and I am convinced of her innocence. I followed the case with great interest and I am convinced that, if she did anything wrong, it was because she was given misinformation from state officials. I don’t believe in her innocence just because I know her. Unfortunately, I know a few other people who have served time and I believe that they were in fact guilty. But I can understand how people might disagree as to a released convict’s actual culpability and that may affect the degree to which they are welcomed back.

The way you perceive the mission of prison also makes a difference. If you consider the purpose of jail to be punishment, you may feel differently than if you consider it to be rehabilitation.

Finally, there’s the question of how much the person may continue to pose a potential danger to the public. I’d be particularly wary of someone who has committed rape, murder, or the sexual molestation of children.

In high profile cases like those of Jonathan Pollard and Shlomo Rubashkin, the Jewish community has debated the status of those convicted, with people alternately considering them heroes, villains and martyrs. This is no less true when someone returns home to a community. People are going to have different opinions and there’s no one objectively correct approach. (See more about this here.)

The Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 19:13) not to let dangerous criminals run around unpunished – that’s not safe! But it also tells us (ibid., 25:3) not to continue to penalize somebody who has paid his debt to society – that’s not humane! In fact, after receiving his punishment, the offender once again reverts to the status of “your brother!”

However, in Derech Eretz Rabbah 5, we are told a story in which Rabban Gamliel hosted a stranger. He put the guest on the roof (as was common) but he removed the ladder. In the middle of the night, the guest tried to rob the house but, since the ladder was gone, he crashed to the ground. When the guest complained that Rabban Gamliel failed to give him benefit of the doubt, Rabban Gamliel informed him that judging others favorably doesn’t mean that we must leave ourselves open to being victimized.

Elsewhere, I wrote about Dr. Lara Kollab, a resident at Cleveland Clinic who was fired because of a tweet saying that she would give Jews the wrong medications. (This was just the most grievous in years of anti-Semitic tweets.) In her apology, Kollab wrote, “These posts were made years before I was accepted into medical school, when I was a naïve, and impressionable girl barely out of high school. … I take my profession and the Hippocratic Oath seriously and would never intentionally cause harm to any patient seeking medical care. As a physician, I will always strive to give the best medical treatment to all people, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, or culture. … I pray that the Jewish community will understand and forgive me. I hope to make amends so that we can move forward and work together towards a better future for us all.”

In that article, I compared Dr. Kollab to the Biblical Shimei ben Gera, who rebelled against King David and later apologized. David took Shimei at his word but he also instructed his son Shlomo not to trust him. Shlomo put Shimei on probation with zero tolerance. Shlomo ended up executing Shimei the first time his actions didn’t match his words. This, to me, seems a good model.

Take the penitent at their word but, like Rabban Gamliel, don’t leave your community open to victimization. As with Shimei ben Gera, be prepared to sever the relationship as soon as the walk doesn’t match the talk.

This is especially true in the case of known or suspected sexual predators. If there’s any potential threat to innocents, in particular children, no situation should be ever be allowed in which they might be victimized. Remember, giving others benefit of the doubt does not entail jeopardizing innocents.

So should a presumably-reformed criminal be permitted to count in a minyan? To receive an aliyah? To give a donation that results in a plaque with his name being posted? Maybe, perhaps and possibly. There are a lot of moving parts and outcomes may be based on each situation’s individual details. (Obviously, the shul or community rabbi should be involved in such discussions.) Do you have to invite the person for Shabbos lunch or send them shalach manos? No. That’s completely your personal decision. Should a predator who has served his time be appointed youth director? Absolutely not.

We believe in teshuvah and we believe in forgiveness, so we try to give people a second chance when possible. But we also believe in protecting the innocent. When those priorities conflict, protecting the innocent takes priority.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent

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