The Harm of Tshuvah: A Letter from an Abuse Survivor
To the rabbi who gave me a pamphlet on forgiveness when I was in inpatient care for childhood trauma:
Do you have any idea how that small act broke me, how I cried, wracked with guilt and self-loathing, because your “spiritual wisdom” were the same thoughts that put me there in the first place?
When you told me how important a child’s relationship with their parents is, did you not know that my Hebrew school teacher saying “honor thy father and thy mother” played over and over in my head as a child as I sat in my room too terrified to call for help?
My fellow Jews, now that the High Holidays are here, it’s time we had a little chat.
What to you may be just another time of year is one I dread for months.
I have always been told that not forgiving someone is a sin. This haunts me every year when I hear sermons and read about the importance of teshuvah (repentance), and granting others forgiveness.
I am told it is not just for the good of the perpetrator, but for myself. People view forgiveness as the secret to healing, as if it isn’t a long painful process of flashbacks, relapsing, shame, medication, and therapy, as if there’s some easy way to heal that I have been too prideful to consider.
To view forgiveness as the apex of survivors’ progress trivializes each person’s individual struggle. I have had to accept that my path to healing is cyclical and one of self acceptance.
Why are we more focused on making victims forgive than we are on supporting and validating them?
We must recognize the harm that teshuvah and its forgiveness rhetoric can do to survivors of any kind of mistreatment. We must also be accountable to how Jewish customs can be used to perpetuate victim blaming. Look at the number of Hasidic women who do not receive help from domestic abuse because their community's culture values respecting the father and husband over women and children's safety.
The #MeToo movement has brought greater awareness of the prevalent abuse against women. But there is a larger societal problem of blaming the victim and putting the burden on them to fix their situation, and then to forgive the abusers. This mindset is all too familiar. I remember the social worker who, instead of helping me escape a dangerous home, told me how I should have prevented the violent situations. I also think of a well-meaning relative who instead of supporting my difficult decision of cutting off a relationship with an abusive family member, told me how such a decision would be selfish and that I needed to “think of the family.”
In preparation for Yom Kippur last year, I searched for some religious ruling or explanation to appease my Jewish guilt. I found an article about abuse survivors and the High Holidays saying that if your abuser has not made teshuvah––apologized, atoned, and turned inward towards a new self, then the survivor is not required to forgive. Great––I was off the hook! Yet, even with this new loophole, I still did not feel satisfied.
Even when not centered on forgiveness, the harsh liturgy of the high holidays can be extremely damaging to those who struggle with mental health.
Sitting in the pews, eyes racing over my machzor (High Holiday prayer book), my lips tremble as I utter sin after sin I am atoning for, as if I’m not already filled with every little critique of myself, like a dementor making me relive my worst moments.
Last year I led my Hillel’s meditative Neilah service. In picking liturgy and writing a sermon, I struggled with the dissonance I felt between the meaning of the day and my reality. How can I talk about teshuvah when I have not forgiven my demons? How can I lead a negative service that may damage my peers’ self-esteem the way it hurts mine?
I then realized that I had autonomy to reframe and mark this day in whatever way I felt was right.
So this year, Yom Kippur is a time for me to practice radical self-forgiveness and acceptance. I also want the year’s reflection to be an opportunity for positivity, a celebration of how I have progressed and grown.
And I have so much to be proud of.
So survivors, let’s reclaim this potentially damaging day and turn it into a day to celebrate ourselves, our resiliency and strength. You have nothing to apologize or repent for. Do not let anyone tell you that you must focus on your abuser. What happened to you was not your fault, so please forgive, accept, and love yourself. If forgiveness is how you feel you must heal, then I am happy and proud of you.
And to everyone else, in evaluating this year, make sure to also take this day to celebrate yourself and mark your accomplishments. How have you grown? What have you learned? What risks did you take?
To the well-intentioned rabbi who handed a child abuse survivor a “Jewish guide to forgiveness” pamphlet, instead of helping her process and heal from her trauma: I ask you to repent and do better.
How to cite this page
Silverman, Rakhel. "The Harm of Tshuvah: A Letter from an Abuse Survivor." 12 September 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 7, 2022) <https://jwa.org/blog/harm-of-tshuvah-letter-from-abuse-survivor>.