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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:

Fuck you.

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.

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12 Comments

My abuser said: "You tricked me". He was lying. I got pregnant. Nothing to forgive or forget

Marianne Lieberman

WoW!  Thanks so much. I’m always told “that ship has sailed”, “it was soo long ago”, “move on”.  I feel that I do not know what I did or continue to have a spouse hate me so much, to want me punished, to look down on me. I would not be the person I am today. I was brought up in a community to do service; married son of clergy who believed a wife to be subservient and to obey. Judges would say, “what did You do for him to...  he is still alive and my children have family dinners with the two of us present. We do not speak. He stares. My children are less nervous when we are both present. I live in section 8 hud housing while he lives in a big house on lake hopatcong. He was convicted of income tax evasion for which I found out from a newspaper article. He was allowed to keep all the money because the courts said that if they made consideration for me they would have to open too many cases. There is so much more. Today I continue to do volunteer work and advocate for others. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to express myself. 

God bless you! You are so on point. As you pointed out, in Jewish tradition no one is under any obligation to forgive until the violator has recognized the harm they did, apologized, and made restitution until the person they abused is satisfied. It's not enough for them to work on fixing themselves: They are under obligation to try to repair the harm they did to other people. Then it's up to the person who was harmed to decide if they are satisfied of not. And if the abuser isn't even trying, there is no need to spend time, energy, emotion or thought on them. 

Yom Kippur is, as you say, about *you* individually -- about what *you* need to focus on this year. Your self is as precious as the self of every person, and caring for yourself is valuable and appropriate.

We are a tradition that recognizes the importance and power of standing up for those whose voices aren't heard. Think of Abraham challenging God to act with justice toward cities (Sodom and Gomorrah) where most people were behaving terribly, but where some people might still be following paths of goodness and kindness. Abraham spoke up for the good people -- challenging God! Our tradition even recognizes the importance of righteous anger on behalf of those who cannot stand up for themselves, as a child self could not. So if you are angry, as an adult, on behalf of the child that you used to be -- more power to you. Yasher koach, to say that in Hebrew.

And Yom Kippur is about getting in touch with our regrets and griefs. Taking stock of our lives includes caring for ourselves, being tender to ourselves, because our lives have been imperfect. 

The traditional liturgy was written mostly by and for men, who generally experienced themselves to be actors, not acted-upon (at least in their personal lives). For people who have felt themselves to be actors and agents and authors in their own lives, it tends to be most important to focus on the harm done by our own actions to other people. When people who feel powerful feel regret and grief, it is appropriately for what we did, and the longing is to not have done what we did, not to have caused the harm that we caused. These feelings are, however, only the first step toward t'shuvah, toward attempting to fix what we have broken, to repair damage and harm we have done, and if possible to mend relationships.  By themselves they are not enough.

For people who have felt themselves to be powerless, acted-upon rather than actors, our regret and grief and longing is for what was taken/harmed/broken in ourselves by other people. It is important to focus on the harm done to our lives as a result of the actions of othersand to honor these feelings of loss and regret on Yom Kippur, as as step toward greater wholeness. This voice hasn't been represented well in our liturgy. Thank you for teaching me to listen for it.

thank you for this very meaningful response.

sorry, I meant to speak in my own voice but forgot to add my name.

I'm am sorry that you are still in such pain and i know something about your type of pain. In Orthodox Judiasm, a person sincerely seeking forgiveness from you must make as much restitution as possible, both emotional and medical bills. If they don't seek forgiveness, or do so inadequately, you don't have to forgive them. In terms of the psychology of 'forgiveness', if you still get flash-backs et al. then they have their claws in you. Let them go, God can burn them in Hell quite nicely without your emotional connection. Let God take vengence, he will even if you do not see it in this world. Have a complete recovery and a better new year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The abuse should not define you. It happened to you. There is a lot more to you than this experience. Keep up your powerful message

 

So fresh and empowering.  Thank you, Rachel Silverman.

 

 

Thank you thank you thank you. 

Amazing article which captures the cognitive dissonance of the Yomim Noraim for those struggling with the fallout of abuse.  If I read another article on how abuse survivors needed to forgive, I was going to lose my mind.  Thank you for your words and your strength. I have personally found the Positive Vidui of Avi Weiss to be far more meaningful than the one which try to make people who are struggling even more miserable. But thank you for sharing your thoughts here as they are shared by many people.

Thank you for sharing the A. Weiss Vee-do-ee. What a significant difference from most Machzorim. Focusing on our positive aspects takes away some of the anger I have with the traditional liturgy.

I first want to say how proud I am for Rachel to step up, face her demons and have the courage to put it out there.  There is so much that needs to be said about this subject, and until the mindset is refocused to incorporate the rights of women in all religions and even men who were victims as well, then change will never occur. Education, awareness and guidance is so critical 

Girl Blowing Shofar
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Girl blowing a shofar in the Old City, Jerusalem. Photo by Ethan Ableman (Flickr, Creative Commons).
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How to cite this page

Silverman, Rachel. "The Harm of Tshuvah: A Letter from an Abuse Survivor." 12 September 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 20, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/harm-of-tshuvah-letter-from-abuse-survivor>.

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Twitter

1 day
Thank you for highlighting our work in this important piece, ! We welcome anyone who feels comfortable… https://t.co/8EeVPvMJgt
1 day
was on 🔥 at the last night! Like Gertrude Berg before her, won the Emmy for best act… https://t.co/Dheu2lzOPX
2 days
With fast approaching, here is a good reminder from about t'shuvah: Like asking for forgive… https://t.co/V9usYQndUD