Jewish tradition emphasizes that on Yom Kippur, G_d will only forgive bad deeds committed by you against another (Bein Adam Lamakom) once the other has forgiven you and that you should also forgive others before coming to ask forgiveness yourself. But, today, increasingly, we see people’s actions as resulting from who they are, childhood trauma, psychological factors beyond our control etc. People are not (fully) to blame for who they are or why the do things. With this understanding of people, what does it mean to ask forgiveness in the context of pain caused to close friends or members of your family? What do you understand by words like “punishment” and “forgiveness”?
On the level of society we think of punishment as serving three roles: retribution, deterrent and distancing. I’m not interested in society right now, I’m asking about how one person relates to another person. However, the standard analysis helps me think through this.
Retribution is punishment because the other deserves to be punished; because justice demands it. That depends on the harm being the person’s fault. I want to ask how we should think about things without assuming retribution, so I’d like to move on to the other two.
Deterrence means creating an equation where I’ll hurt you, if you hurt me. That is a very primal instinct. Yes, I admit, I cause hurt when I get hurt, but I’m not proud of that at all. I can see no value in that path. If anything, a day like Yom Kippur, should be an opportunity to put the better side of me in control, to make sure I prevent myself from saying hurtful words when someone close to me touches a raw nerve; to realize the other person said what they said only because they are in pain themselves.
The third form of punishment is distancing. Society realizes that some people need to be removed in order to prevent them causing harm. They imprison them. On a one-to-one level there is no prison. However, we practice distancing all the same. If you trusted me and I abused that trust, if you let me get close and I hurt you, then your response is to stop trusting me. You distance me. You fence me off from you so that I cannot do you more harm.
To ask forgiveness is to ask the person you hurt to trust you again. Trust is the belief, with insufficient evidence, that a person will do good. To forgive is to restore that trust, contrary to the evidence.
One last point. If you are the victim of abuse, please don’t apply any simplistic understanding of a religious obligation to your own case. If that is you, turn to those who love you or professionals instead. I am only talking about the day-to-day harm we do.
How do you see inter-personal forgiveness?