Here’s what Yom Kippur can teach non-Jews about forgiveness

For the past week, Jews across the country have been saying, “I’m sorry.”

During the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 13 and Yom Kippur this Wednesday, members of the Jewish community reflect on the wrongs they’ve committed in the past year and repent. They phone friends, visit neighbors and pull people aside at synagogue to ask for forgiveness. They might even, although some rabbis frown on the practice, post a Facebook status with a kind of cover-all apology.

This holy time is an opportunity for Jews to take individual responsibility for their actions and strengthen their relationships with the community and God, said Rabbi Leora Kaye, program director for the Union for Reform Judaism.

“It’s about doing the active work of having a conversation with someone and … acknowledging that you know what you did and that you’re hoping to do better in the coming year,” she said.

Although the process can benefit the entire community, the focus is on individual transformation. Each person comes to terms with their past behavior and makes a plan to improve in the future.

In this way, the holiday holds a lesson for anyone who must ask for forgiveness, said therapists and others who have researched forgiveness. Apologizing requires people to look inward, and to find a way to make peace with themselves regardless of how efforts to make amends are received.

“We are all, to some degree, broken and we do wrong,” said Tom Carpenter, an instructor of psychology at Seattle Pacific University. “It’s important for us to have authentic self-forgiveness.”

Reflection rituals

In the lead up to Yom Kippur, members of the Jewish community are asked to reflect deeply on their life to prepare for the blessing of the season. The goal isn’t for people to feel frozen by shame, but instead, to establish a path forward from their previous missteps, Rabbi Kaye said.

During this process, they draw on the belief that God’s forgiveness is already freely offered. But Jews also work to right their relationships to friends, family members and other people in the community, doing the hard work of preparing their soul for God’s blessing.

“It’s an opportunity for me to stop focusing on who I am as Leora Kaye (in everyday life) and spend some time thinking about the soul inside of Leora Kaye,” the rabbi said, relating the process to how many Christians spend the season of Lent.

On Yom Kippur, Jews are asked to not eat or drink, have sex, clean or anoint their bodies, or wear leather shoes, because these are the desires of the physical body. These rituals are derived from a Torah passage in Leviticus which describes a day of atonement, and they’ve been performed by the Jewish community each year since biblical times.

Although the Jewish community participates in this ritual of repair and repentance together, conversations about wrongdoings are unscripted, Rabbi Kaye said. A meaningful apology leaves room for the potential forgiver to refuse.

“In some cases, you have to (acknowledge) that you did something that someone can’t forgive you for,” she said. “That means you have work to do in the coming year to make sure that you don’t do something similar to someone else.”

In other words, Yom Kippur doesn’t mark the end of self-reflection and self-improvement. It’s a starting point for the year ahead.

An individual’s response

In general, an apology rarely signals the end of a difficult situation, said Robyn D’Angelo, a marriage and family therapist based in Orange County, California. She tells clients that asking for forgiveness is just one step in the healing process, which must also include a wrongdoer forgiving themselves.

“I stay away from saying, ‘In order to forgive yourself, go to the person (you wronged) and get their forgiveness,’ because that person may have been wounded so deeply they can’t forgive,” she said. “We’re not always going to get the forgiveness of others, so we have to look at ourselves and say, ‘I’m worthy on my own.'”

That can be a hard concept to grasp, because many people instinctively feel like there’s something immoral about self-forgiveness, said Carpenter, who conducts research on the practice. Even fellow academics have questioned his research interest.

“People would say, ‘Are questions about self-forgiveness the ones we should be asking?'” he noted.

In Carpenter’s most recent study on self-forgiveness, he investigated this resistance, exploring what conditions are necessary to make the behavior more acceptable. The research was published last year in The Journal of Positive Psychology (paywall).

Participants reported that they were more willing to forgive themselves when they tried to make amends for a serious misstep, compared to when they failed to apologize after a lesser slight.

Faithful transformation

Carpenter, who is a self-described “spiritual perfectionist,” said the key to self-forgiveness, as well as forgiveness in general, is for people to feel guilt about their actions without being overwhelmed by the idea that they’re a bad person.

“In general, what researchers find is that guilt is associated with a sense that you did something wrong and now need to deal with it. Shame is about thinking, “I’m a terrible person, and there’s nothing I can do about it,'” he said.

Carpenter hasn’t studied shame and guilt in the context of religious communities, but he said other researchers have found a positive association between being faithful and finding a way forward from past mistakes.

Although people don’t require faith as motivation to apologize, the awareness of God’s willingness to forgive is a powerful incentive to take action to repair relationships and behave better in the future, Rabbi Kaye said.

“Outside of making some huge mistake that absolutely requires an apology, I think that, once we hit our twenties and thirties, there isn’t much formal recognition of what we’ve done wrong,” she said.

That’s what makes the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah special, albeit challenging, Rabbi Kaye added.

“I like to believe that most people in the world are good people, and I also believe that a framework of faith can help move us in a good direction that might not otherwise be the default,” she said. “I’m fortunate to be part of a religion” in which asking for forgiveness is a natural part of life.

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