Tammuz 5763 – Forgiveness and Accountability

1 Tammuz, 5763

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky,

I am an adult woman, born of two Jewish parents. Parental neglect, abuse and abandonment comprised my childhood, adolescence and young womanhood. A small portion of the parental choices included adultery, divorce, remarriages, and failure to provide a safe home for a minor child. Accordingly, there were no teachings about G-d, and no practice of Judaism in the home as a family. The opposite took place.

I was recently advised by a friend (Jewish by birth, but new to Judaism) that I should not “blame” my parents for their actions, and forgive them for their “mistakes,” since they “didn’t know any better.” She advised that this is the “Jewish way,” but it does not sound Jewish in concept to me.

I do not believe all deeds are forgivable, nor should they be. I did not think wholesale forgiveness for all deeds, or placing this responsibility on the victim, was in accordance with Jewish beliefs.

I have been rediscovering my Judaism through Orthodox resources. It is my understanding that Judaism places the utmost significance on personal accountability for our deeds, words and actions, and the enormous impact they have on other people.

The “mistakes” my parents made were serious adult choices that had a profoundly detrimental effect on my life, including my connection and positive association to Judaism, and my understanding thereof. I do not feel (as advised) that it’s “healthier,” or my duty as a Jew, to forgive all and absolve any accountability. (Blame is simply another word for being held accountable for our deeds and actions.)

I believe rightful healing, progress, spiritual well-being and the reality of accountability we must all take unto ourselves, is compromised by placing the burden of ‘no-fault’ forgiveness upon the victim. Unfortunately we live in a ‘no-fault’ society where blame and accountability are bad words, and victims are deemed wrong or ‘unhealthy’ for voicing them.

Is this ‘no-fault’ concept really in accordance with Jewish precepts? What about the specific steps we must take in Judaism to even be considered for forgiveness for our iniquity, transgressions, and sins between ‘man and man.’

If an adult individual has profoundly harmed another human being, especially in the dynamic of a parent/child relationship, is it the victim’s responsibility to exonerate?

This is not my understanding of clearly delineated Jewish ethics, precepts and principles. Please help clarify this from a frum perspective.

Thank you for your wonderful advice and the service you provide to the community.

Name & Seminary withheld.


Dear Name Withheld,

Your letter was extremely painful for me to read. It is difficult to respond to, because as Judaism teaches, you can’t understand someone until you have been in their place. Boruch Hashem I have never had to suffer as you did, and so it is impossible to understand where you have been. Nonetheless, we Rabbi’s can’t get off the hook that easily, and so as much as my limited knowledge and ability allows, I will try to give you some clarity.

First of all, you are right, Judaism does teach the concept of personal responsibility. We must bear responsibility for our actions. Confessing our sins and having to say “Hail Mary” doesn’t cut it in Jewish thought.

Neither can fault be assigned to the victim. That, to a large extent is the theme of the Book of Job. Sometimes the victim is just that – a victim. We Jews have been victims of the world’s oppressions for years.

The point your friend is trying to make is the following. There is a dichotomy that exists. On the one hand, when something bad happens we are required to examine our deeds and ask why. At the same time when suffering happens to someone else it is forbidden to tell them to examine their deeds.

The message is poignant – I need to examine my life, not yours. There is a sad reality, namely that the world is filled with people who make bad decisions. I agree with you that to call them mistakes is disingenuous. They are bad things and they have the ability to devastate people and destroy their lives, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Those people will have to make their peace with G-d and if not, G-d has enough ways to settle the account. The question is, do I gain from demanding that judgment from them. There are three powerful books by David Pelzer wherein he describes the most horrific child abuse that I have ever heard of. Beatings, stabbings, starvation, freezing, burning, gassing were all part of his childhood. Yet as he describes it, he felt he needed to make his peace with his mother in his own heart for himself, not for her. He knew that if he didn’t rise above it, then he was like her. He wanted to free himself from her and be normal

When we carry anger and recrimination in our heart, though deserved, it takes up space that could be filled with love. If so, then we lose, not them.

The most frustrating part when someone hurts us is that they refuse to take responsibility for it. But that doesn’t mean my peace of mind has to be dependant on them. I can achieve a spiritual and mental equilibrium without them. They will be the ones who will suffer, not me.

Do you have a right to be angry? Yes. Should you exercise that right? You can, but at a cost to yourself. Do they deserve to haunt your life and affect your marriage and your relationship with your children? Are they worth that?

Having said that, there is a higher level, one that we should aspire to. When the ger tzeddek of Vilna was being taken out to be burnt at the stake, the executioner laughed at him. “I suppose I’m burning you in this world, but you’ll burn me in the next world”.

The ger tzeddek looked at him and said, “When I was growing up as the child of a nobleman, I didn’t have any other children of my rank to play with, so I played with the peasant children. One time they broke my toys and I ran to my father demanding that he put them to death. My father looked at me and said, ‘At the age of 21 you will come into your own rights. If you then want to put them to death, you may.’ Do you think that when I became an adult, I seriously considered killing those children for breaking my toys?”

He looked at the executioner and said, “What are you burning? My body? This isn’t me. You can’t touch me. The real me will go to the world of truth. And once there, do you really think I will be troubled by such petty feelings as anger, jealousy or a desire for revenge?”

When people do things to us, we understand that they ultimately can’t hurt us. We are neshamas, greater than these Earthly things. Will they be called to account for what they did? Of course. But we will move beyond these experiences and often they can help us to become the people we are meant to be.

If a person is dangerous, or we are afraid they will do to others what they did to us, as in the case of a child molester, then we must work to protect other innocent victims. But if what they did they did only to us, then we don’t need vengeance. That we leave to G-d.

One more difficult concept: After all is said and done, we recognize that we owe a debt to our parents, even the worst parents, for giving us life. It may be too painful to see past the pain they have inflicted, but if we go on to live a meaningful life, then ultimately we must realize that whatever we accomplish is because we are alive.

May Hashem grant you peace of mind and may you know only happiness for the rest of your life.

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky