14 May 2017

Do I Have to Forgive Terrorists?


terroristsLast week I spoke on the topic of forgiveness at the Manhattan JCC. The Q&A followed an interactive exercise and my thoughts on two Secrets of Forgiveness. A woman in the back raised her hand.

“Do we have to forgive terrorists?” she asked.

As I began my response, a mutual friend nudged her.

“Tell her the whole story,” she mouthed. She began again.

Sometimes the offense we take at others has way more to do with perception than it does with actual facts on the ground. But not her grievance!

“I was the victim of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem a number of years back.” she said. The room dipped into attentive silence. “Do I have to forgive terrorists? Forgive the men who tried to kill me?”

We spoke after the event and I got to hear a bit more about that day. Everyone around her died. She was the only one in her section of the bus who survived. Yet she was anything but the stereotype of a vengeful, hateful person.

Sarri Singer went on to found Strength to Strength. Their life-affirming mission statement is, “To bring victims of terrorism together globally in order to share their experiences and move forward with their lives despite the trauma they have been through.”

And in a Huffpost article from 2013 Sarri writes the following:

Ten years ago somebody tried to murder me…Everything in my life changed on that day. I am proud to look back and know that I chose to fight hate with love and that I devote my life to peace, not revenge…Perhaps my most significant revelation is the importance of love and kindness; to combat hate with tenacity and courage. After surviving a terrorist attack, working to change the world is the only way I know how to live my life.”

Not exactly what you might expect from a terror survivor. And from society’s vantage point, one might never associate the courageous survivor with the woman who asked the question: It’s not PC to even think of withholding forgiveness. I deeply respected her courage to ask the question. It was presented without malice or agenda. She simply wanted to know the answer.

Here’s some of what I shared with her.

When a person asks you for forgiveness, you’re obligated to forgive immediately.

However…it’s not that simple. Implicit in the above statement is that the person has to ask for forgiveness. And possibly more than once. The Torah understands that forgiving takes humility and work. It may not happen first time round. So G-d requires that we repeatedly ask for forgiveness.

In the words of Maimonides (parentheses and italics mine):

Even if a person only upset a colleague by saying certain things (in other words, there’s been no financial loss, slander or other damages), he must appease him and approach him repeatedly until he forgives him. If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request forgiveness. If the wronged party is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time.

Only then does he say:

If he still does not want to forgive him, he may let him alone and need not pursue the matter further. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered as the sinner.¹

Mishne Torah, Laws of Teshuva

Maimonides communicates the great lengths we have to go to in order to repair a wrong. He also tells us that there are limits on asking for forgiveness. There’s something not quite right on the inside if you can’t forgive. BUT – and it’s a big but – there’s only something off if the person who wronged you has tried to make it right.

Not that you can’t forgive someone until they apologize. (I’ll blog about that separately.) But you certainly don’t have to. And sometimes it’s even inappropriate.

Here’s the lowdown on the obligation to forgive:

  • When someone apologizes and asks you to forgive them, you must do so immediately.

And here’s the lowdown on some exceptions:

  • If they still owe you money, the debt must first be paid. (They have to make amends.)
  • If you feel that you can benefit the offender and motivate him or her to learn a lesson and improve their actions. (This has to be done with very pure intentions. Your heart has to be clear of any hatred towards the other. It’s only at the external level that you appear not to be forgiving.)
  • If the offended knows that the offense will most likely be repeated, and therefore the request for forgiveness is not a genuine one. (The demand for genuine regret runs deep. In fact, Maimonides teaches, “Anyone who verbalizes their confession without resolving in their heart to abandon sin can be compared to a person who immerses themselves in a ritual (purification) pool while holding the carcass of a lizard (which causes spiritual impurity) in hand.”)
  • If the case in question is of someone having spread a false rumor and made it public knowledge, thereby ruining the reputation of the individual.2 3

With this in mind, I told Sarri,

We’re taught that if a person can’t bring themselves to apologize – and according to Maimonides repeatedly and in public – then they haven’t yet rectified the wrong or erased the damage. As such forgiveness is not demanded. I don’t think the men who tried to blow you up regret their deed. To the contrary, they probably regret that they missed you! And so no, you’re not obligated to forgive them.

And I could see that this woman who truly lives by her words, “Perhaps my most significant revelation is the importance of love and kindness; to combat hate with tenacity and courage” – was comforted by this truth.

You can’t be kinder than G-d. Don’t try.

William-kentridge_Magic Flute_Doves Series                                                                                                                                    Dove by William Kentridge

What are your thoughts on all this? And what other questions do you have?

I imagine there are some strong opinions out there. Let’s dialogue about it. Here are some other questions I’m going to be writing about, some on the blog and some on the forum for my series

Happy New you: Living the High Holidays.
  • Can we let go of past wrongs once we’ve repented for them?
  • How are the 12 Steps similar to and different from Maimonides’ teachings?
  • What about amends versus apology?
  • Is there a difference between forgiving a financial loss, a personal insult, personal injury, a loss of life?
  • What do you do if you can’t bring yourself to forgive? How do you get over a grievance?

Happy New You delivers meditations, videos, audio lessons, articles, Suggested Steps, an interactive forum and 2 LIVE teleconferences. For a limited time it’s available for $97. But that offer is going away. After Rosh Hashanah the price is going up to $144. So if you want it for $97, grab this chance before it passes. Get all the details about Happy New You: Living the High Holidays here.

With blessings,



1 The above does not apply if the wronged party was one’s teacher. In that instance, a person should continue seeking his forgiveness, even a thousand times, until he forgives him.
2 The reason why forgiveness does not have to be granted in this case is due to the concern that people will hear the negative information but not learn about the retraction. However, when such a concern does not exist, one is obviously obligated to forgive.
3 By Divine Providence, a few days after I gave the workshop at the JCC, I received an email in my inbox from Rabbi Y.Y. Braun on this exact topic (as part of his Halacha2Go series.) Some of the exclusions in this list were from that email.