During this time of year, Jews around the world start to think about for forgiveness. My thoughts have taken me one step further. I have been considering how we Jamaicans can utilize forgiveness to expand our sense of spirituality, how it can motivate us to move past our violent past to develop a peaceful society. I believe the Jewish character building discipline of Mussar can play a crucial role in this process.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness as "granting free pardon and giving up all claim on account of an offence or debt." Merriam Webster describes it as "ceasing to feel resentment against an offender."
I would explain forgiveness as the renunciation of anger, resentment, and/or indignation as a result of a perceived offence. It is done -- at least in part -- in order to prevent the wrong from continuing to damage one's psyche. Forgiveness is most meaningful when it occurs in the right way and for the right reason(s).
Last year, our congregation in Kingston, Jamaica, began studying a modern form of Mussar, the Jewish approach to ethical living founded in Eastern Europe. We organized a beginners group in the fall and a more advanced group in the spring. Each group combined textual study with personal discussion of character and specific character traits.
We looked at both of the most popular modern approaches -- that of Rabbi Ira Stone and that of Alan Morinis. From a purely personal point of view, I found both lacking but nevertheless became convinced that a modernized form of Mussar was essential for synagogue life today. I am in search of an approach that is more scholarly and liberal than that of Morinis and more accessible than that of Stone. This will be an ongoing search for a systemic approach to the study of Jewish values for daily living.
For this coming year, we have decided to continue the advanced group, start a new introductory group, and highlight one Mussar trait each month for the entire congregation. We will begin with "forgiveness" in September, continue in October with "humility" (the core concept necessary for all the others), "courage" in November in time for Hanukkah, and "joy" in December. Our hope is to have those in the groups serve as the vanguard for the entire congregation to begin to connect the study of character with what we do in the synagogue, thereby helping us to see the connection between ritual and daily living.
Forgiveness seemed an appropriate concept for the High Holy Day season. It also resonated strongly within me because of my earlier experiences in South Africa. Most of all, it is central to living our lives to the fullest. If we cannot let go of old wounds and failures that occurred over the course of the decades, we risk losing our ability to live in the moment, to truly savor what is central for a rich spiritual life.
Going back in history, the people of Jamaica were deliberately split into two warring factions in order to maintain the colonial order. There is a dire need for forgiveness of others and also ourselves as a part of the process of communal and national reconciliation.
Reconciliation is possible only when the person who did the wrong accepts the forgiveness being offered and repents for what they have done. This can be done on a personal basis but also on a national level. Jamaicans should look to South Africa as a model of national reconciliation.
Despite the ups and downs in that country since the end of apartheid almost 20 years ago, most South Africans are still hopeful about the possibility of reconciliation. While Jamaica has not had to go through a parallel process, in many ways the lessons of South Africa are applicable to this Caribbean paradise, a country that has not yet achieved its potential due to unresolved anger and an inability to focus on the most important priorities.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom I invited to speak at my synagogue in 1995, wrote:
"Forgiveness is one of the key ideas in this world. Forgiveness is not just some nebulous, vague idea that one can easily dismiss. It has to do with uniting people through practical politics. Without forgiveness there is no future. Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly. It is opening the door for the other person to have a chance to begin again. Without forgiveness, resentment builds in us, a resentment which turns into hostility and anger. Hatred eats away at our well-being."
(Tutu refers to Ubuntu, which is difficult to render in English but has a similar meaning.)
One thing is for certain. Despite the trepidation with which many South Africans approached the possibility of reconciliation, the need for forgiveness is a core element of any hope for the future.
Forgiving is incredibly difficult in the best of circumstances, and the South African situation was far from the best of circumstances. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to see the tenacity with which almost all of the parties in the South African ethnic, religious, and racial mix have persevered with the forgiveness process. Despite political difficulties and the tendency to radicalize politics, the country has remained a relatively peaceful, if crime-ridden, "rainbow nation."
The idea is that forgiveness, in politics as well as in interpersonal relationships, must be an ongoing process rather than something that is to be applied at one place and at one time. The notion of forgiveness as a process rather than an event appears to be a lesson that all of the groups instinctually sense and have worked on over the course of many years. Jamaicans can learn from this approach. Lacking a clear internal enemy with which we might reconcile, we need to internalize the core concepts of the forgiveness process and then apply these concepts to our neighbors, our friends, even ourselves. A spirit of forgiveness can inspire the people of Jamaica to achieve things they never thought possible when they were caught in the negative cycle of blame, hostility and violence.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) tried to develop a process that involves remembering, recounting, and recording, but also that includes repenting, resolving, and reconciling. Those who have done wrong were encouraged to recount the full details of their passive or active crimes to the TRC and were, therefore, achieving repentance.
The idea that justice must be meted out has been relegated to the back row. In order to achieve the healing that is felt to be the highest priority for the society, the needs of the victims and their families for absolute justice have been given a lower priority.
In Jamaica, we need to learn how to forgive (ourselves as well as others) so that we can move forward. We need to resolve to work together, something which is only possible if we can rid ourselves of our antagonisms.
Our congregation will do our part. We hope the rest of the Jamaican population will follow our lead.