This week is parashas Acharei Mos-Kedoshim, wherein the Torah deems it necessary to enumerate the concept of arayos. There have been plenty of headlines and stories about people who have acted inappropriately with others. The alleged perpetrators span the gamut of society — politicians, educators, law enforcement. The damage they have done to people is both substantial and lifelong. It can also affect not one but several generations. This, of course, is all well-known.
What is not so well-known, however, is the obligation that exists for the perpetrators to sincerely apologize to their victims.
What follows is an overview and analysis of this obligation, including the idea that even the apology from a perpetrator may cause stress to the victim and how that should be handled.
Two Possible Obligations Of Apology
There are essentially two sources in the Gemara for the obligation to apologize — one in Bava Kamma (92a) and the other in Yuma (85–87b). The second source deals with the obligation to apologize before Yom Kippur, while the former deals with the obligation in general. The language employed in each of the masechtos is fascinating. In Bava Kamma, the Gemara uses the term “asks for forgiveness.” In Yuma, it uses the term “until he appeases his friend.” Some, such as Rav Y.B. Soloveitchik (MiPi HaShmu’ah, Rav Hershel Schachter, p. 121) and Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Shaar HaEitanim, pp. 46-52 as cited by Kaminsky), understand the two sources as forming two separate obligations. Others, such as the Bach (O.C. 606), understand it as only one obligation.
Those who understand it as two obligations understand the Yom Kippur obligation is that one needs to restore the relationship to what it was. It is this author’s opinion that this second obligation can never be fully achieved in the case where someone acted physically inappropriately. The breach in trust and psychological damage that the victims suffer is such that the relationship can never be restored — nor should it. Regardless, it seems that the Mishnah Berurah 606:1 cites the latter view of the Bach as authoritative, so the point is moot.
Through An Intermediary Or By Himself?
Although it is preferable to ask forgiveness by oneself and not initially through a third party (see Mishnah Berurah 606:2) or by letter (See also Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Yechaveh Daas, Vol. V #44), in the case of someone who had acted in a physically inappropriate way, there is no question that the apology should be presented by a third party.
This is based upon the Magen Avraham O.C. 606 (the introduction) that when the victim will be embarrassed, there is no obligation to fully say out the specific damage the offender caused. Embarrassment and re-traumatizing the victim are, for these purposes, to be treated the same. The view of Dr. Doug Martinez is that in many cases, a victim would be re-traumatized if the apology were delivered in person. Depending upon circumstances, a letter could be sent as well.
Dr. Martinez is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of both adolescent and adult victims of child abuse, as well as abusers. “Ideally, the victim and the perpetrator should be in treatment with expert therapists who have done this work and are well-trained. When and if both the victim and perpetrator (this is most common with family members) are ready to have an apology session, it is done with both therapists and both individuals present. The perpetrator must be willing to take full responsibility, relieve the victim of self-blame, and listen without defensiveness to the words of the victim.”
There are some cases where the nature of the abuse is so severe that an apology in any form will do more harm. Dr. Martinez continued, “The expert therapist for the victim is most able to discern this. There are times when the answer is no. Another barrier to any apology is if the identity of the perpetrator is made public. This works against the individual’s motivation to seek genuine help and against the victim’s being associated with the perpetrator.”
Remorse And Discontinuation
While there is an obligation to seek forgiveness, if the perpetrator either does not show regret or still continues (or would continue) to abuse others, there is no obligation whatsoever to forgive him. (See S.A. C.M. 422:1; Rambam Hilchos Chovel uMazik 5:10; see also Asei Lecha Rav Vol. VI #42.)
Expert opinions in the matter of inappropriate physical behavior are unanimous in their view that proper therapy is essential in any form of remediation. Dr. Doug Martinez remarks, “In over 40 years of practice, I have never seen someone resolve this issue without proper therapy or a sincere dedication to a case-specific form of a 12-step program. This is not something that just goes away or that one can fix by himself.”
What Else Must The Perpetrator Do?
The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:9) lists three things that the perpetrator must do in order to receive forgiveness. He must (1) provide financial restitution when it is appropriate, (2) seek to appease his victims, and (3) genuinely request forgiveness.
The restitution should include the cost of providing therapy to the victims.
Must The Forgiveness Be Sincere?
The Chazon Ish is quoted as saying that the forgiveness granted by the victim must be sincere. Merely saying that one forgives is not sufficient according to this view (see Pninim MiBei Midrashah Vol. I #121 as cited by Kaminsky p. 353).
The Gilyon HaShas (Kiddushin 49b), on the other hand, utilizes the principle of “devarim she’b’lev einam devarim,” matters held in the heart are not considered matters, to rule that forgiveness works even if the victim is not completely sincere in his forgiveness.
The world is not black and white, such that all people are completely evil or completely good. People are gray — even those who have significantly hurt others. Our duty is to make sure that the perpetrators of evil take the necessary steps to make sure they do not harm others again and that they genuinely regret what they have done and make amends to their victims.
They should also make sure to enroll in a program that will help them take steps to provide for the safety of others. These Torah sources indicate that it could and should be done. Often the case is that no one wants to say anything or make an intervention. We have to try, however. The great Tanna, Rabbi Tarfon, used to say (Pirkei Avos 2:16), “Lo alechah ha’melachah ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimenah” — the work is not upon you to complete, yet you are not free from the obligation to involve yourself in it.
Please note: Many of the sources contained in this article were found by the author in Fundamentals of Jewish Conflict Resolution by Dr. Howard Kaminsky. It is a brilliant book and an indispensable resource.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.