Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors


The Limits of Forgiveness

posted by Brad Hirschfield

Recent events with John Edwards’s affair have gotten lots of people saying lots of things about betrayal, the nature of forgiveness, who deserves to be forgiven and under what circumstances. Most of it has been pretty angry stuff, which won’t help address the real issues. So, at the risk of adding to the pile up of unhelpful approaches, I will give it a shot. After all, we are all in need of forgiveness for something, and probably could repair a relationship or two if we were more able to forgive.
It’s really pretty simple. There are no limits to that which can be forgiven, but there are limits as to who can forgive any given thing. The issue is our relationship to the thing which needs forgiving, not the severity of the act, which might render it beyond forgiveness. We are always free to forgive anything, but we can only forgive that which has been done to us.
We cannot demand that others forgive what has been done to them and we cannot forgive people for the hurt that they have caused others. That is why even in the Jewish tradition which annually asserts on Yom Kippur, that no sin is beyond God’s forgiveness, for sins committed against fellow human beings, one must get forgiveness from those they have wronged.


The idea that some things are “unforgivable” per se’, flies in the face of any faith which asserts the existence of an infinitely understanding and loving God. Any act judged from that perspective would always be forgivable because both the actor and his actions would be seen in a context which would render each as understandable and possible to get beyond – hence forgivable.
But we are not God and so we can’t, and perhaps should not, always do that. I think that we seek the limits of forgiveness in order to feel okay about those things we can not, and do not, forgive. If the act is “unforgivable”, then there is nothing wrong with us for not forgiving it. Perhaps we should worry less about what should be considered unforgivable, and focus more on those things that we might stretch ourselves to forgive and even more so, for which we should seek forgiveness.
As to the recent story with John Edwards’ infidelity, and frankly I don’t know why its a news story at all, the only thing to decide about his wife’s decision to forgive him is why we think she did it. We could read her forgiveness as a cynical ploy which the furtherance of his political career demands. Or we could interpret it as a testimony to her capacity to support the man who has betrayed her, finding within herself the power to forgive a man she still loves. Our decision about that though, probably says more about each of us (and the relationships we are in) than it does about either John or Elizabeth Edwards.



  • eastcoastlady

    I don’t think it’s up to any one of us as individuals to say, “OMG, how can she say with him?” It’s not our relationship. We can make a statement or draw a conclusion about our own potential relationship with him (or with her), based on what we think we know (e.g., I would or would not vote for him in the future), but beyond that, it’s really not our business, even if we think it should be, or that we know better.

  • Lucy

    Elizabeth Edwards has had more than her portion of sorrow. The death of her teenage son, living with incurable cancer and the betrayal of the man she has supported for so many years is certainly more than many of us could bear. I belive she forgave him for the sake of her two young children and her older daughter, who could be left without a mother at almost any time. She did not wish to bring more sorrow to them; she did not wish to leave them with a family torn apart. It is a shame that her husband was more interested in his own vanity than in his family.
    As for me, I would give anything to punch him in the nose for her sake!
    (I am not as forgiving as Ms. Edwards.) :-)
    Lucy

  • LAURA MUSHKAT

    gee a politico without family values who talks about them-who would ever think it.
    Politics create people who evidently are so sure that they are the saviors of their town, city, state or nation that they loose sight of what is important in their private life.
    I think that our nation was better off when we never learned about these things till these guys were out of office or dead. Evidently like with Bill Clinton we must seperate the person from how they are politically or nobody will be running.
    Next big thing will be the lady politico who must confess to an affair!! That can not be far away. sigh…………..

  • Rob

    Neither John Edwards nor Larry Craign nor Bill Clinton nor Newt Gingrich nor…..the list could get very long, owes me the slightest apology for his adultery against his wife. What he owes his wife is between them. As for their fitness for office, I am really looking for their integrity in matters that concern the nation. I never looked to Mark Foley for spiritual guidance.

  • demoiselle.susan

    Elizabeth Edwards did not have the option not to forgive John Edwards. What would she do? Leave him, and take the children, despite her limited prognosis? She obviously needs him to continue to care for her children after her death. As for John Edwards, he has just shown us all that he is a liar and a man of poor character – anyone who would betray his wife and family when his wife is terminally ill is not worthy of our trust.

  • Laura

    John Edwards actively requested support from voters and solicited donations to a campaign that would have been doomed had the truth been known. The infidelity is for his wife to forgive, but running in 2008 with a huge, fresh skeleton in his closet is something that John Edwards “did to” millions of us.

  • carmen diaz

    John Edwards and in general not only politicians but all those public figurs most be very careful once they rich that popularity they have a big responsibility to the new generations is so sad that for one stupid low passion lost all the efforts of their lives and the pain of their families unfortunaly this sociaty reduce the power of the brain and transfer to the genitals.

  • Jeremiah Price

    Rabbi Hirschfield –
    I believe you need to teach some more on the subject of forgiveness – all except one of the comments here missed the entire point and were judgemental in nature. Some even create a “wrong” done to them which doesn’t exist. I think even allowing for people to muse about the reasons one person chose to forgive another is on dangerous territory, because in most cases we can’t know the reasons – especially in the case of public figures not known personally.
    It has unfortunately become a practice of people to use forgiveness, not in it’s true meaning, but as a further judgement or condemnation. There is another step involved also, called “forgetting”, which is present with forgiveness by God. The sin in this case was against God, John Edwards’ wife, the other lady involved and himself – if the parties involved have chosen to forgive then we need to accept and honor their choice – not side-line referee it as to why.
    Other thoughts on forgiveness; it must be asked for with a sincere heart (a good definition of repentance)before it can be given. There are also times when the action was meant in one way and received in another. In the end it generally comes down to any act needing forgiveness by man also needs forgiveness by God first – and if God has forgiven then who am I to continue to judge?
    Jeremiah Price

  • K

    Rabbi,
    I am grateful for your willingness to thoughtfully consider these matters and provide insight and accountability for those of us who are pursuing a more excellent way.
    It is my experience that the act of forgiveness has much to do with releasing ourselves from the fears holding us in dangerous thought patterns. These poisonous attitudes close our minds to the perspectives of others, limiting our ability to experience creative thoughts and flow into the future as we hold negative past perspectives. Therefore, forgiveness is, in many ways, a selfish endeavour, I forgive so that I do not have to continue to experience unforgiveness!
    Forgiveness does not require me to rationalize anothers behavior (though in cases where I have been personally wounded, it helps me to develop narrarative context). I find the greatest companion of forgiveness is humility, thought I do not portend to fully grasp the mindset of a humble life.
    Many thanks for your perspective,
    K

  • Marian Neudel

    We forgive for the same reason we take out the garbage–there is a limit to the poison we can live with.

  • LAURA MUSHKAT

    Just realized that we may have lost a candidate for the VP due to the crap that Edwards pulled.
    It certainly is not for us to forgive or not-it is a family matter but we all are SO nosey!!
    One could have a good character for politics and a bad one for the family-just look at FDR and his wife as a great example of a man who was not a great husband and did cheat but was a good president.

  • Troy Mckenzie

    It’s really quite simple…he without sin cast the first stone…while we are waiting for the first stone to be cast let’s play hang-man in the sand, it will last longer than the first throw.

  • Lucy Silver

    The “sin” committed by John Edwards was adultry. Adultry concerns three people: the husband, the wife, and the “other.” Remember, the “other” participent in the affair is as guilty as the offending married partner. Both offenders need to make peace with the offended married partner, or their “sin” remains unforgiven.
    In this offense, there are only three people involved. Question: I believe that adultry does not concern the public, or require publicity.
    However, if the act of adultry weakers our social fabric, what obligations do the offenders have to society? I know that on Yom Kippur, the offense needs to be acknowledged publically to the community. And the offense must be settled, privately.

  • Doug from PA

    The idea that every sin can be forgiven is ridiculous. How is murder to be forgiven? The victim cannot possibly forgive. Nor should forgiveness be extended in cases where the perpetrator is not truly repentant, to the degree of willingly accepting punishment for his/her actions. Hating those who merit being hated is the necessary reverse side of loving those who deserve love. If you forgive everyone – murderers, rapists, muggers, terrorists – unconditionally, then why should they change their actions. This idea that everything can be forgiven is modern mumbo jumbo, not Jewish tradition.

  • speaks from the heart

    Only G-d can forgive a sin – as what one culture feels is a sin, another may not. Thus, the judgment of the ‘sin’ is already predicated on the humanness that we attach to everything. The ‘act’ and forgiveness is between offender and G-d.
    IMO – humans can/should forgive what the ‘offense’ has done to them. The should is because one should not harbor that which will fester (kudos to MNeudel above). As example, one loses a loved one in a horrific bus accident, where the driver chose to attempt outrunning a freight train and did not succeed. It was not for me to forgive what he did; it was for me to forgive for what it did to me, family, neighborhood. It took years. The release was freeing.
    Being wronged in any manner can be seen as a sin – how one chooses to react after being wronged – whether to harbor/fester, or forgive – is the choice of free will – theirs (for doing it) and yours (how you handle it).
    As for Edwards – he wronged many supporters with the denial/lying. You’re not to forgive the act (that wasn’t done to anyone but the wife, and I suppose, the mistress) – but what was done after is the item to which those who are offended can ‘forgive.’

  • Paul, seeking wisdom

    John McCain committed adultery, Rudy Giuliani committed adultery yet they are forgiven. Three “Great Evangelical Preachers” committed adultery (with prostitutes no less) and they are forgiven.
    BUT if a democrat commits adultery it is not forgivable, don’t you know that?? Democrats are the Devil’s spawn, nothing they do is forgivable!!!!
    We live by a double standard here in the political realm of America, Republicans “Walk with God” and their sins don’t count because they are God’s Chosen People and are redeemed. While Democrats are the rejected and despised of God and they are doomed to everlasting torment. Republicans are the only ones going to Heaven, don’t you know, and God will never allow a democrat into the pearly gates.
    If I sound bitter, it is because I am. I have a very hard time forgiving those who glorify themselves and have elected themselves above others.

  • Anonymous

    For our own personal peace of mind, we need to forgive. However, in forgiving the act done against us we do not necessarily continue in fellowship as formerly – before the act against us. The act may be forgiven, but the relationship forever changed.

  • laura t mushkat

    TO LUCY- there were MORE people involved because the “other” is having a baby but wont allow a DNA test
    one of the staff who is married says he is the real father
    and it is now being reported that the “other” has proof that Edwards had told her he loved her and that when his wife dies he will take the children he has by the present wife and the one comming and marry her
    the chidren-particularly the ones that understand
    There is a possibility that I am surprised Mrs E. did not put a spin on if not true or if true admitted to-she would not be the first wife who is dying who encouraged their husband to meet and possibly care for a woman who could take their place-particularly with young children. It has occured!

  • David

    In Jewish law, forgiveness is only after, and I stress, only after the perpetrator has done repentance (teshuva) which according to Maimonides is made up of 3 distinct items (go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repentance_in_Judaism):
    1. The perpetrator really (“charotoh”) believes and understands that what he did is wrong.
    2. Accepts upon himself (and a real and true acceptance) to not do the same sin again in the future & of course has already ceased doing the act.
    3. Lastly confesses to God on his actions and MUST beg for forgiveness.
    This is Jewish law in all the generations.
    Furthermore if this is an offence to a freind (stealing, libel, etc) then one must ask forgiveness and beg for a serious forgiveness from one’s freind.
    Forgiveness is not something of a nod of the head as many would think, rather this is a serious thing and takes time and healing, of making up and by doing so geting closer to the freind. And its the same with God, via a full and real repentance, is all about one ultimately becomes closer to God. Note that Teshuva in Hebrew means “return”.
    So – if a person (like Mr Edwards) did adultery, he must regret his actions, cease and promise never to this again, confess to God AND to his wife (whom he really damaged).

  • demoiselle.susan

    If the situation were different, and female politician cheated on her husband who had metastatic prostate cancer – her career would be over, and she would be condemned by all as an unsuitable mother, wife, and political candidate. But the reaction to the Edwards scandal by some seems to be boys will be boys. Look at the treatment of Hilary Clinton – all she has to do is wear a pantsuit and raise her voice a few decibels, and she receives public disdain.

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