When Forgiveness Is Impossible

— by Cathy O’Neil

My first memory is of my father throwing a plate of eggs at my mother’s head, like a Frisbee. His eggs hadn’t been cooked well enough, and this was his way of expressing that to my mother, who had cooked them.

My mother had to duck to get out of the way, and the plate exploded on the wall behind her. Then he punched his hand through a glass window. Blood and glass fragments were everywhere.

I was 4 years old. I remember running to my bed and crying, and the already-familiar feeling of hiding in fear.

My mother was a battered woman who did not leave her abuser, and that meant many of things for her, and for me and my brother. I cannot explain her reasoning, because I was a small child when most of the abuse occurred. But I can tell you it is quite common, and it is not even that hard to understand.

One of the aspects of the decision to stay with your abuser or not, that I have not been hearing a lot of recently, in the Ray Rice-inspired nationwide conversation about violence against women, is the economics of it.

The worst of my father’s behavior happened when he was unemployed, and desperately unhappy with how his life was turning out. I imagine that is typical, but it is extra-hard to imagine managing a second household, with small children, on one salary, when it is already a huge struggle to manage one.

Once my father got on his feet again, he did not take anger out on his wife as much, or as often. Even so, the abuse did not completely stop, and it is not like my mother never considered leaving him.

I remember I went away for a month, to communist Budapest, when I was turning 13. When I came back, my mother told me that my father had pushed her down the stairs. Then she asked me if she should leave him. I said yes, but then she did not do it.

I will probably never really forgive her for asking me that, for putting that kind of responsibility on a child, and then not following through. Especially now, that I have kids of my own that age, it seems outrageous to put that kind of decision on their plate, or even seem to.

It was my last day of childhood: the day I realized that no responsible people were in my family, and that I would have to step up and be the person who negotiated reasonable boundaries, or failing that, call the cops. From then on, I was my mother’s and my brother’s protector.

If anyone ever asks me why I am not intimidated by anyone, I think of that moment. When you are a 13-year-old girl who has decided to stand up for your mother and brother against a large and very strong man, who often became an enraged and unreasonable bully, you forget about fear and intimidation, because you just cannot think about them.

Many years later, after I left college, my father engaged me in a series of ritualized revisionist history lessons: Every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, maybe even on the 4th of July, he would bring up the bad old days.

He would mention how much I had hated him when I was a teenager, and how he had not deserved it; and how even when he had been abusive to my mother, she had hit him first, and he had not really wanted to do it, but there it is. He often distorted facts, and never explained why he was doing this.

It always sounded bizarre to me: How could it matter that my mother had hit him first, not to mention that it was unbelievably hard to imagine? How could that be an excuse for what kind of fear and rage he had manifested on her body and on our family for so long?

These inaccurate family-history lessons in sermon form were very confusing. They made me so angry that I never could do anything except stay silent. I did not even correct him when he lied about the details, because he was evidently saying all of this more for him than for me.

It took me years to figure out why this conversation kept happening, but I think I finally know now: He was working through his guilt, with me as his chosen audience.

He was, in a sense, asking for my forgiveness. I never gave it, but what those conversations did accomplish for him was almost the same: He made it my problem for being so unkind as to not forgive him. After all, my mother had forgiven him, so why could not I?

Looking back, I felt increasing pressure to forgive, but I never gave in. I did not even really know how.

The Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson conversation, which I have been listening to on sports radio, has gotten me to thinking about this recently. I was listening to football guys, these pinnacles of macho masculinity, talking about men who abuse women and children, and describing it as unforgivable.

Thank God for those men: It really is unforgivable, but until now I had not realized that I was allowed to think so. I have been feeling so guilty for so long at not being able to forgive my father, that I never realized that I could just be okay with it. But now I realize, I do not forgive him, and I never will.

I am not writing this to hurt my father or my mother. I am writing in hopes that by reading this, people will realize that this kind of thing happens everywhere, to all kinds of people, and that it is always very wrong.

We need to create stronger laws around this, that do not buckle when the women refuse to press charges. We need to know that, the NFL needs to know that, and policy makers need to know that.

If this happened to you as a kid, it was not your fault, and you do not have to forgive if you do not want to. and even if you do not forgive your parents, you will probably still love them. Human beings are very good at conflicting emotions.

My proudest accomplishment is that I have not perpetuated the cycle of violence on my own family.

Originally published in Math Babe.

Book Review: The Rabbi Rami Guides

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Each of the four Rabbi Rami’s Guides from Spirituality & Health Books is a keeper. Rich in refreshing touchstones for meaningful daily living, each pocketsize volume of the Rabbi Rami’s Guide series offers a roughly 120 page essay. His contemporary theologies are liberating and inclusive and he offers us specific actions that make the world a better place in sometimes subtle and delightfully surprising ways. The first three titles are Parenting; Forgiveness; and God, and the fourth begins with a commentary on Psalm 23 which then informs the author’s understanding of two of our best know mitzvot, in fact the two cited by Jesus as most important, which Rabbi Shapiro uses as a starting point for creating a lovely interfaith learning opportunity booklet. (See Mark 12:28-34, then Deut. 6:4-5 and also Lev. 18:19)

More after the jump.

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What am I here to do? Why? For those who wonder, or raise children who wonder, the Rabbi Rami Parenting Guide offers lively and livable parental approaches to these five primary questions. He also offers a powerful critique of the range of stories available for reading for children:

An unhealthy story is a story that leaves your children feeling superior to others, or frightened of others who are different from themselves. An unhealthy story is one that excuses violence, exploitation, the dehumanization of people, or inhumane treatment of animals. An unhealthy story is one that places your children in a world of perpetual conflict where friendship is rare if not impossible, where love is limited, where race, religion, creed and ethnicity determine the value of a person rather than what she does, where collaboration is dismissed as starry-eyed idealism…..”

Rabbi Shapiro then contrasts two Shel Silverstein stories The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece to show how even a great author’s work bears reflection and screening.  The second half of the volume weaves his clear-eyed parenting philosophy with specific stories from a variety of traditions, as well as of his own construction, that he recommends as holy and healthy. Each is brief and affords great opportunity for meaningful family discussion.


Rabbi Shapiro has a long and distinguished career in the pulpit, founding innovative Jewish organizations that teach meaning, spirituality and menschlichkeit (Yiddish the state of being an honorable, ethical person), as perhaps the first rabbi to have a website when the Internet was founded, and more recently he both teaches Bible at Middle Tennessee State University and directs Wisdom House, a center for interfaith study and contemplative practice in Nashville, TN. So it is not surprising that the Rabbi Rami series also pilots a fourth, dual volume of essays, Psalm 23 & Jesus’ Two Great Commandments. While I see great interfaith study and dialogue potential in this volume, this is his expected audience for this book:

I suspect that most readers of Matthew and Mark, and most readers of this Guide, are neither rabbis nor even Jews. And because I think this is true, I fear you may overlook some of the deeper insights Jesus meant to teach when he chose these two mitzvot as the chief commandments of the Torah and his touchstone texts. It is my wish to make plain the deeper meaning of his teaching by placing it in the Jewish context in which it was spoken by Jesus and heard by his fellow Jews, and in this way enhance your understanding of Jesus’ message.

I can only begin to imagine what an eye-opener study with Rabbi Rami must be for students of all faiths. For example, his explication of a verse in Psalm 23, “I shall not want”:

…does not mean, “I shall not desire,” but rather, “I shall not lack.” The Hebrew verb echsar (Lack) is in the future tense, suggesting that freedom from want comes only when you realize that God is your shepherd. Why? Because it is then that you realize your desires, endless and endlessly satisfied, are a distraction seducing you from your true calling and trapping you in the narrow and lifeless worship of the next big thing.

With God as your shepherd, the chains of idolatry are severed. You are now free to be what God is calling you to be: a source of blessing and liberation for the world…..you will have everything you need to fulfill God’s desire-that you will have everything you need to become a blessing to others by liberating yourself and them from narrowness.

Rabbi Rami channels the Good Shepherd in ways healthy and holy; he appreciates that spiritual development is a process of awareness and personal growth. In his commentary on the Psalm 23 verse “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” Rabbi Rami Shapiro takes to where we may not all have gone before: “The first step is to rest, to lie down, because the way to blessing and liberation isn’t simply an outer journey, but an inner one as well.”

For “He restoreth my soul”, Rabbi Rami transduces the text to reveal another of its infinite possibilities for the non-dogmatic reader:

What does it mean to be a breath-bearer? It means to breathe life into the world as God breathed life into you. This is what the Torah reveals when she tells us, “The ineffable One placed the earthling in the Garden of Eden to till it and protect it’ (Genesis 2:15). The garden is the original state of creation but without you, the earth grows hard and lifeless, incapable of birthing plants or herbs (Genesis 2:5)…

And in regard to “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His names sake…”:

David…is not saying that God acts for self-aggrandizement, but that God acts on behalf of all reality, for God is all reality….A path is righteous if walking it breathes life into life, if it blesses and benefits creation, and if it fosters love, justice and compassion.

Teshuvah and Forgiveness

In the Rabbi Rami Guide to Forgiveness, the term takes on an expanded meaning grounded in the author’s training in Buddhism, life experience and psychology. Pratityasamutpada is “co-origination. It means that everything is connected to everything else and happens altogether.” Although he doesn’t cite it, those who study Kabbalah recognize the related teaching of the Hebrew term for stone, ehven.  “If a soul is like a ben (ven), son/child, cleaved from the av (ehv), father/parent…can you picture that God would separate a part from God’s essence?” No, I can’t.  Can you? This is why the Budda’s conceptualization rings helpful on this topic.

Deftly wielding the language of living at the level of soul, Rabbi Rami doesn’t have us wait for others to confess how they’ve hurt us. He shows us how to heal ourselves through specific questions that restore us to living in the moment. This approach to removing toxic encounter hangovers is useful, and in my opinion, sufficiently only as a complement to the Jewish practice of teshuvah. Teshuvah, in brief, is where we return to those we’ve hurt, own up, are received with respectful listening and the necessary time is taken to process and restore relationships to good health. What do when teshuvah takes quite a long time? Rami’s volumes are subtitled “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” let him show you the way.