Posted by Elizabeth Schön Vainer and Julie Youdovin
This piece was originally posted on the Energizer Rabbi blog.
We often hear well-meaning people observe that abuse survivors need to forgive themselves as part of their healing process. It makes sense – many survivors of domestic and/or sexual abuse spend years berating and blaming themselves for their situation.
But something about that observation doesn't sit right. To use the language of this season, forgiveness implies that there has been some sin or transgression. To ask or grant forgiveness, there must be something to forgive.
Certainly everyone in an intimate relationship has reasons to both ask for forgiveness and to grant forgiveness. This is some of the difficult and meaningful work throughout the month of Elul and the Days of Awe. Reflect, forgive, take action, make changes.
However, survivors of domestic abuse often are forced to make wrenching decisions. Sometimes we meet people who have stayed with an abusive partner because they have been warned by their abuser that if they leave, things will get much worse for them. Or their only other alternative is homelessness. Or they risk an ugly custody fight that they might lose. Or, perhaps the most vicious Catch-22, becoming homeless and then losing custody because they cannot put a roof over their children's heads. Staying with an abusive partner "for too long" is often a choice born of desperation made in order to protect oneself or one's children. This is not transgression. This is not a matter of forgiveness.
Moreover, many survivors we meet have agreed to return to an abusive partner after promises upon promises of renewed commitment to a loving partnership. Our tradition emphasizes kavanah (intent) over actions and outcomes. Decisions made from trust, hope, and faith – even if they do not turn out as intended – are not rooted in transgression. In encouraging survivors to forgive themselves for decisions made with good and honest intentions, we may inadvertently confuse a choice that turns out to be a mistake with a spiritual or moral transgression. They are not the same.
Many survivors have spent years hearing from their abuser about their mistakes, their failures, their sins. One can only imagine the impact of this ongoing verbal barrage as survivors arrive at Kol Nidre services, forced to contemplate the meaning of the day under the crushing weight of this list of faults and transgressions carefully and repeatedly spelled out by their abusive partner all year long.
During these sacred days, we have an opportunity to change the conversation.
We can encourage survivors to be gentle with themselves – even to forgive themselves for relentless self-criticism and self-blame. But we should also remind them that they did not do anything to bring physical, emotional, or spiritual hurt upon themselves. They have neither sinned nor betrayed their own body or mind in their quest for safety or shalom bayit (peace in the home). To encourage someone who has survived domestic abuse or sexual violence to forgive him or herself is indeed to misplace blame and misdirect responsibility for these actions. Only the abuser should seek this forgiveness, and only from a place of true repentance and accountability.
These days are often difficult for survivors of abuse. Forgiveness can be a complicated thing and abuse is often an unspoken horror for those who suffer, leaving them feeling very much alone and isolated. The weeks of Elul and the Days of Awe offer us an opportunity to reach out to survivors and offer the reassurance that they need not repent for transgressions they did not commit. With that understanding and compassion, we may create an important healing moment at this powerful time of year, standing together with abuse survivors before all the possibilities offered by a wide open Book of Life.
L'Shanah tovah tikatevu!
If you or someone you care about needs help with a controlling or abusive intimate relationship – or if you would like support in helping a loved one - please call (781) 647-JFCS (5327) and ask for Journey to Safety.
Elizabeth Schön Vainer is the program director of Journey to Safety, the JF&CS response to domestic abuse. Elizabeth is pleased to bring her many years of experience collaborating with multidisciplinary teams to investigate child and domestic abuse to Journey to Safety and JF&CS. She believes that only through collaborative efforts can we truly serve our clients. Elizabeth has a BSW from the University of Tel Aviv and a MS in Organization and Management from Antioch University.
Julie Youdovin is the Outreach and Program Coordinator of Journey to Safety. Before moving to Massachusetts, Julie spent ten years working at SafeHouse Center, a domestic violence program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has also held positions at the Union for Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center, the American Jewish Committee's Washington office, and the American Arts Alliance, a nonprofit arts advocacy organization.