We’re right in the middle of the Jewish High Holy Days; we have engaged in a ten-day period of focused self-reflection, meditation and prayer.  Aided by the power of fasting, we ask for forgiveness—and even feel confident that we are capable of being forgiven.

After this ten day period and a few days rest, we celebrate an eight-day long holiday of feasts and celebrations.

Sure, we’re not perfect, but we can and must begin again.

We think there may be no better time to shatter the myth of “Jewish guilt” and exploring the concept of forgiveness. Here’s a smattering of what our tradition really teaches about guilt and forgiveness.

First, forget Woody Allen. He and a handful of other Jewish and non-Jewish comedians and authors have latched onto a short-lived, narrow, stereotype of a small segment of Jewish culture which has no basis in our powerful, ancient, spiritual teachings. None.

Okay, these guys might be funny, and there might be some truth in their “cultural” schema, but their humor has nothing to do with Jewish wisdom and everything to do with stereotyped-thinking. We don’t wallow in guilt; it’s simply not productive.

Second, it’s good to remember that for thousands of years, our sages have taught that if we have done something harmful, forgiveness is possible. Hence, Yom Kippur, which is described in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 23:27.

In fact, the day of seeking forgiveness is considered the holiest day in the Jewish year! It’s the day where we admit we’re not perfect, we take responsibility for our errors, and we ask for, and receive, forgiveness.

The forgiveness formula can be described fairly simply:

1. We’ve done or said or even thought something that pulls us away from our best, possible self (perhaps we hurt another, perhaps we’ve harmed ourselves).

2. We acknowledge what we’ve done, and feel the regret and yes, the pain of it.

3. If we’ve hurt another we make reparations to them in a way that really shows them we want to make things right.  If we’ve hurt ourselves, we meditate, pray, and heal in a way that helps us repair and strengthen our highest self. We believe that the breach between us and the Creator (or God of your understanding) can be repaired.

4. We commit (by making every effort), to never repeat the harmful, cutting, act/words/thoughts again.

5. Finally, we move forward, not dwelling on the guilt or shame, but with a renewed understanding in the wise teachings which say: if we are capable of harm, we are most certainly capable of repair. And once we’ve done the hard inner and outer work (and reparations), we should forget the past, and focus on maximizing joy in life!

If you are capable of forgiving someone, especially someone who sincerely asks for your forgiveness, that might open the mystical wellsprings of your own requests for forgiveness. (See important *note, below)

Yes. there are variations and deeper teachings, and yes, if we’ve hurt others, it might take quite a bit of time and hard work on our part to heal the breach. In fact, we may have to put a lot of effort into reaching out and correcting what we’ve done, but the essence is there.

If you’ve hurt another, believe that even if they find it too painful or difficult to forgive you, it’s worth trying. Seek wise counsel.

Certainly, our tradition teaches that God (or the God of your understanding) forgives you once you’ve gone through the process. The essence of our teachings is that repair is always possible.  Even if we don’t understand it or experience it fully, and it can happen on a transcendent level.


* Please note: If you have been abused or otherwise seriously harmed by someone, discussing this with a therapist and spiritual adviser is necessary. There are many other kinds of healing that need to take place before forgiveness should be addressed, if at all.