With the High Holidays approaching, the theme of forgiveness abounds. As a Quaker who works for a Jewish organization, I was curious about the parallels between the two religions in respect to forgiveness, repentance and atonement.
Wait, What Is Quakerism?
In the 17th century, an English man named George Fox had a revelation while on a spiritual quest that God’s presence dwelt in people (ALL people, regardless of religion), rather than in religious buildings. Fox described his experience as a message that came directly from God. During Meeting for Worship on Sundays, we Friends sit together in silence in order to hear messages from God (The Divine, higher power, nature, etc.). If a meditation rises to the level of a message, we may stand and deliver it, if we feel led. To be clear, not all Quakers today believe in God and/or Christ, though it is rooted in Christianity.
That of God in Everyone and Double Transgression
Quakers believe that there is “that of God in everyone,” referred to as the “Light” within us. When we harm another person, we are also harming God (“that of God” within them). Historically, that is why Quakers have been known to promote peace and nonviolence.
According to Eliezer Shemtov, harming others is also seen as a “double transgression” in Judaism. If you have done wrong, it is “against your fellow as well as against God who forbade mistreating your fellow.” That means that it is the responsibility of the transgressor to ask for forgiveness from those they have sinned against. Once that forgiveness is given—and not before—can atonement with God begin.
Continuing Revelation and Teshuvah
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting explains that in lieu of doctrine, creed or dogma, Quakers “believe that new truth is revealed to us as we continue our spiritual journeys individually and with one another.” Due to the lack of doctrine, Quakerism does not have a day dedicated to forgiveness or a prescribed practice for it. The forgiveness and repentance processes are unique to each Quaker based on their personal beliefs and practices. Peterson Toscano writes, “I can, if I choose, extend forgiveness…It is most effective if the offender communicates regret over their actions, can articulate what they have done, and actually requests forgiveness.” He emphasizes that forgiving immediately disrupts the “messy” process that results in a satisfying reconciliation. In order to validate the pain and honor the victim, the offender must acknowledge the weight of their transgression and prove that their actions will follow their words.
In Judaism, it is clear that it is the responsibility of the transgressor to repent and reach out to their victim for forgiveness. This practice is called teshuvah. Rabbi Goldie Milgram describes this process as a way to “create a healthy shift in the negative energy between you and an experience, a person, or the Source of Life. Judaism does not offer a doctrine of unconditional forgiveness from God. Any hurt you have dealt another human being can only be forgiven through working it through with that person.”
The process is prolonged if the repentant does not receive forgiveness. One panelist in a Judaism 101 post says, “If one repents and asks for forgiveness on several separate occasions and the victim refuses to forgive out of spite, the transgression becomes that of the one who refuses to forgive.” The victim who does not forgive suffers twice. There is a misconception that forgiving is akin to accepting the abuse. This is where action is important.
In “Quaker Faith and Practice” (an ever-evolving guidebook for Quakerism), it says, “Let none (although occasion may have been given or taken) carry any resentment to the grave, remembering that we all stand in need of mercy and forgiveness.” This sentiment is echoed in the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity, which has a line that reads, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others,” and in passages like Matthew 18 in the New Testament of the Bible.
Restorative Justice and Mitzvah
Peterson explains that action is required in the healing process. He says, “In pursuing restorative justice, peace does not come about by overlooking wrongs.” Here it is clear that the offender should not only be repentant, but also take steps to right the injustice they have caused or been complicit in.
In the aforementioned Judaism 101 post, panelist Hilary explains her ritual of bringing items to her food pantry during the 10 Days of Awe. She claims that she prioritizes this over any other mitzvot during the High Holidays because “people who depend on that food matter more than ritual.”
Personally, I am with Hilary. Action is the most powerful form of expressing love and is truly the only way we can repair the world. As Quakers, we “bear witness” to our beliefs through deeds—not unlike mitzvot.
This exercise has been eye-opening for me. Not only did I learn more about Judaism, but I also have a deeper understanding of Quakerism. I am looking forward to the Days of Awe and feel fortunate to be able to experience them this year through a Jewish lens.
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