Every year, in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I think about my rape. It’s not the anniversary of the first time I was sexually assaulted, and it’s not because I will see my rapist at synagogue. It is because even though I – sort of – got what many rape victims want from their attacker(s): an apology; and even though I told him I forgave him (when put on the spot), I am not so sure I did.
I believe in Jewish karma: I want G-d to forgive me, so I have to forgive others. In the Jewish tradition while we need to ask G-d for forgiveness for sins against G-d, forgiveness for sins against other people can only be granted by the person injured. And we are encouraged to forgive. One tradition even holds that if forgiveness is not granted, the sin then belongs to the person not accepting the apology – the injured party!
This requirement to forgive is heavy.
Every holiday season for the past many years, this pressure to forgive filled me with anxiety – because I don’t feel like I truly forgave my rapist when he asked. Each year, I pray with as much devotion I can muster. But I emerge from Yom Kippur feeling as if I emerged from a mikvah holding a dead rat – technically pure, but holding something filthy.
Finally, I had to talk to someone. Gritting my teeth with utter humiliation about telling the gory details to another person, I called my rabbi’s wife. Her response shocked me. First, she said, “I have to double check with my husband, but I don’t think you have to forgive this.”
“I don’t think you can. I don’t think you have to. It’s not the same thing as a friend who borrowed your lawnmower or something. Second, it’s not even clear he made an actual apology. So for sure you aren’t obligated.”
That settles it, right? Now I can just drop it and focus on important things like all the times I missed praying on time, said the wrong blessing, or decided not to wear the heavy stockings in the heat? (Just joking on that last one.)
We had this discussion two years ago. So last year was the first time I actually went to services supposedly free of the need to forgive my attacker. Frankly, I felt a bit lost. I spent some serious time asking G-d to help me heal instead of helping me to forgive my attacker. I asked Him to help me heal my fear and my self-blame, and I asked Him to help me forgive myself for blaming myself for things that weren’t ever my fault.
Later, I reviewed with my therapist what occurred during the so-called apology. It included a vague admission of regret about how things between us ended (as if it were ever a fully consensual relationship to begin with) and a sympathy cry that my rapist cannot look himself in the mirror (rather cliche without much detail about how sorry he is about it but without even an admission of what precisely it is he is sorry for), and a thinly veiled threat to frame me for a crime (in convincing detail which makes me shudder with fear to this day) if I were to make a lawsuit out of it.
I asked him to confess what he actually thinks he did, and he kind of shirked and explained how difficult it was for him to apologize. He then looked contrite and just said he would like to apologize. I let him know he still hadn’t actually done that. He asked what I meant. I made him repeat after me, “I apologize for sexually assaulting you.”
But I still didn’t feel any better. I then asked him to confess this to my parents (who blamed me for being promiscuous).
He laughed. “Never,” he said.
Still smarting from that jab, I was then asked, “So, do you forgive me?”
I considered the possibility he was a sociopath or otherwise mentally unwell, counted my lucky stars I wasn’t also being attacked in that moment, and decided yes was the right answer.
He questioned me a few more times to make sure I definitely wasn’t planning to report him, asked that we remain friends (which I refused, saying something about how men and women can’t really be friends) and then, unbelievably, he actually made a pass at me.
I ducked out of his arm and told him never to contact me again. Luckily, he hasn’t.
I expected to feel better. I had totally bought that whole idea that you forgive for yourself, not for the offender because the anger is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies. I expected time would heal all wounds. It never has. Actually, I think it may have made it worse.
Later this year, I spoke with another rabbi, just to be sure I really didn’t have to forgive him. He confirmed. But I do still feel damaged because of the impact it has had on my life, I explained. Because my reality is that I have suffered damage – to my self-esteem, and my ability to trust intimately in friendships and relationships, and I suffer flashbacks of the attack. My life will never be the same.
I am troubled by the part in the High Holidays prayers where we talk about the sins for which G-d doesn’t forgive. The ones which it is better to die than commit: murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality. There it is: sexual immorality. During my rape, my body was the scene of the crime. I wasn’t drunk or high or dressed provocatively. I fought back, I said no at least five times, but I at some point I realized it was going to go better for me if I stopped fighting. Because I was there, in a sense participating, albeit unwillingly, it was so difficult psychologically to relinquish my sense of agency and even though it had clearly been taken from me, I felt like an accomplice both via my presence and my continued silence years after the fact.
The rabbi assured me this is not something I need to repent for. It was outside my control. G-d is not holding me responsible for this. Not only that, he said but you have nothing to feel dirty or damaged about anymore either. Okay, then, so what is the punishment for my rapist? He said it was very serious.
“Like what was it?” I asked.
“Because he had inappropriate relations with a niddah or because of the attack?”
“It’s serious.” He suggested I work it out with my therapist.
I wanted to know what happened to the rapist in the next world. Isn’t that a spiritual question? There was no answer. He did, however, suggest that I could consider at some point – maybe not now – if I could find a way to forgive my rapist, that might be better for me just in terms of finding peace. Perhaps I should meet with him, and talk it over.
Meet and talk voluntarily with a man who raped me and, at last contact, seemed more interested in self-preservation than remorse and restitution?
Emboldened by more months of therapy (which mostly straightened out my teenage thought process, guiding me towards adult reasoning about who was truly at fault and who owned the shame for this), I tried a different rabbi. “How do we know nowadays a rapist doesn’t have to marry the victim? In biblical times, when the rapist was compelled to marry the victim and financially support her, didn’t that mean she is (that I am) somehow damaged goods? How am I supposed to deal with the anger I feel about this violation of my self-efficacy and personal autonomy? Am I to be held accountable for that?”
He said something about needing to look it up. He wasn’t sure if the Torah dealt with this exactly. He seemed suspicious of my mental stability for asking. Why if it happened so many years ago was I still bothered by it? Clearly it wasn’t my fault.
I had to explain that it is a normal response to trauma to be bothered years later as if it just happened, and sexual assault is trauma. I educated the rabbi about the physiology of how the traumatized brain works and this is actually what healing looks like. The Torah we have had for 3,000 years which has surely dealt with the topic of rape before must have something to say, something that might help give me some closure?
His discomfort was palpable.
Wrong address. I will have to find another rabbi who isn’t so uncomfortable dealing with this topic.
I am still bothered. Why is it better to forgive? I assume by forgiveness, we mean no longer feeling resentment, vengefulness, or harsh judgement toward the perpetrator. We aren’t talking reconciliation. Nothing will be able to restore the trust I once had toward my perpetrator. It would be far too dangerous to my physical, mental and emotional survivor to put myself even near him again.
I can face the depth of pain I suffered and grieve my losses. I have learned from his so-called apology: I do not need his apology in order to heal either. I can understand my perpetrator isn’t a total monster, but has good and bad parts and is to some degree a product of whatever his upbringing and genetic defects made him – lacking in empathy and having an overabundance of entitlement and need for power along with a short fuse and lack of self-control. We’re all flawed human beings.
I cannot forgive that he took it out on my body. I have used the anger to fuel many successes in my life, but I still harbor resentment, and I am depressed that there is no justice, no forthcoming restitution at all for what it has taken from me, and I must continue to keep his secret on some level if I want to maintain the wonderful life I have managed to create for myself, too.
(For, at this point, I could face a defamation suit if I name him. The statute of limitations has passed, and even if I show his defamation claim is invalid, the process could drain me of finances and time I would rather spend elsewhere. It could also expose me to the ire of people who might choose to judge me instead of my abuser.)
I think part of the reason his apology made it worse was because he was still in control of the process. It was all about him. Also, I forgave prematurely. I was just recognizing the effects of my attack, and even the name for what had happened, when he asked for forgiveness. I thought as a religious person, a good person, I needed to forgive, but ultimately that put me into denial and deepened my shame.
Finally, it didn’t work because it was coerced. Just like consent in that relationship at the time of the rape itself. He really hadn’t changed. In fact, his threat might have been yet another crime.
In my effort to forgive him, I shifted the anger and the blame onto myself.
Rape has stolen my trust in the world as a safe place and that innocence can never be restored. My rapist didn’t even begin to make efforts to admit and take responsibility and try to make it right and even if he had, there really is nothing he could do to make it better and restore what he has taken. (Paying for therapy, admitting his actions to my parents and his, entering a sex-offender treatment program, an education program for his children, and warning others, allowing me to name him anytime I talk about this, turning himself into the police – those would all be a very nice start, though.)
Jewishly, I have more questions. If I forgive him, will he still be punished in the next world? I don’t want to let him off the hook. That’s too much responsibility for me. I didn’t ask for any of this, and at the same time I do hope he’s held responsible in the next world even if I somehow before the end of my days find a place of forgiveness in my heart.
Finally forgiving him is yet again like protecting him. I kept this a secret already, for far too long. Why do I have to do yet more favors for him? I already held the shame and the secret that belongs to him. If I expose myself as a victim; I will forever be looked down upon by some as a weak victim, and it has already taken a couple of decades for me to reconcile that label with my assertive self. It just isn’t fair.
I still have a lot of unanswered questions and there are many rabbis who do not feel qualified to give answers on these matters. As society becomes more open about these issues in public, rabbis are going to have to become familiar with these issues whether they like it or not. Because abuse is a serious and widespread problem in our community and in every community, regardless of race or religion. We are not immune.
This year is different than last year. I am not going to wonder if I forgave or not, and I am not going to push the entire equation out of my mind either as if it’s irrelevant. It is relevant, and it’s relevant at this time of year. I forgive myself for not knowing better. I forgive myself for taking longer than some people are comfortable with to get adequate help in my healing process. I forgive myself as I learn new ways of emotional regulation, self-care and coping in the face of the fallout from the trauma.
I rescind any forgiveness I may have mistakenly offered to my abuser in the past. I hold him fully responsible for the attack, for coercion, and for threatening my well-being if I were to go forward with prosecution. I eagerly await the day when our nation as a whole votes for elimination of statute of limitations in rape cases so all perpetrators will know they cannot wait out the clock on this crime.
I am at the point where I accept what happened. I have found a way to integrate it into the narrative of who I am. As a result of a deeper understanding of the long-reaching effects of this trauma on my life and on that of so many others, my rape has been a catalyst motivating me to actively fight for social change. Choosing not to forgive my perpetrator, I am reclaiming my power.
If you have found forgiveness and it has worked for you I applaud you. For me, choosing not to forgive my perpetrator didn’t make me mired in the past… it was something that began to set me free.