God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

Lots of comments on my answer to the short but perfect question, “Is there an unforgivable sin?”

Q: I read your recent article on unforgivable sin. I found it both thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing. If someone who killed another person approached you, and this individual was repentant and seeking redemption, what kind of pastoral advice would you offer? If I had killed someone and was told my sin was unforgivable, I would think this would lead me to a state of crushing despair.

— B, via email

A: I would explain that I have no spiritual standing to forgive his sin against another person because I was not the victim. The victim also has no ability to forgive him because that person is now dead. That is why killing is truly unforgivable — it destroys the only one who can forgive the sin on earth. What God does in Heaven with the souls of killers we cannot know.

Q: Your column on unforgivable sin and forgiving sin hit home with me. What if you can never find it in your heart to forgive someone for deeply hurting you? Even after 42 years I still cannot forgive the woman responsible for breaking up my marriage. She married (my ex-husband) and 15 years later when she found he was cheating on her she felt the guilt, the pain and wrote me asking forgiveness. She had suddenly realized how much she had hurt me by starting the affair and how selfish it was when she continued to interfere with our reconciliation efforts. I told her to ask God’s forgiveness because I could never forgive her. I no longer have any hatred for her but feel only indifference. However, when I think of forgiving her I just can’t do it, and I don’t seem to regret not being able to do it.

— J, via email

A: I understand that the depths of your pain and anger, which are real and completely justifiable, have prevented you from forgiving her. However, she did show you that you were married to an untrustworthy cad. Remember that she did not break up your marriage, they broke up your marriage. Both of them were responsible.

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The Hebrew word for faith is emunah and it comes from the Hebrew root AMN which means trust and which forms the word Amen that Jews, Christians and Muslims say after every prayer. That word “Amen” really means, “We trust that what we just said is true.” I wish those who write to me and proclaim loudly that their religious beliefs are true would learn from the word Amen and trust that what they believe is true. Trusting is different from knowing. Trust is knowing mixed with modesty. We are talking about deep spiritual mysteries when we speak about religion, and it is arrogant and embarrassing to make truth claims about our beliefs that cannot be proved. However, trust claims can be proved by our experiences in life. We trust God because we have experienced God’s love. We trust God’s commandments because we have experienced the deep joy and goodness that comes into our lives when we live by God’s law. Faith is ultimately an act of trust.

And how does that relate to your broken marriage? Faith is ultimately a form of love. Faith is our love of God and our love of one another as creatures made in the image of God. That faith, like all forms of love, depends upon trust. You should not have trusted him. You should not have loved him because he is unworthy of your trust and love. Learning this is painful but important and your ex-husband would have never taught you this truth about himself. That woman, whom you cannot forgive, helped to teach you the most important lesson of your life, and, after enduring her own betrayal at the hands of the same man who betrayed you, in shame and repentance, she asked for your forgiveness. In her brokenness, she reached out to you to help her heal from the same wounds that scarred you, and you could not find it in your heart to forgive her and help her heal. Perhaps you might find it in your heart to reconsider your obduracy. To paraphrase a Hemingway passage: “Everyone is broken and some become stronger at the broken places.” She is trying to become stronger, just like you, and for the same reasons. Help her to heal and to trust again, and love again, and believe again and, like you, become stronger at her broken places.