a melancholy photo of a women looking away holding a flower
“I wasn’t obligated to forgive sexual harassment… or was I?” (Photo/Pixabay CC0)

Why I won’t forgive my sexual harasser this Yom Kippur

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In the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, I go through all my Facebook friends and determine who needs an apology. I write dozens upon dozens of apology emails full of pleas for forgiveness and willingness to move forward. This year, Yishai  let’s call him that  sent me such an email, but just like last year, I didn’t respond.

After all, I wasn’t obligated to forgive sexual harassment … or was I?

On a warm Jerusalem evening, Yishai drove me out to Beit Zayit. I was 17 years old, flattered and stupid, and was excited to grab dinner with him. I was shocked that he, a somewhat well-regarded author, wanted to spend time with me, an aspiring writerHe picked me up in his van, and on the drive there, he told me about his wife and children  how his kids spoke a funnily accented English and how he had only recently started wearing his new tzitzitHe so innocuously asked me if I drank that I didn’t think anything of it.

When we got to the restaurant, he kept pushing the subject, asking the wait staff if they serve alcohol to minors. The evening, otherwise, was going fine. We discussed politics, history and religion. It was getting dark and sticky outside in the thick Beit Zayit air when he leaned into me.

“Do you feel this attraction?” he asked. I stared, failing to understand.

He asked me if I was a virgin. Then he shook his head and said, “You have a cold  maybe it would be best if we didn’t have sex tonight.” He paused for a moment, almost waiting for me to respond.

His daughter was my age. I wondered how he would react if a middle-age man, practically a stranger, drove her to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and announced that he wouldn’t have sex with her solely because she had a cold. I hoped no one would ever do that to her. But when her father did it to me, I had never been happier to be woefully sick.

I quickly called for the check and paid for dinner; I didn’t want to owe him anything. And then, because I had no way back home, he drove me back to Jerusalem, desperately trying to smooth things over. He was so distracted that he almost drove us over a cliff, and when I gasped, he said that he “had never heard me scream.”

Would my violator learn his lesson if absolved? What are the consequences of forgiveness?

When we finally got to the city, I asked him to drop me off several kilometers from where I was living at the time. He asked if we could be in touch; I said I would think about it, slammed the door and ran away. I cried the whole night and then blocked the memory out.

Until last Yom Kippur, when he asked for my forgiveness.

I was suddenly plagued by the prevailing Christian notion that one is a sinner if one does not forgive. I was prepared to pardon Yishai for what he wanted to do to me.

But did I have the right to forgive someone for wanting to violate me? Would my violator learn his lesson if absolved? What are the consequences of forgiveness?

That night, I went over to my rabbi’s house. He implored me to not forgive Yishai. I was taken aback. Wasn’t I supposed to accept an apology? Doing so, the rabbi said, would give my predator the impression that he could do the same thing to other young girls and simply ask forgiveness. My rabbi paraphrased Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, which says that feeling true anger is almost never helpful  but appearing to be angry, in this case withholding forgiveness, can be a powerful tool for education.

I’ll admit that my rabbi’s answer initially surprised me. I simply didn’t expect withholding forgiveness to ever be useful to Yishai  or even therapeutic for me. I had such a strong desire to forgive him that it shocked me.

Sensing my reaction, my rabbi continued, “Maybe in 15 years, once you’ve learned that he’s never done this to any other girl, you can verbally forgive him,” he said. “But not before then.”

Many of us who would otherwise feel guilty for not forgiving can be redeemed through Maimonides’ wise words: Our desire to forgive those who have violated us can be kept in our hearts but left unspoken. Because the appearance of anger can prevent another scary dinner for another young fan in Beit Zayit.

When Yishai sent me another email this year, asking for my forgiveness, I wish I could say I didn’t give it a second thought. Yet forgiveness crossed my mind, and I wanted nothing more than to absolve him of his guilt. But I have no obligation to forgive sexual harassment or assault; I instead have an obligation to prevent it, even if that means withholding forgiveness on Yom Kippur.

This piece was first published by New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.

Leora Eisenberg
Leora Eisenberg

Leora Eisenberg is a sophomore at Princeton, where she studies Slavic studies. She hopes to become an academic one day, but in the meantime enjoys traveling around Central Asia, riding her bike and studying foreign languages.