How to Ask for Forgiveness, in Four Steps
Friday, Sep 25, 2015

Regarding our event On Forvigeness, Rabbi Shai Held was interviewed for the New York Times, September 25th, 2015. You can read the article by Bruce Feiler on the New York Times website or below. You can listen to the audio recording from the event here.

On a weekday evening in early September, more than 400 people, from their late teens to their early 80s, crowded into a standing-room-only event on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The topic was not politics, film, fashion, celebrity or any other subject that could be expected to draw such a crowd. The topic was forgiveness. Sitting in the audience, I was wondering why so many people had turned out, when suddenly: an electrifying moment.

About halfway through the discussion, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a speaker and the author of “Jewish Literacy,” asked this question: “In how many of your families, at the level of first cousin or closer, are there people not on speaking terms?”

Two-thirds of the people in the room raised their hands. I, along with everyone else, gasped.

“I know,” he said. “It’s a staggering figure. And when you ask people to explain the origin of the fight, they often sound ridiculous.”

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but forgiveness is in the air these days. Every week, our news feeds fill with someone or other asking for forgiveness. Pope Francis has been on something of a forgiveness tour, asking forgiveness for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” (He also offered forgiveness for women who had abortions.)

Hulk Hogan pleaded for forgiveness recently after uttering a racial slur about his daughter’s former boyfriend on a sex tape. Ray Rice begged for forgiveness after a video of him punching his fiancée caused him to be booted from the N.F.L.

Celebrities from Paula Deen and Lance Armstrong to Josh Duggar and Ariana Grande have sought forgiveness lately.

The only figure who hasn’t taken such a step, it seems, is Donald Trump, who said in an interview that he had never asked God for forgiveness, though he does partake in communion: “When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness.”

Is all this supplication working? And more to the point: Are these public figures modeling the type of forgiveness we all should adopt? Frederic Luskin, a psychologist and the head of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, believes not.

“The celebrity stuff you’re talking about is not really the hard work of forgiveness,” he said. “It’s the narcissistic work of forgiveness. It’s just asking for forgiveness.”

The real work, he explained, is when you’ve been harmed by someone you’re close to and you work through all the conflicting feelings to get to a place of dignity and peace.

So how do you do that, especially those of us who have ruptures within our own families?


In his work with hundreds of patients, Dr. Luskin has identified what he considers the nine steps of forgiveness. The first involves accepting responsibility for your own role in causing others pain: “Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not O.K.”

Rabbi Shai Held, a theologian and the dean of Hadar (the Jewish learning center that organized the recent discussion), agrees. “The reason forgiveness is so popular as a topic,” he said, “is that we hurt people all the time. We all experience so many relationship breaches, and most of us don’t know how to fix them.”

The most important step, he said, is to understand how your actions affected others. This is especially true in families.

“What I’ve tried to do with my own children,” Rabbi Held said, “is to get them to think beyond the mechanized ‘I’m sorry’ to the act of empathic imagining by asking, ‘What is the other person feeling right now?’ ”

Even young children, he said, are capable of appreciating how their misbehavior made others feel, an act of real rawness and growth.

“You can’t talk about forgiveness without talking about vulnerability,” Rabbi Held said. “Vulnerability is acknowledging you owe something to someone by admitting that you hurt them.”


All people know an empty apology when they hear one. So what’s a genuine one?

“A real apology is not, ‘I’m sorry you’re upset,’ ” Dr. Luskin said. “A true, authentic apology is one in which the speaker says: ‘I’m sorry, because my poor choice of action or words directly caused harm to you. That it’s my bad and yours. And that I recognize you feel hurt as a direct relationship of what I did.’ ”

When a person accepts responsibility and promises to make amends, Dr. Luskin continued, it has an almost universally positive effect. And, “when children grow up in a home where they see Mom and Dad genuinely apologizing (‘Honey, I apologize for being late. I’m sorry you had to wait.’), then they grow up thinking an apology is not a bad thing. And that’s a good thing.”


The Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to tell a story about his first run for office, when his childhood neighbor assured him she would vote for him even though he never asked. But I’ve known you my whole life, he replied. “People like to be asked,” she said.

The same applies to forgiveness.

Experts stress that not all forgiveness is interpersonal. Sometimes we must seek or offer forgiveness from those who are dead or with whom we no longer have contact. But within families, the bulk of tensions occur with people with whom we have a relationship. Moving beyond the apology to re-establishing positive relations becomes critical, says the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the senior minister at the Riverside Church in Manhattan.

“An apology is something one person says to another,” said Pastor Amy, as she likes to be called. It’s a one-way street.

“Forgiveness is the next stage, where we are actually engaged in the unusual act of reconciliation. I can get up on the dance floor by myself and look really beautiful. But if what I really want is to dance with you, and you won’t get up on the dance floor, then I will always be on my own.”

By contrast, the moment of receiving forgiveness “is this moment of true humanity when we are seen for who we really are and loved anyway,” Pastor Amy said.


One mark of the critical need for forgiveness is that theologians, clerics and academics alike share an interest. Forgiveness is ecumenical. A common theme is that it’s a skill that can be cultivated.

When I told Rabbi Held I was considering gathering my children for a conversation in which we discussed how we hurt one another over the last year and asking for forgiveness, he offered some tips of what I may say.

“According to Judaism,” he began, “part of what it means to be a human is to strive to become better, kinder, more generous, more forgiving. Rather than let those remain abstractions, I want us to try to make them more real in the relationships that matter the most.”

And afterward, if the conversation succeeds and everyone’s feeling raw but understood, how do you draw the exercise to a close?

“Something that I think is very powerful is after you’ve gone around, apologized and forgiven people, rather than leave the vulnerability out there, everyone can turn to the people around them and say, ‘Thank you,’ ” he said. “Then you know you’ve taken a step toward wholeness and everyone can walk out together.”

Category: Press
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