Should I forgive my ex-husband who deserted his family?

September 13, 2012

Question: After my marriage broke up, my ex-husband had little contact with me or my young daughter and never paid the maintenance he was supposed to. Now many years later he has become more religious and wants us to forgive him. But I am not interested, unless he compensates us for the money he owes us.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

You are absolutely right. The Mishnah states that repentance and Yom Kippur atones only for sins committed against God (Yoma 8:9). However, for sins committed against another person there can be no forgiveness until the sinner appeases the wronged party and makes full restitution. Maimonides adds that the wronged party, on receiving restitution, should not withhold forgiveness but rather forgive with a full heart.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explores the deeper meaning of the above mishnah and the talmudic discussion surrounding it. He argues that by asserting that “the offended individual must always be appeased, approached and consoled individually [the Talmud emphasises that] God’s forgiveness… cannot be given if the individual has not been honoured. God is perhaps nothing but this permanent refusal of a history which would come to terms with our private tears.”

Levinas’s point is that the universal order, the great sweep of history — at least from God’s perspective — is not more important than the private tears of an individual. An individual wronged must be appeased.
So your husband must make restitution for the money he withheld from you when you needed it most. It is not enough to just ask for forgiveness. Assuming he does make full restitution, you must then do your very best to leave the past behind and to forgive him with a full heart, difficult as this may be.

If your husband has sincerely become more religious, he will instinctively want to make things right by compensating you. If, however, he refuses to make restitution, it is an indication that his religiosity is superficial. Too often we equate religiosity with the outward appearances of piety such as how one dresses, what one eats (or does not eat) and how often one prays.

These are all important elements in the make-up of a religious person but they are only part of the picture. The other part is often more difficult to observe: how the religious person behaves towards other people. From your question, it is apparent that in the past your husband failed in this regard. However, it is never too late to do teshuvah. If he genuinely wants to live a religious life, he should start by repaying what he owes you.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

It was certainly wrong of him to shirk his duty — and similarly all other ex-spouses who contrive not to pay maintenance. In fact, trebly so: it was wrong to break an agreement, wrong to neglect his own child, and wrong to force you to carry the sole burden of providing for her. You have every right to feel resentful.

It must also be galling for you that it has taken him until now to see the error of his ways — several years too late as far as you are concerned. However, this touches on the complex issue of repentance and how in theory it is great, but in practice it is not always easy and sometimes not welcomed.

It is one of the glories of Judaism that it says: yes, we get things wrong, mess up relationships and let ourselves down; but the past does not have to be an albatross around our necks forever, we can let go and start again, we can have a second chance.

It is a message that comes to the fore at the High Holy Days, but is equally present at any other point in the year. In his case, therefore, his repentance is to be applauded. But it is not enough for the person to repent, two other things must also happen.

First, the repenter must take steps to prove that he is sincere. Words are important and an apology is vital, but some form of practical action is also needed — both to reinforce the change of heart and to compensate for the misdemeanour’s consequences.

Second, the person who has been hurt must accept the repentance. The victim also has to let go, be it of their image of the other person, or of the anger they hold. That can be very hard when people feel that their anger is all they have left to comfort them, yet it is part of the healing process for them too.

For your ex-husband, that action could mean paying the money he promised — be it a lump-sum or setting up a standing order; but if he is genuinely unable to do so, there are other options, such as helping you in whatever way is useful, or spending time with your daughter and re-establishing a relationship with her.
He is obliged to make good what he spoilt, but you are obliged to let him.

Last updated: 2:41pm, September 13 2012