In this fall season, with Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah on many minds, the topic of forgiveness often comes up.  What does forgiveness mean in Ethical Culture?  What is our responsibility to forgive?

Felix Adler, founder of Ethical Culture, addressed forgiveness in An Ethical Philosophy of Life, Book III, Chapter VI: “The Meaning of Forgiveness.”

“Every kind of [morally hurtful act] is an attempt in some fashion to live at the expense of other life. The spiritual principle is: live in the life of others, in the energy expended to promote the essential life in others. Moral badness is self-isolation, detachment. Spirituality is consciousness of infinite interrelatedness.”


“The most effectual aid [to forgiveness] is faith in the better nature of the wrongdoer.”

Background: rising sun. A chain of metal links transforms in the center to doves.

© Adobe Images, used with permission.


Two quite different approaches make sense to me about forgiving. 

One is the idea that forgiveness is giving up hope for a better past.  It’s recognizing that the past is past, and letting our emotions detach from the hurt, even as we may continue to work to heal the trauma or hurt of that past, and even as we put into practice new learnings we may have gained, about trusting, about boundaries.  This kind of forgiveness is something that we can do independent of the person who caused us harm, who may be unchanging in their assertion they were right, or may be unwilling or unable to change.  The person may no longer be alive to be part of a changed relationship.  Yet this kind of forgiveness, letting-go, can free us from being stuck in an emotional trap, imagining how different our lives might have been without the hurt or trauma.

Another is the forgiveness that is about restoring faith in the person who caused harm or hurt.  This is tougher, and does usually require either our own rethinking about the situation, or a change in the other person.

Seeking Forgiveness

So often, the focus on forgiveness is about us being the forgiving one.  But for that second kind of forgiveness to happen, usually the person who caused or triggered hurt has a responsibility to change, so that the relationship can be healed.

Over time, Ethical Culture Leaders have wrestled with the idea of seeking forgiveness: how do we apply the rather conceptual, abstract ethical philosophy to the practicalities of living?  Forgiveness is, to begin with, a relational act.

Don Montagna, then Leader of the Washington Ethical Society, attempted to summarize how to seek forgiveness.  Lois Kellerman, then Leader of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, further developed what Don Montagna had written, both by the early 1990s.   And then I took Lois’ work and made some further modifications.  I include this sequentially-collaborative work here, with the permission of Don Montagna and Lois Kellerman.

There isn’t much explanation of the steps.  I hope that they are clear as they stand.


A practical guide to the steps in seeking forgiveness — an example of applying ethical philosophy to the practicalities of living.

Phase 1: Acknowledge the impact

  1. Clarify how a certain behavior was hurtful in its impact. Without understanding the harmful effects of your behavior, it will be difficult to change. Attempt to understand the hurt or pain from the point of view of those who have been hurt, and try to understand the harmful impact on yourself.  (Notice that this is not about your intention.  It is about your impact.)
  2. Acknowledge to yourself and others that the behavior was a mistake. Being able to acknowledge the mistake verbally is an important first step if the relationship is to be healed.
  3. Express genuine sorrow to all those involved for the mistake you have made. When you understand the harmful impact of your behavior, and can express that with true feelings of sorrow, you open up possibilities for change and for healing.

Phase 2: Make amends

  1. Act out of a deep sense of honoring yourself and the other party involved. Don’t cater to postures of narrow defensiveness (including defending your “good intentions”). It is courageous to face up to the harm you have done. Take the first step toward healing by being generous and proactive in your attempts to reconcile.
  2. Find a “stroke” that is at least equal to your “blow.” Do this by asking the party that is hurt what you can do that is at least equally positive to balance the negative. (Psychological studies say it takes an average of five times as much positive impact to offset a negative impact, in order to restore trust.) This is ultimately mostly symbolic, since we cannot undo past harm. But it is a critical sign of goodwill and true remorse.
  3. Make amends in a timely manner. The longer you delay, the more wounds will fester. So act as swiftly as the processing of your feelings will allow.

Phase 3: Commit to change

  1. Make a clear commitment to change your harmful patterns of behavior. This may involve clarifying what kinds of events trigger your destructive responses, and finding ways to avoid such situations or training yourself to respond differently.
  2. Act visibly on your commitment. Change involves not only words, but actions, such as: appropriate counseling, courses in relationship skills, publicly asking for help in identifying your harmful patterns and support in your not acting on them.
  3. Respect the process of change. Acknowledge to yourself and others that it is hard to change, and that behaviors deeply imbedded do not disappear quickly. Don’t condemn yourself for slipping, and don’t condone your old ways or trivialize their harmfulness. Rather, accept the actual without losing sight of the ideal.


— Jone Johnson Lewis, Leader, Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture

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