Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Mechila: Integrating the Jewish Concept of Forgiveness into Clinical Practice

Article excerpt

The professional literature diverges in defining the role of forgiveness and reconciliation in counseling regarding how forgiveness and reconciliation are conceptualized from a professional and secular perspective. The Jewish conceptualization of forgiveness is multifaceted; mechila, the forgiveness of debt, is particularly important in providing a framework for forgiveness when the issue of reconciliation is involved. The authors offer an explanation of the Jewish conceptualization of forgiveness and discuss a way to infuse the concept of mechila into counseling practice on a broader level with all clients.


The use of forgiveness as a therapeutic tool requires that clinicians not only have a working definition of this concept but are able to articulate it to their clients. For many counselors, defining forgiveness involves traversing a labyrinth of often ambiguous and confusing terms and concepts. Cunningham (1985) noted that difficulties in forgiving might be tied to inadequate or erroneous notions of what it means to forgive. Forgiveness is not always attainable or viewed as the same concept. To provide the optimal assistance to the client, the counselor should be aware of the client's worldview as it relates to forgiveness and of the multifaceted views of forgiveness in general.

Recent work in forgiveness has to some extent cleared the pathway through the labyrinth of confusing terms related to and the concepts of forgiveness. Enright, Freedman, and Rique (1998) provided a summary definition of the operative term forgiveness:

   A willingness to abandon one's right to resentment, negative
   judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured
   us, while fostering the underserved qualities of compassion,
   generosity, and even love toward him or her. This new stance
   includes affect, cognition, and behavior. (p. 47)

Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone, and Lee (1999) defined forgiveness as a cognitive-affective transformation following a transgression in which the victim makes a realistic assessment of the harm done, acknowledges the perpetrator's responsibility, and freely chooses to cancel the debt. The victim relinquishes the need for revenge on or deserved punishment for the perpetrator and any quest for restitution. This cancellation of the debt also involves a surrender of negative emotions directly related to the transgression. In particular, victims overcome their feelings of resentment of or anger for the act, thus removing themselves from the victim role.

Although there are subtle differences related to each definition of forgiveness, they possess some commonalities. The construct in each definition is a reaction to an interpersonal offense perpetrated by another. Victims of the offense acknowledge the injury and choose to pursue a process that may teach them to overcome or relinquish the negative reactions that effectively remove them from the role of victim. Forgiveness is an act freely chosen by the victim.

Common definitions of forgiveness frequently combine forgiving with other issues. Reconciliation has often been linked to forgiveness (Hargrave, 1994; Power, 1994); however, other clinicians and researchers (Aponte, 1998; Coyle & Enright, 1997; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Hart & Shapiro, 2002) have argued that reconciliation is distinct from the decision to forgive. The onus for reconciliation is most often borne by offenders when they recognize that their actions were wrong and take action to correct the offending behavior. Aponte posited that forgiveness may open the door to reconciliation, and then only if appropriate and sufficient conditions exist: (a) safety for the victim, (b) possibility for emotional healing, and (c) the commitment of the perpetrator to refrain from committing further harm. Pardoning and condoning have also been associated with forgiveness but do not receive general support in the literature (Bass & Davis, 1994; Enright & The Human Development Study Group, 1991; Freedman & Enright, 1996). …