First of all, the law concerning asking forgiveness doesn’t apply only to Yom Kippur. We should seek to reconcile with others whenever we feel we have wronged them, at whatever time of the year. Yom Kippur may be a good time to think about these things; by setting a sort of deadline, we are encouraged to get down to the business of teshuvah (repentance) and not to put it off till later. By that token, though, we should seek forgiveness throughout the year and not wait until Yom Kippur to think about it and to act.
Second, we are required to seek forgiveness from anyone against whom we have sinned. Some Jews might think that our moral responsibility extends only to those within the Jewish community. If so, this would make it theoretically impossible to sin against a person who is not Jewish. Don’t believe it. The best and the most sensitive Jewish thinkers of all denominations teach that we are obligated to treat all human beings with respect and dignity. To sin against any person, of whatever faith, community, or national origin, is quite simply a sin. And we should seek their forgiveness for that sin.
One of the primary texts that relates to the process of asking forgiveness is found in Maimonides Hilchot Teshuvah, the Laws of Repentance. Ten chapters in length, it is a concise formulation of the process through which we can achieve teshuvah and as such, it is a particularly appropriate text to study at this season of the year.
However, the questioner asks a much broader question. Some may assume that the process of achieving teshuvah deals only with our relationship with other Jews but given the world in which we live, what are our responsibilities toward those who are not of the Jewish faith? Let’s go to the Talmud for a moment. In Sanhedrin 105a we read, “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come.” Of course, there were also other opinions about the place of non-Jews in the world but Maimonides also speaks to the issue. In his ‘Laws of Kings and Their Wars’, Chapter 8:11, he restates the theme and qualifies it when he says, “Everyone who accepts the seven (Noahide) laws and is careful to do them is one of the righteous people of the nations and he has a portion in the world to come. This applies to one who accepts them and will do them because the Holy One Blessed Be He commanded them in the Torah.” (The seven Noahide laws are a set of basic laws that are incumbent on all human beings.)
It would be interesting to ask Maimonides how he would answer the question were he living in the 21st century. Perhaps Maimonides might agree that is appropriate and proper to ask forgiveness of others, even non-Jews who falls into this category. Yet, for our purposes, even if people are not righteous, even if they do not observe these Noahide laws, is there not a basic humanity that all have, particularly in our day and age? It is not only that we live in a much different type of society than did the rabbis or Maimonides, our relationships with those around us is much different – work, play, social settings, school, we are in constant contact with people of very different backgrounds. For example, if we believe that we have been created in God’s image then there are certain Jewish values that flow from this statement in the Torah and which our tradition has codified based on it, one of them being how we act towards others in the society in which we live.
Therefore, just as we want to be on good terms with our Jewish neighbors whom we have wronged, it would be difficult to justify that we should only ask for forgiveness from certain types of people and not from others because of the color of their skin, their religion, socio-economic status, etc. In order to achieve ‘tikun olam’, the betterment of the world, we must learn to do so with everyone who lives in it, Jew and non-Jew alike. The Yamim Noraim, these upcoming High Holidays, is an opportunity to bring that goal a bit closer for the entire world - one person at a time.
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