A seemingly lopsided dispute between leading Mussar thinkers may be more even than initially appears, finding basis in an oddly placed Medieval polemic. When R. Yisrael Meir Kagan brought his Chafetz Chaim before publication to R. Yisrael Salanter, seeking an approbation, the elderly founder of the Mussar Movement declined. Chafetz Chaim, the book that would become a classic work on the laws of forbidden speech and lend its name to its author, contained a single ruling that R. Yisrael Salanter found so objectionable that he could not approve the manuscript.
In part 1 (4:12), the book requires someone who spread lashon ha-ra about another to seek forgiveness, without exception. R. Yisrael Salanter reportedly objected, arguing that this will only spread bad will. If you do not know that I badmouthed you, you will certainly react negatively when I approach you with this information and ask for your forgiveness (see R. Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and the Good, p. 153 n. 66, 154 n. 76). However, the man who would soon become known as the Chafetz Chaim refused to change this ruling. After all, he responded, Rabbenu Yonah records this obligation explicitly in his Sha’arei Teshuvah (3:207). Who are they to object to this clear Medieval ruling? And so he published the book without the approbation of the founder of the Mussar Movement.
Two Approaches to Forgiveness
Perhaps we can find support for R. Yisrael Salanter’s position in R. Yitzchak of Corbeil’s Semak. First, let us discuss the underlying reason for seeking forgiveness for an interpersonal sin. One way of thinking about this is to compare wrongdoing to monetary damage. Just like you owe money to someone you damaged until you repay the debt or he waives it, you also owe someone whom you damaged through a sin until you pay for it with punishment or he waives it. Indeed, in English we use the word “forgive” to refer to waiving a monetary debt.
Another approach is that interpersonal sin damages a relationship between the two, the perpetrator and the victim. Forgiveness is repairing the relationship, undoing the personal harm, restoring the peace. Rather than being a waiver, forgiveness is an act of healing.
The Semak (no. 8), in discussing the mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself, includes restoring peace between fighting parties. Presumably, just as you want to be at peace with others, you must help your fellow reach this state. Semak continues by quoting classic Rabbinic statements about the importance of peace, including the explanation that the Second Temple was destroyed due to unnecessary hatred. Semak then discusses the importance of forgiveness. Even an important person must ask forgiveness from an ordinary layman.
The transition from love and peace to forgiveness is unclear. Isn’t its proper place in a discussion of repentance? Part of the teshuvah process is achieving forgiveness, becoming whole again. I have not found any other Medieval text that connects forgiveness with peace; they connect it to repentance (e.g. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 2:9). The most likely explanation is that the Semak adopts the second explanation of forgiveness we offered above. Forgiveness is an act of restoring peace, healing the relationship. Rather than a matter of repayment, it is appeasement.
Perhaps this explains the disagreement between R. Yisrael Salanter and R. Yisrael Meir Kagan. If forgiveness is about repayment, then you must ask for forgiveness even if your victim is unaware of the sin. The debt exists and must be remedied, even if the victim is unaware. This is presumably the approach of Rabbenu Yonah, which the Chafetz Chaim adopted. However, if forgiveness is about restoring peace between, then informing an unaware victim of the verbal sins against him is counterproductive. Rather than healing, it harms. Rather than increasing peace, it diminishes it. R. Yisrael Salanter followed the Semak‘s approach to forgiveness and therefore could not approve the requirement to inform the victim. (Note also that R. Salanter would not issue an approbation if he disagreed with even one ruling in the book!)
An additional distinction between these two views is whether you may delay requesting forgiveness if doing so will allow the victim’s anger to subside. If the goal of forgiveness is appeasement then the delay is helpful and permitted. However, if the goal is repayment then the delay serves no purpose and the mitzvah must be done immediately. Apparently siding with R. Yisrael Salanter, the Eshel Avraham (Orach Chaim 606:2) permits delaying the request if doing so enhances the appeasement.