On Forgiveness

September 23, 2001

On Forgiveness

Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School this June of 2001. We want to continue our involvment with the Heschel School.  Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel”s mother is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah, I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.

This set of notes is the text of my discourse at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn on Slichot, this year the evening of Saturday, September 8th, 2001. A lively discussion followed, but I didn’t record that part.

“I’m going to talk about forgiveness.  It is important this time of the year; it is important to me. It is a matter we all confront both as offenders and as victims.

These days forgiveness is front page news.

Russian officers asked for forgiveness from villagers in Chechnya. The president of Poland asked for forgiveness from Jews who were murdered in Jedwabne.  Not too long ago, at Auschwitz, Pope John-Paul II asked for forgiveness in the name of Christians, though not in the name of the Catholic Church. In South Africa a council of forgiveness was created to resolve latent hostility between groups. We could add to this group any day reading the newspaper.

When Rabbi Weintraub had asked me whether I wanted to speak this evening  I readily agreed. Rather than talking about Art in Jewish life as I had done in past years I wanted to dwell on forgiveness, but only on forgiveness between people. I also wanted to explore whether there is a specifically Jewish forgiveness.

To find sources, and to be able to order the subject into a coherent and systematic whole, I would check the Encyclopedia Judaica, and the Internet. One of the search engines I used, Googol, under ‘Forgiveness’ had 750,000 entries.  I then limited my search to ‘Forgiveness, Jews’, and there were 75,000 entries. There are 7,000 entries for ‘Forgiveness and Talmud’.  Finally, I checked Amazon.com for books on ‘Forgiveness’, and found 285 titles on sale there. I realized then that I was in a lot of trouble.

Is there a good definition for forgiveness? The dictionary says ‘to pardon an offense or offender’. Additional information may be needed.

An adequate outline may well require the combined qualifications of a theologian, a historian, a sociologist, and a psychologist, but I’m a painter.

Some large categories of offenders and the offended are obvious.

First comes the demand to resolve the relationship of persons or groups with God.
Second is the interaction between two persons, and
Third are transactions between individuals and groups and
Fourth are conflicts between groups.
It may be sensible to keep as a separate category forgiveness within a family or in a close relationship.

Finally there is the quest of one person to live with conflicting feelings and values, to forgive oneself.

I shall not speak about forgiveness from God, the center of our attention throughout the High Holidays. I also shall omit talking about close relationships or about troubled individuals where the competence of a psychologist or psychiatrist is needed.

At the very beginning of my attempt to talk about forgiveness I realized that I would have to speak in general terms, and limit myself to a few random samples and observations. At most I could look into one case or another, rather than being able to conclude with a well thought out guide to forgiveness. At the conclusion of my talk I may leave you with sources for discussion, perhaps with some food for thought.

One necessary element inherent in all instances of forgiveness is the harm, the transgression, and the iniquity that has to be addressed.  Where there is no hurt, no offense given, where no transgression incurred, forgiveness is not needed. A logical step should follow, and a question should be asked: Why do these wrongs and offences occur? An answer would lead us in no time to the inquiry into the nature of human beings, to questions of the origin of sin, questions of theodicy, questions of eschatology. While I’m sorely tempted to reflect on this matter today I must stay away from that subject. Whatever our ideas about forgiveness may be, however, at some level psychology, theology, and cultural patterns will reverberate.

Following Rambam’s Hilchot ha T’shuvah, and many other commentators, this is our basic model of how forgiveness is earned: If I have wronged you I have to set things right, repair the offense, resolve not to repeat the transgression ever again, apologize, and then ask you for your forgiveness. This, our general rule, here is defining conflict resolution between two persons who can communicate.

A moment of hesitation: Rambam’s formulation seems simple, but it contains complex issues.

A grid could be drawn, an array. In a horizontal row the offended, the victims would be listed: one known person, several known persons, one dead person, several dead people, and a large group that perished.  In a vertical column the offenders would be listed: one known perpetrator, an unknown perpetrator, several of them, several unknown ones, a large group, and an organized entity. The list of categories I picked is arbitrary, and also incomplete. As arrayed here there are five groups of victims, and six of perpetrators. The result is a grid of thirty cells, and each cell may require a different variation of forgiveness.  I mention this tabulation to show the complexity of the idea.  Moreover, our set of answers would be based on Jewish precepts.  Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, or Hindus or any other group may impose different injunctions.

Before continuing I have to ask you for your forgiveness for my temerity, my chutzpah, of tackling a subject far from my competence. This illustrates one facet of forgiveness: one person asking several others present for acquittal.

It is a case of “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”.  The quote is from Alexander Pope, from his “An Essay in Criticism”.  If I had omitted here the source of the quote I would have offended the authorship of Alexander Pope.  Unfortunately, he died in 1744.  How can an offender ask forgiveness from a person who is dead or unidentifiable?

Returning now to some of the examples mentioned at the beginning, and placing them into the grid: The Russian officer, a member of the military which destroyed villages in Chechnya, is a living member of a group of offenders asking living members of victims for forgiveness. This is a valid, genuine, and also practical request for forgiveness that may lead to a change in behavior by the culprits.

The current president of Poland, not a perpetrator himself, is asking the dead Jews of Jedwabne for forgiveness. Does he speak for his compatriots? His statement enraged many of them, and that included the local clergy. Why did he feel the need for his declaration?  Here a living non-perpetrator pleads with dead victims. Neither the offenders nor the victims were present. I’m puzzled.

Pope Paul John II, at Auschwitz, not too long ago, asked for forgiveness in the name of Christians. When speaking for Christians is he identifying here also with Southern Baptists, with Lutherans, with Protestants of Northern Ireland, or even the KKK? He did not ask for forgiveness in the name of the Catholic Church, and also not for all the edicts of Church Councils of the last sixteen centuries, and also not for all the still authoritative declarations about Jews from the Church Fathers to the present.  Pope Paul’s warm and fuzzy sentiment is in marked contrast with the precision of canonic legal precepts, that finely detailed and razor-sharp clarity of ecclesiastic positions. Did John Paul II meet the minimum requirements for forgiveness? He used the customary phrases, but omitted the steps that should precede the asking for forgiveness.

Christian forgiveness works in a feudal system, and as a hierarchy. King, Emperor or Pope, every one of them is claiming to have a mandate from heaven, being God’s representative on earth, and being empowered to forgive a subordinate. This continues all the way down the ladder to the lowest one in the social structure. A higher rank may forgive a lower one. For one of lower rank to demand forgiveness from one higher up is a grave transgression.

Where does the Jewish concept of forgiveness come from? At the very beginning of our text the creation of the first couple is followed shortly by their disobedience and their punishment. At first, divine forgiveness is withheld.  Then Cain slays Abel, and God forgives Cain. As the Tanach continues, after the covenant with the forefathers, and because of their merit, the Israelites are forgiven again and again for their sins. In later generations our teachers found guidelines about forgiveness appropriate to changing ages and places.  I took this brief detour to show how far back forgiveness is rooted in our tradition. Different sets of ideas about forgiveness became the roots of Christianity.

Forgiveness among Jews was, and is, democratic. The same rules hold for the powerful and the weak, the poor and the rich, the learned and the uneducated.

Forgiveness within our community is well codified. Questions arise when there is an interaction with non-Jewish groups.  Historically that meant conflicts with Christians, and different principles for forgiveness apply to Christians.  Forgive and forget is a Christian mandate.

While the affliction of chauvinistic nationalism is abating in many parts of the world, the plague of fundamentalism is spreading. Both rabid nationalism and fundamentalism are inherently against forgiveness to outsiders. The list of fundamentalists is getting longer and longer, and, alas, includes Jewish groups.

Earlier I talked about the social function of forgiveness.  There is also a personal one. Not to forgive means perpetuating hostility, carrying a grudge, possibly hatred, and this eventually becomes a life-denying stance.

If forgiveness is not within reach is there a way to live with the offence? The Shoah comes to mind, and the need of individuals and communities to live a full life unencumbered by anger or hatred, to acknowledge the pain and the past, and to live with it.

Let me now return to forgiveness between persons. I’ll mention one or another situation, and ask you to help me to find a solution that seems fair.

A pickpocket steals your wallet.  It contained some money, but also a photo that you cannot replace, and that picture has profound significance for you. You have to decide how to live with your loss and your pain. Here forgiveness is elusive, and acceptance is a sensible alternative.

On his deathbed, with his wife and daughter present, a father is asking his now adult daughter, to forgive him for having abused her sexually as a child.  What is the proper response? What is a Jewish response, what is a Christian one?  Has the Jewish daughter the right to refuse forgiveness?  The pain of the wrong done to her by her father may weigh more than the imminent loss of her father.  In a Christian family the mother would demand from her daughter to forgive her father lest he burn forever in hell, moreover, the daughter’s refusal to forgive is a mortal sin, and she too would be damned to eternity.

Where does Christian teaching take its bearings?  In his epistles Paul highlights the words of the Prophets about God’s love for Israel, and Paul lets this love prevail over all other aspects of God. God loves and forgives. Therefore it is mandatory to love and to forgive.  The fall of Adam and Eve, while on the surface construed as disobedience is imbued with a heavy dose of sexual connotations. All persons are conceived in sin.  Baptism nullifies that sin. Later sins can be atoned for, and eternal life is again, potentially, available by way of penitence and confession.   My two-sentence description of Christian belief about forgiveness omits all the proclamations of Christian theologians and Church councils over the centuries.  Christian doctrine, however, is firm and absolute in this one area: forgiveness is mandatory. Christian forgiveness shifts forgiveness into the theological realm, and ignores its human function.

A Jewish offender has no escape clause. Before forgiveness is asked for, a wrong must be corrected.

In 1969 Simon Wiesenthal wrote “The Sunflower”. During WWII, while an inmate in a concentration camp, Wiesenthal is assigned to a work detail near a hospital close to the front line. A young SS-man is dying of his injuries and wants to talk to a Jew. Wiesenthal is sent to that man’s bedside.  The SS-man relates in detail how he was instrumental in the gruesome mass-murder of an entire Jewish community. The memory of that day torments him and he wants to repent by asking a Jew for forgiveness.  Wiesenthal listens, remains silent, and then walks out of the room.

Later Wiesenthal questions his silence, and discusses it with his fellow inmates. The first 100 pages of 250 describe this wartime event.  After completion of the book Wiesenthal sends his manuscript to 45 noted persons for their comment. The remaining 150 pages are their answers. Among the 45 are Arthur Herzberg, Theodore Hesburgh, Primo Levi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Cardinal Franz Koenig, and Cynthia Ozick. Most of the Christians included demand forgiveness; most Jews would withhold it. The 45 commentators are important thinkers of our time, and their arguments are carefully reasoned. I do not want to summarize their views lest I distort their positions.  I am largely in agreement with the annotators who are Jews. I understand the sources of the Christian commentators, but some made me bristle with anger. If you have not read “The Sunflower” I would like to suggest that you give it your attention.

We have no dogma. Our tradition demands from us to pose questions, explore our motives, and then to probe our questions again, testing the validity of their thrust as a practical solution to personal and community  problems. We have to sift the text, turn each page over and over again in our search for answers leading to action for a new life.

This, then, is the time of intense introspection, the time to acknowledge our omissions and our actions, and the time of our resolve to do better.  Our seemingly simple set of instructions from Rambam’s Hilchot ha Teshuvah to seek forgiveness appears to be applicable to many, if not all, conflict resolutions, whether person to person or among groups:

If I, or we, have wronged you, I, or we, have to set things right, repair the offense, resolve not to repeat the transgression ever again, sincerely apologize, and then ask for forgiveness.”

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