YOM KIPPUR-Day of Atonement
DO WE ALWAYS HAVE TO FORGIVE?
R. Leo Michel Abrami
We are constantly admonished to forgive the person who has wronged us. Some prominent religious leaders invoke theological principles to support the view that we should forgive criminals and psychotherapists think it is just as important to free the victims from the trauma caused by the offense.What about the victims? Can they automatically forgive what was done to
them? Can the survivors of the Concentration Camps forgive those who
murdered the members of their family and their community even after they
were told it would be a noble gesture to do? This query is at the heart of a
book of memoirs which was written by Simon Wiesenthal under the title "The
Sunflower". Actually, the author addresses this question to all of us: Should
we forgive the Nazis for what they did to the millions of innocent children,
women and men whom they murdered during World War II?
Wiesenthal tells us that while he was an inmate at the Lemberg Concentration
Camp in 1943, he was summoned by a nurse to the bedside of a dying Nazi
who asked him for forgiveness for the horrendous crimes he perpetrated. He
had murdered 300 Jews by setting ablaze the building in which they were
living. As the Jews were leaping out of windows in an attempt to escape the
burning building, he gunned them down. The Nazi was now begging Wiesenthal, a representative of the Jewish people, to accept his last moment remorse, so that he might die with a peaceful
conscience; but Wiesenthal could not find the will to forgive the Nazi and he
remained silent. In his own words, he says:
Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a
profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this
episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and mind. There are
those who can appreciate my dilemma... and there are others who will be
ready to condemn me for refusing to ease the last moment of a repentant
murderer. Forgetting is something that time alone can take care of, but
forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the person who suffered is qualified
to make the decision.
The author concludes his account by asking the reader:
What would you have done if you had been in my place?
That question was addressed to fifty-three noted thinkers of different faiths,
including the Dalai Lama, and their responses were published in an
additional volume “On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.”
By examining the various responses, one becomes immediately aware of
some significant differences between Jewish and Christian authors. The
Jewish respondents thought Wiesenthal had his reasons for remaining silent,
while the Christian respondents felt the Nazi murderer should have been
forgiven. Dennis Prager, one of the respondents, explains that this difference of
opinion is not surprising; it follows well-defined religious principles in the
two respective faiths. Indeed, Christian theologians believe that we must forgive every one without
There is only one exception to this general rule that is
explicitly mentioned in the New Testament and another one which was carried out by the Church through the centuries. The first one applies to theperson who rejects God or the Holy Spirit. The New Testament regards this offense as an 'unforgivable sin.' In the words of the evangelist Mark:
“I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven
them. But whoever blasphemes against the holy Spirit will never have
forgiveness, for he is guilty of an everlasting sin." (Mark 3:28-30)
This principle is restated by the evangelist Matthew in almost similar terms:
“Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but
blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word
against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy
Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Mat.
We must mention at this point that many Christians have struggled to
reconcile this affirmation with the belief in the infinite love and mercy of a
compassionate God. The other ‘unforgivable sin’ has been part of the teachings of the Church
Fathers and adhered to for centuries: it is the sin that the Jewish people
would have committed by not accepting Jesus as the Messiah and for being
responsible for his death. It ignores, of course, the fact that all those who
followed Jesus in his days, were Jews. However, for centuries, the Jewish
people has been blamed and persecuted for the death of Jesus at the hands of
the Romans. This accusation bore all the characteristics of an unforgivable
It behooves us, however, to state here that the Roman Catholic Church made
an historic decision at the Vatican II Ecumenical Council in 1965, a decision which was reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XVI3 two years ago: the Jewish people should not be held responsible for the death of Jesus Christ or as historians put it, they should not be held guilty of the sin of deicide. In spite of this radical change of attitude, the PEW Research Center still assessed that 26% of all Americans believe that Jews were responsible, a percentage that rose to 36% after the showing of Mel Gibson’s film “The
Passion of the Christ” a few years ago. In contradistinction, Jewish religious authorities, have always taught that God is willing to forgive all the sins which are committed against Him, even by those who deny His very existence. This principle is clearly stated in the affirmation we read at the onset of the Yom Kippur service:
“For sins against God, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) brings
forgiveness. For sins against one's neighbor, the Day of Atonement brings no
forgiveness until one has become reconciled with one's neighbor (or will
regain the good will of his friend.)”
Isn't that ironic? The Mishnah holds that God absolves all of our sins against Him, but not the offenses committed against our fellow human beings, until we have sought reconciliation with them and made peace with them! The contrast is stark. Indeed, Jewish teachings are unmistakably clear: all sins committed against God are forgiven, only the sins committed against our fellow human beings require that we seek reconciliation with them.You may ask: Shouldn't the offense against a mere creature, rank lower than an affront against God, who is Our Creator and Master? Why is then God forgiving any sin against Him but not forgiving those that were committed against humans?
The position of Judaism is that only those who have been wronged can forgive. Only those who have suffered from the consequences of an offense that was perpetrated against them, are entitled to forgive. A change of heart on the part of the offender and a reconciliation between the transgressor and
his victim, will ultimately earn them forgiveness. For God cannot forgive an offender as long as his victim is suffering from the consequences of the offense. How should we then approach the challenging question raised by Wiesenthal in his book?
As we have seen, it is not just a moral issue, pertaining to what is right or wrong; the issue is not whether or not inmate Wiesenthal should have forgiven, but whether or not he had the power to forgive for other people. Perhaps his response could have been:
"I am not able to speak on behalf of all those who have been murdered."
Only the victims can forgive the aggressors who committed crimes against them. “It is,” writes Dennis Prager, “as if these sins fell outside of God's jurisdiction, so to speak. For God has handed over to us the responsibility to make peace with our fellow human beings and to forgive them the evil acts
they committed against us, when they gave us signs of contrition and true remorse.”
Significant differences in theological teachings, thus explain why some would have been willing to forgive the Nazis for their gruesome crimes and others have remained silent. We have all been the witnesses of the way people reacted to the horrific killings of innocent people in schools and other public places. We saw the same difference of opinions in our country in the last few years.
“The bodies of the three teen-age girls shot dead by a student at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., were not yet cold, before some of their schoolmates hung a sign announcing, “We forgive you, Mike!” They were referring to Michael Carneal, 14, the murderer.” A preacher at a Martha’s Vineyard church attended by vacationing President Clinton announced that the duty of all believers was to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who murdered 168 Americans. “I ask each of you to look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and forgive him” said the Rev. John Miller. Other believers stated that Cho Seung-Hui who murdered a number of students and a professor at Virginia Tech a few years ago, should be “lovingly remembered just like the rest of the victims.” Some preachers also stated that they had forgiven the murderers who perpetrated massacres at the Columbine High School in Colorado and the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. My friends, an offender cannot be forgiven automatically. “Forgiveness must be a decision taken with all our faculties and we cannot just overlook our best judgment, no matter what others may think about us” wrote Dr Laura Schlesinger. The victims of sexual abuse and rape are the only ones who can forgive the offender. They are the ones who are suffering from the consequences of the aggression. No one can grant forgiveness for someone else and we may add that the victim is not required to forgive unless the aggressor had a real change of heart. Dr Laura is quite adamant about this matter. “You should not forgive an offender until he/she has earned the potential for forgiveness.” She goes on
enumerating four requirements for meaningful forgiveness.
. Responsibility. The perpetrators need to take complete responsibility for
what they have done. They should not blame the evil action on anyone else,
their childhood, bullying or a sun spot. If it was their own decision, they
must take full responsibility for their actions.
. Remorse. The perpetrator must be truly remorseful. Many criminals only
feel bad because they were caught or had to suffer the consequences of their
offenses, however, that's not true remorse. The victim must be convinced that
the offender is truly sincere.
. Repair. The perpetrator must do whatever it takes to repair the damage.
Some damage cannot be repaired especially when the victim is dead.
. Repetition. The perpetrator must take whatever steps may be needed so that
this action is never repeated.
Unfortunately, the criminal mind is not easily reformed; many sex offenders and other criminals tend to relapse into their pattern of crime. And that is why the civilian and legal authorities must intervene in all these cases, because the ecclesiastical ones do not have the power or the willingness to punish the criminals and thereby protect society from their evil deeds.
“Forgiveness comes from within. It is not something that can be imposed by
others. Either you can do it or you can’t. If you cannot, don’t think that you
are a bad person or that you failed in some way. In many cases, forgiveness is
not possible. You may learn not to despise the perpetrator, but saying you
forgive can be a hollow statement, if that is not what you truly feel.
Don’t give in to peer pressure. Don’t say you forgive someone, when you
don’t. It won’t make your life easier. On the contrary, when someone asks
you to forgive, it is not to make your life more bearable, it is to make the
person pressuring you, feel better.”
For some people, forgiving is a way of freeing themselves, and it acts as a catalyst for healing. However, others can’t bring themselves to forgive as they don’t feel that it will bring them any relief. Such people are being honest about their true feelings, and honesty in feeling is the best policy.
With time you may find it in your heart to forgive, or you may not. As you work through your healing process you find the things that bring peace and light into your life. How you feel is how you feel, and no one can dictate that to you no matter how hard he or she tries. Your heart is your own. Your spirit
is your own. Your growth is your own. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, argued, ‘‘No one can forgive crimes which were committed against other people. It is therefore preposterous to assume that anybody alive can extend forgiveness for the suffering of any one of the six million people who perished.
According to Jewish tradition, even God Himself can only forgive sins committed against Himself, not against human beings.” Lutheran theologian Martin Marty appeared to struggle with his belief that
forgiveness should be appropriate, because he did not want it to be ‘‘cheap grace,’’ to minimize the offense, or promote the forgetting of the offense. Despite his reservations, however, Marty responded, ‘‘My answer would be that in every circumstance that I can picture, more value would grow out of forgiveness than out if its withholding.’’
His religious convictions eventually led him to the opinion that he would forgive. However, forgiveness is not something that can be granted automatically. Take for example the victims of sex crimes. Though some seem to have found a way to move forward in life, forgiveness eludes them. They may have made a concerted effort to set aside the sequels of the aggression, it is always present. This is what many religious dignitaries did not understand or have been been tempted to cover up on occasion in order to defend the honor of the religious denomination they represented. All these considerations have little to do with the hatred of those who have done evil. It is the result of indoctrination and the way people have been programmed to believe.
When Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was asked why he went to Austria and Germany to give concerts. “Why are you doing this? Don’t you hate them after what they did to the Jewish people?”
Reb Shlomo answered, “If I had two souls, I’d devote one to hating them. But since I have only one, I don’t want to waste it on hating.”
That is indeed the first step of a possible reconciliation. The next step will be the true repentance of the offender, For sins against one's neighbor, the Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness
until one has become reconciled with one's neighbor (or in an alternative
translation ‘will regain the good will of his friend.’)”
YOM KIPPUR-Day of Atonement