Thursday, September 12, 2002
Apropos of both September 11 and the approach of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Benjamin Blech has a meditation on the question: are we obliged forgive the terrorists of 9-11? It's worth a read, but I'll summarize here in order to be able to add my 2c.
R. Blech asks, rhetorically: if G-d is all-merciful, surely He forgives even horrible murderers like the 9-11 terrorists. And if He does so, and we are called to imitate him, then surely we should aspire similarly to forgive. But this doesn't seem right. So what should we do?
R. Blech answers in two parts. First, he says, forgiveness is predicated on repentance. Since the terrorists have not repented, they cannot be forgiven. Second, he says, forgiveness can only come from the wronged. Since we were not the wronged, we cannot do the forgiving. (For this reason, incidentally, murder and slander are considered the two unforgivable crimes by the Talmud, because for neither can resistution be made. For theft or assault or many other crimes, the criminal can either return what was taken or make monetary resistitution that compensates for the harm done. But a lost life cannot be regained, and cannot be compensated for, and a lost reputation similarly can never be restored.)
I think R. Blech has actually identified a fault line between, if I may over-generalize, Jewish and Christian ethics. It is a very Jewish idea that repentance is the gate to forgiveness. But Christianity works somewhat differently, for in Christian terms we are all born sinful, and only through the grace of G-d have we any hope of eternity. G-d forgives us not because of our repentance but because He has made expiation for us through the sacrifice of Himself in the person of His Son, Jesus. If we are to imitate that action, then arguably we should forgive even those who have not repented.
Let's dig a little deeper. What is forgiveness? What does it actually mean? In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, Andre Comte-Sponville argues that forgiveness is a forgetting that a wrong ever occurred. And he argues, incidentally, that forgiveness should be granted to all wrongdoers, in keeping with his principle that unconditional love is the greatest virtue and the root of all other virtues. (It's a very Christian-influenced book, though totally secular in formulation.) I think that he is right that there is a forgetting involved in forgiveness, but it is not a forgetting of the wrong, but of who did the wrong. When one forgives, one says: I shall treat you, who did me wrong, as if you did me no wrong. As if, in effect, you are a different person from the one who did me wrong.
This understanding of forgiveness ties back very neatly with the whole question of repentance. When we repent, we assert that we have become a different person. The person we were may have done wrong; the person we have become would not, and we establish a radical break between the two. In the Jewish paradigm outlined by R. Blech, forgiveness is the recognition that this change has occurred. G-d, or we in imitation of G-d, recognizes that the sinner has become a new person, and deserves to be treated as such. But in another paradigm, which I am presuming to call Christian (and I do want to stress, I'm both over-simplifying and distorting to do so, but I'm doing it to draw a distinction between two ideas), G-d initiates the change through an act of expiation on our behalf, and we through faith then recognize G-d's already granted forgiveness. If we are to imitate G-d in this paradigm, we do not hold out the promise of forgiveness in response to repentance but forgive in order to prompt repentance.
I agree with R. Blech that we should not forgive the terrorists. I believe profoundly in the power of repentance, but I am more skeptical of the psychology that says that I can change another by forgiving him preemptively, as it were - and absent such a psychology, I don't see the point of forgiving them. But I disagree with him that the impulse to forgive in the absence of repentance is immoral, or necessarily causes sin. I think the impulse springs from deep Christian roots. I may not agree with the impulse, nor trust its roots, but I think they should be reckoned with and rebutted, not dismissed.