I suppose the opposite of forgiveness is holding a grudge – waiting and watching the person who wronged you till you can get your own back. If so, I must be a very forgiving type.

Why don’t I cherish resentment? Because, even if resentment could be satisfied, that doesn’t cure the underlying frustration. I really want the harm-doer to see why injuring me was a bad idea – and knocking him or her silly doesn’t achieve that.

One time, I was having lunch in one of the neighborhood cafés that double as office space for me. At a table distant from mine but within earshot, a country-clubbish woman was exchanging laughing confidences with the café owner. Aside from her and me, the café was empty of patrons. Even deep in concentration, with my papers spread out on my table, I could not help overhearing how she and the owner were hitting almost every note in the anti-Semite’s repertoire.

What to do? It’s against my sense of café propriety to call out remarks across the other tables. I tore off a page from my notebook, penned a line, walked up to her and gave her the note. She looked at me warily as she took it. It said:

 “Your little exercise in classic anti-Semitism has gone quite far

toward spoiling my lunch.”

By the time I had got back to my seat, she had read it and was calling down to me that she was sorry about my lunch but she was not an anti-Semite (nobody is, it’s such an unflattering persona!) but she was against such and such and what she thought was …

I looked up at her across the café distances and replied – in a booming voice –

I KNOW what you think.

Your freedom to talk this way in a restaurant is


The quiet requisite for work having been restored, I was turning back to my papers when I sensed a presence beside me. There was the same lady, tears on her face, apologizing and asking me to forgive her!

Wide-eyed, I looked up at her, feeling very much sympathy. But I said not a word. I did not know that she wouldn’t flip again at the next opportunity. The Jewish view is that forgiveness is mandatory – but only if the fault is admitted and the wrong not repeated.

A Jewish friend to whom I told the story said, “Thank God you didn’t hug her! I would have.” What we both knew instinctively was, don’t hug her.

Recently I read an interesting book titled Mission at Nuremberg, about a Lutheran pastor who served in the U.S. military as prison chaplain to the major Nazi war criminals awaiting execution. To those who seemed really contrite and asked to be received back into the Lutheran confession, the American chaplain offered the forgiveness of Christ.

Here are two contrasting views of forgiveness. The Jewish one keeps the accounts and wants them paid – not out of sterile legalism or rancor – but from care for the miscreant, God’s child, who deserves something more difficult and accurate than cheap grace. The Christian one wants to open the connecting channel between the person whose wrongs can never be made good and his God – so that at least he doesn’t die in the dark!

Which is truer? Which is more restorative? It’s for sure I couldn’t minister to Nazi war criminals but, on the other hand, somebody had to. Then again, there is something not quite right about the killer of millions who climbs the thirteen steps to his hanging and thinks, next stop, heaven.

I can’t parse this any better, but it seems to me that

 God needs Jews

and God needs Christians.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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6 Responses to “Forgiveness”

  1. Brian says:

    Although your blog didn’t specifically address our camp’s differing views on The Great Divide, as you admitted, it does highlight clearly that we have our differences. But since we are both getting our understanding from the same playbook I have to believe that those differences are due more to perception than substance. In that light, let me offer a few observations.

    To begin it seems to me the two forgiveness examples deal with different types of broken relationships. The one you experienced was strictly a human relationship issue. The hurt was personal, being directed at both you and your “family.” Which you handled brilliantly, I thought. Your timely rebuke brought the woman practically to her knees. (I would have just thrown a saltshaker at her.) And if you hadn’t posted the background info later, I would have thought she was truly repentant of her “sin” and worthy of your forgiveness. (Minus the hug of course.) But it sounds like maybe all she really learned was it is not yet permissible to speak her prejudice publicly.

    But the Nuremberg story I think fits into another category since the broken relationship lay between God and man. This is more the atonement issue which gets closer to at least our understanding of the role for Messiah.

    Now I can certainly see how a Jewish person might view the pastor’s action as “cheap grace” in light of the horrific crimes of Nazism. And it often is. Especially when it’s a deathbed conversion as this was. Or the pastor is not even a true man of God but just going through the motions of praying faithless prayers. But if the person is truly repentant, then from a Christian perspective God has already convicted the man to tears over his sin and the forgiveness is genuine. And it would be just as effective as being brought up short by a human rebuke such as yours.
    And we shouldn’t overlook that even though the men might have ascended the 13 steps with new hopes of a heavenly pardon, they were still going to be hanged. So they were not avoiding God’s justice here on earth. And if their sorrow was of the kind your restaurant lady apparently had it was only going to get worse.

    Of course, the forgiveness Christians believe in is predicated on our believing the New Covenant atonement is for real. That the blood sacrifice of Jesus covered all degrees of sin, once and for all. Which means it is all based on faith. And is that any different really than a repentant Israelite bringing an animal sacrifice to the Levite priest each time to cover whatever transgression took place? Or even what all Israel would experience when the high priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur with the good news the sacrifice was accepted? Both must contain the two required ingredients: faith and true repentance. And if either is missing it is all for naught. Wouldn’t you agree?

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. I appreciate your willingness to discuss these things, Abigail, because it is clear that our two groups have 2000 years of misunderstanding and distrust and even outright hostility to overcome. But in the words of that great Jewish Sage (whose name I do not know) – if not now, when?

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks so much, Brian, for adding — what we didn’t yet have — a Christian view on forgiveness. Pastor Henry Gerecke, who was the Christian chaplain at Nuremberg, seems to have been an unusually fine man: serious, devoted to his faith, very connected to people and concerned to bring about a connection between those hapless, doomed prisoners and their God.

      As far as the task that the good pastor set himself, the problem for Judaism is not that a rabbi might have too strong an aversion to these Nazi war criminals to minister to them. (The Nazis would not have accepted a rabbi in that capacity anyway.) It’s that for Judaism, sins against God can be atoned with God directly, but sins against one’s fellow man can only be forgiven if one repairs the damage where feasible, admits the wrong accurately to one’s victim, sincerely regrets it — and is pardoned by the victim. (If these conditions have been met by the penitent sinner, the injured party is obliged to forgive him.) In other words, you have to make it good with the person whom you harmed. In the case of mass murderers, the victims are no longer in a position to pardon them and the murderers are not in a position to repair the injuries they’ve inflicted.

      In Christianity, as I understand it, there is a generalized forgiveness of Original Sin. This is brought about solely by the sacrificial death of Jesus, not by any human efforts. Original Sin is, I believe, a Pauline doctrine. Maybe it’s in the gospels too, but I don’t find it spelled out there. Nor do I see it in Hebrew Scripture. If you open any book on Judaism written by a Jewish scholar or theologian, it’s unlikely that you will even find “original sin” in the index. It’s just not a Jewish doctrine.

      Re these doctrinal divides: when I first met some of your wonderful family, they spoke to me about how close they felt to Jews and the Jewish spirit. Since I was concerned to avoid misunderstandings, I said that there were serious doctrines that divided us. At that point, Chris said (and I think this was an inspired remark): “But look at the fact that right now we are able to have the conversation we’ve been having!”

      I thought, yes, that’s true, and I don’t know why it’s true, but it may well be that there are affinities here that our doctrines cannot reach.

  2. Martin Getzow says:

    The world is a better place because of you. Thank you.

    • Abigail says:

      Martin, this is an exceptionally generous comment. Very heartening too. I think, that’s what we all want, isn’t it, as best we can?

  3. Joel Weiner says:

    If a miscreant apologizes to his/her God and means it, then he/she deserves God’s and our forgiveness. The well-meant apology has to imply a promise not to repeat the misdeed.
    If a miscreant apologizes to God but doesn’t really mean it, God would know that this isn’t really an apology. However, as a mere mortal the problem is that we don’t know whether the apology is well meant. So we watch warily for a repeat offense, and it takes a very long time for the miscreant to regain trust.

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks Joel. This is a very differentiated comment. What I take you to be saying is that my trust is not the same as my religious obligation. These two are distinct, although it is not always easy to tell them apart. There was a woman-to-woman thing going on — that I perhaps have not underscored in telling the story.

      Apart from the owner, we two were practically alone in the cafe. I was directly in her line of sight. Every time she uttered one of her demeaning remarks, I looked up from my papers as if I’d been struck by lightning. It’s hardly possible that she didn’t know I heard her insults and was reacting to them as if each one landed a physical blow.

      Add one more factor. I look very Jewish. I could have been some other kind of Mediterranean person — but with all those papers spread out on my table, and assiduously writing? So (I judged) what she was doing was testing whether deprecating comments she could have felt free to bandy about in her private circles could fly in a public space, provided the target would be unable to see how to respond. She was (I think) testing the waters. How else could she have flipped so suddenly? It was as if she knew all along that this was wrong, a trespass against another human being. And yet (I’ve edited the incident slightly) as soon as she finished the tearful apology, she began supplying rationalizations for her misstep. It was as if I supposed to forgive her — and her rationalizations — but she didn’t call them that.

      Maybe if I’d been more God-centered, I would’ve left all that to God to sort out. But just between girls, I thought she was having her remorse-cake and eating it too — in front of me.

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