Forgiveness Revisited

“Study for Rachel from The Mothers of the Bible”
Henry Ossawa Tanner

Forgiveness Revisited

Lately I’ve come to a new attitude toward forgiveness and, for me, it’s a really great change.  You might say, it’s a move closer to the Christian view, but that would be misleading.  The change was prompted by reading Martin Buber’s hasidic tales that give precise and detailed views of zaddikim (saints) in that tradition as they move through the world.

What had my previous attitude been?  Here’s an illustrative incident that happened a few years ago.  I wrote about it here right after it occurred.

It was at a restaurant where I was having lunch and writing in my journal.  The place was almost empty save for another lady having her lunch in animated conversation with the owner.  Presently, the words “Jews,” “Jewish,” “Israel” and “Jewish lobby” pierced my writerly bubble and they were not said in any flattering style.

Now I suppose I could be taken for Italian but the chances of that mistake were diminishing once I began raising my head as if struck by lightning every time the J word ricoched round the restaurant.

I don’t care for scenes in restaurants, so I waited till her conversation partner had gone back to the kitchen before walking up to her table and handing her a note.  It said that her exercise in classic anti-semitism (I think I wrote “classic” rather than “genteel” – a fine point) had gone far toward spoiling my lunch.

She spoke up across the empty tables then, indignantly denying that she’d said anything anti-semitic.

         “I think,” she began, when I interrupted her as follows:

I KNOW what you think.

I don’t want to hear it.

Your freedom to talk this way in a restaurant

is MENACING to me!

I’d gone back to writing in my journal when, to my surprise, I noticed her standing over my table, asking me (almost tearfully) to forgive her.  She didn’t know what had come over her.  She was, she said, especially sorry that she’d “spoiled [my] lunch.”

I was not much tempted to forgive her.  She had not squarely faced the wrong, which was not just a breach of restaurant protocol.  Her words gave me no assurance that she’d renounced her views and wouldn’t be voicing them in future, when she deemed it safer to do that.

The rabbinic view, as I understood it, is that forgiveness of wrongs done to persons is obligatory if three conditions are met: first, the transgressor shows that she has understood the wrong she did; second, she is sorry for that very wrong; third, she thereby provides the basis for trust that, when tempted in the future, she won’t repeat the injury.  In this tradition, the interaction called “forgiveness” is a humanly grounded one.  It doesn’t flutter aloft on angel’s wings.

At the same time, I was well aware that the lady in the restaurant was going by a different playbook.  I sensed her puzzlement at my refusal to repeat the magic “I forgive you” mantra.  Maybe I was giving her new grounds for theological anti-semitism!  Jesus, after all, had said to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).  So why did I hold back from saying the three words that would tidy up the situation for this normally polite lady?

There’s a story about forgiveness that some of my Christian friends have shared with me.  After World War II, a certain Dutch woman who had saved Jews from the Holocaust encountered a fellow who had informed on his Jewish neighbors in Amsterdam, causing their discovery by the Nazis, deportation and death in concentration camps.  Unless memory fails me, he was the very neighbor who had informed on the family of Anne Frank.  Anyway, whatever his exact misdeeds, the good lady who had saved so many Jews told this remorseful collaborator that he was now “forgiven.”

This story, when I first heard it, had not warmed my heart.  It still doesn’t.  Instead, the expression used by Dietrich Bonhoffeur, the Lutheran martyr to Nazism, comes to mind:

“Cheap grace.”

Let Anne Frank forgive him before you do.

I tell these stories to sketch for you the view I held prior to the recent personal change that I’ll try to describe now.  It’s prompted by the hasidic saints I’ve been reading about.  They showed enormous life experience, an unfettered love of God and a refusal of self-righteousness that

 I found stunning to behold.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Here’s one of them on the topic of evil.  The zaddik reported studying the military tactics of King Frederick of Prussia!  The king did not attack frontally but would fall back, drawing his enemy forward and then launching a surprise attack from the rear.

“What is needed is not to strike straight at Evil

but to withdraw to the sources of divine power,

and from there to circle around Evil,

bend it, and transform it into its opposite.”

The other night I had a dream.  A woman appeared who in real life had done me a long series of grave injuries, among other things managing to end friendships dear to me and vital to my personal and professional life.  In the dream, she was young and pretty again and came over to kiss my cheek.  In view of our history, I shrank away.  In response she stepped back to express a brief, straightforward apology for all the harms she had done to me.  The dream included a back scene signifying that, although the lost years we might have shared could no longer be restored, the future would not be weighted down by what had been lost.

         “What do you think it means?” I asked Jerry over brunch the next morning.

         “It was a visit from her soul.”

It was?  So, at least on the level of her soul, she acknowledged the many harms and was now free to go?  On the one hand, her defamatory fictions would remain where she’d put them because it was much too late to fix all that now.  On the other hand, I could feel lighter.  And I did!  As if I no longer had to carry her moral burdens against some distant day when she could lift them off my shoulders.

I could release her.  I could let her go.  She’d be all right now!

So I think I see what Jesus may have been getting at.  He wasn’t distributing a get-out-of-jail-free card or promising “cheap grace,” as I’d thought.  It was more like hygiene for the soul.

I don’t see forgiveness as a cure-all.  One of the hasidic masters said he could only forgive a person if he had something in common with him.  If he had nothing in common, he would stay as far away as possible – lest the perpetrator drag him down.

My own recent experience confirms the hasidic warning.  Delighted with the newly-discovered power of forgiveness to lighten my own life’s weight – I began eagerly to review the many kinds of release it might bring to different recollected situations.  Till I came to one individual whose diablerie had proved too much for me in the past.  Whew!  It was still way too much!  Mentally I careened away – as if escaping a powerful vortex.

Our modern sophisticates have failed utterly to describe a key feature in the geography of experience: 

The moral landscape is

ripe with opportunities


pitted with dangers.

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” ( 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 . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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3 Responses to Forgiveness Revisited

  1. Pingback: The Romance of Life | Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice ColumnDear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column

  2. Abigail says:

    HI Gail and a good though snowy day to you too! I am touched by your heartfelt input. I probably conflated two stories, the one with Corrie Ten Boom and another one where another Christian forgave the betrayer of the Frank family. I suspect that forgiveness is a fascinating subject and we’ll never exhaust it.

  3. malagailpedrick says:

    Good morning Abigail, …good day to make a snowman….!!! Liked you post today….and forgiveness was also the subject of a pastor I was watching early this morning…I am so very glad you spoke to the woman…who know what G_d will do with her in the future….we can only hope and pray that she will become a real Christian…it is impossible to be a real Christian and be anti-semitic…(and any real Christian will always agree with that statement) sitting in chuch does not make you a christian any more then sitting in a garage you become a car… As a Christian (since I was fortyeight) (have hunger to learn the bible, develop love for Isreal and the Jewish people) have always heard that you should be the first to forgive, not that the person did not wrong you….but that holding on to bitterness and resentment only harms you…and the other person could care less….and most likely does not bring to you would keep doing again and again, if you did not forgive….I know that as soon as I forgive..the sooner I forget and live in peace….it is even better if you can do something kind for that person…but definitely not with a pat on your own back for doing it…the pastor I was listening to this morning …gave an example (in another sermon) of a pastor who had a church, and in his church one of the members became a pastor, and when the pastor in his church left and opened a new church down the road… he also took many of his congregation with him….instead of being bitter,,,,he bought a new organ for their church …,and helped in many other ways they needed… for Corrie Ten Boom…when she forgave the guard, she was also showing the guard the love and forgiveness of Christ…which Christ also showed, regarding the guards who hung him on the cross “Father forgive them for they no not know what they do.” It is in Corrie’s book that the guard she forgave became a Christian.(not sure The Hidding Place or Tramp for the Lord)… One of the things that Corrie said in her book, as she traveled the world, led by the Lord after she was released from the concentration camp that her father and sister died in, she told whom ever she met…”There is no pit too deep that the Lord can not reach down and pull you out” …this statement she also told to those in the concentration camp…that when she got out she was going to travel the world and tell others about Christ…and give that statement…she said they will believe me because I have been here…she went around the world to tell others about Christ with no money not knowing where she would be led to go next… completed led by the Holy Spirit, and as the Christians in our group will tell you…if you do not do as you are being led to do……(and with some humor)…..He will nag you till you do…. Thougthts from your Christian friend this snowy morning………Gail

    zaddikim…going to check out now


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