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:
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.