Jewish Forgiveness

Rembrandt, 1631

Jewish Forgiveness

For some readers, this title is an oxymoron and might even prompt a double take.  Are we talking about non-Jews forgiving Jews, and how they can do it?  Surely Jews have a problem with forgiveness and grace.  Jews have law.  Christians have forgiveness.  Right?


But I forgive you for thinking that.

While we were in California, I read an interesting book actually titled Forgiveness by two British philosophers who write in the straightforward analytic style, Eve Garrard and David McNaughton.  Their book is an effort to think clearly and honestly about a topic where reflections have often been hazy and out of focus.

Their viewpoint is entirely secular.  God’s not watching.  Yet the Christian culture of the authors is visible.  Examples of forgiveness pure and unalloyed are either lifted from the parables of Jesus or lives of contemporary non-Jews; cases of forgiveness withheld involve Jews.

The authors are careful to note that the posture of forgiveness can cover a multitude of missteps, including refusal to bear witness, indifference to justice, self-promotion, acquiescence in wrongdoing, and surrender of self-respect.  Correlatively, refusal to forgive can save self-respect, draw vital lines between right and wrong, honor the victims and subordinate self-interest to the overriding claims of justice.

When all the ersatz cases have been gotten out of the way, what finally do the authors say forgiveness is?  Why is it a good thing?  They say it expresses a sense of human solidarity — both downward and upward.  On the downward side: given other circumstances, I too — being like the perpetrator only human — could have committed his atrocities.  On the  upward side: given our common humanity, I respect the wrongdoer’s potential for someday turning in a better direction.  Even if today he’s unrepentant, he retains the possibility of rejoining the human community that we all continue to share.

One thing struck me immediately.  These authors seem wholly unaware of the magnetic power that evil-doers can exert.  There is a charm in doing wrong and a contagion in it.  I’ve seen it exercised by people who never looked so good as when they were being bad.  The identification with wrongdoers recommended by these authors comports blissful unawareness of this contagion.

We’re all capable of it, you say?  And how!  Nobody’s above it.  I don’t care how holy you are.  You’re not above it either.

Cited in Yaffa Eliach’s Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust is a Hassidic Master who delineates the problem.  If, says the Master, I find something in the wrongdoer I can identify with, I forgive him.  If I find no such element, I flee as far and fast as I can.

Here is a nice sense of the difference between evil unmitigated and the kind that can be pulled back into the human community.  Garrard’s and McNaughton’s appeal to generic humanity fails to notice this distinction.

Emmanuel Levinas cites a midrash on the topic of misplaced fellow-feeling.  A certain rabbi wanted to give a butcher another chance to repair his insulting behavior toward the rabbi.  Thinking that the butcher needed to  apologize for his disrespect and be forgiven by his victim before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the rabbi presented himself at the butcher shop.  The butcher was so disconcerted to see the same man he’d insulted now standing in his shop that he swung his axe the wrong way, dislodging a bone chip. The chip flew into his skull and killed him.

The moral?  Don’t force your good will on someone not ready to accept it.  You may do more harm than good.

The rule of Yom Kippur is that you ought to forgive the person who shows genuine understanding of and regret for the wrong done to you and asks to be forgiven for it.  The understanding shown by the apologizer is what gives promise that in future this injury won’t be repeated.

Wrongs committed against God are in another category and must be laid before the Lord directly.  God forgives those who turn back from what they have done and turn their faces toward God.

I am a person who doesn’t sport a thick skin.  On the contrary.  I run around without much in the way of protective layers.  As a result, I’ve been perceived – misperceived I’d say – as a walking target.  In the course of extensive reflections on this topic, what have I learned?

Forgiveness is no quick study.

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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2 Responses to Jewish Forgiveness

  1. malagailpedrick says:

    love it,,,,,


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