This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2015/5776 as part of a series entitled “The Simplest Things.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
In 1943, in the depths of the Holocaust, a Jewish prisoner was taken from his labor camp to a German army hospital. There he met an SS man dying from his wounds who confessed his participation in a massacre of Jews. The SS man wept, proclaiming his deep distress and regret, and then he asked the Jewish prisoner for forgiveness. Having sat quietly and listened to this horrible story, the Jewish man left without saying a word. In the following days and weeks, he discussed this experience with his fellow prisoners and he found that no two of them had the same opinion – should he have offered compassion to a suffering and dying man? Should he have condemned the SS man for his unforgivable actions? Or was it best to say nothing, as there was nothing that could be said?
Thirty years after the war, this Jewish man, Simon Wiesenthal, wrote his story in a short book called The Sunflower and at the end of the book he asked intellectuals, rabbis, priests and fellow survivors of genocide a deceptively simple question: “What would you have done?” Their answers are all over the map – some draw on the Jewish tradition that one must ask forgiveness from the person one has wronged, which makes murder unforgivable. They also note that assuming that one Jew can speak for all Jews, and forcing a Jewish captive under threat of death to attend to your need for forgiveness, hardly shows true repentance. Some Christians emphasized the importance of mercy and compassion, imitating their conception of God and living out the saying of Jesus: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” One respondent concluded his rejection of forgiveness tersely: “I would have silently left the deathbed having made quite certain that there was now one Nazi less in the world!”
Is it useful for us to compare our lives to the Holocaust? Internet discussions are notorious for something called Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” – in other words, the longer the discussion, it is practically certain that someone or something, no matter how outrageously inappropriate, will be compared to the Holocaust. It is highly unlikely that any of us in our lifetimes will face a challenge to “I forgive” as difficult as Wiesenthal’s experience. But it is not impossible –remember those bereaved families from the Charleston Church shooting, who said that they forgave the shooter just two days later? It is impossible to know what we might have done in a similar circumstance unless we ourselves have lived for months under starvation, abuse, the fear of death, and the loss of family and friends and even your name. And yet, Wiesenthal asks for your response – “what would you have done?” At Kol Hadash, our 7th and 8th grade Sunday School class reads The Sunflower in their study of the Holocaust, and I have taught the book to university undergraduates. Precisely because this scenario is an extreme circumstance, the story highlights some of the challenges to forgiveness, but also some of the possibilities. Is forgiveness collective or individual? Is forgiveness for the relief of the violator’s guilt, or is forgiveness for the release of the victim’s anger? Is a deathbed, even the deathbed of a murderer, a place for compassion or for honesty? Even if we never face such a challenge, it is clear that “I forgive,” while it seems like a simple thing to say, has more to it than meets the eye.
In Rabbinic Judaism, Yom Kippur was a day of judgment, when divine decree would declare who would live and who would die in the year just begun. Before one is able to seek divine forgiveness, decreed the rabbis, one must first seek forgiveness from the person you have wronged. That also means making yourself available to those who have wronged you, to give them the opportunity to apologize, as well as forcing yourself to do the same if they sincerely atone. In its ideal form, this Yom Kippur is in no way a get out of jail free, cheap grace, cut out the middle man end run for divine forgiveness – it demands hard work towards reconciliation. This is a great example of Jewish obligations bein adam l’khavero – between people – reinforcing our Humanism. Atonement bein adam la-makom, between humanity and God, on the other hand, may not. If we choose to fast or avoid shaving or not wear leather or even to prostrate ourselves flat on the ground, it is for personal growth rather than to soften up the cosmic judge. Does this mean that everyone has always followed this norm of personal atonement before asking personal forgiveness? Of course not – lip service and rote recitation is much easier than what I’ve described. At the same time, we need more practical guidance than simply “forgive and be forgiven.”
In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ medieval code of Jewish law, a lengthy chapter is devoted to the laws of teshuvah, or repentance. Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root “shuv,” which means “return” – returning to the scene of the crime, turning away from a mistake, restoring a relationship that had been damaged. Most of the laws in this chapter concern transgressions against God, and Maimonides also describes in detail sinners who have no share in the world to come – disputing prophecy and the divinity of the Torah, denying the resurrection of the dead, challenging the authority of rabbinic interpretation, and more (ch.3). The list of sinners could actually be the basis for an early “statement of principles” for Humanistic Judaism! When Maimonides turns to restoring human relations, we find more useful insight. For example, complete repentance is when “A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his repentance alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength.” (2:1) This “repentance” would be a positive outcome of therapy, a successful result of rehab, and of course a good sign that someone was worthy of forgiveness. Still, there is not enough from Maimonides alone to give us practical guidance to when it’s appropriate to offer the gift of “I forgive,” either for their sake or for ours.
Let us imagine an ideal scenario when we would be most comfortable saying, “I forgive.” First, be direct: the other person comes to us promptly after something has gone wrong, and they communicate directly and not through anyone else. Second, own it: they take full responsibility and they show regret for what they have done, without blaming anyone else or extenuating circumstances. Third, make good: they offer to make restitution for any damages they have caused. And fourth, show growth: they demonstrate that they have learned their lesson and will strive to avoid any repetition of such behavior. If someone did all of that, in most cases it would be straightforward to offer, “I forgive” – we might even feel obligated to forgive if everything were this perfect. The Assyrians of Nineveh in the Jonah story meet these criteria for their offenses against the Hebrew God, and they are forgiven no matter what Jonah wants. We know that forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting, and I am sure each of us has said “I forgive” to someone when we remember damn well that they did. Responding to that powerful episode of forgiveness in Charleston, one expert in forgiveness and reconciliation said,
People think it’s forgive and forget, and it’s the opposite…It’s forgive and remember. …. it’s a letting go, that this person is not going to control my life forever….Forgiveness is a process: It’s something you commit to, but it doesn’t happen immediately.
These four stages I’ve described parallel Maimonides’ recommendations: to merit forgiveness, you have to be direct and own it and make good and, as we saw, show growth: “even if a person restores the money that he owes, he must still appease [the person he wronged] and ask him to forgive him.” Maimonides also emphasizes how important it is to seek forgiveness:
If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he [still] does not want [to forgive him], he may let him alone and need not pursue [him]. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is now the one considered as the sinner. (2:9)
Returning over and over, admitting one’s failing in public, all demonstrate what teshuva, repentance is all about, and conversely when it should be easier to say “I forgive.”
But what if one or more of these conditions is not met? Be direct: what if the other person delays in coming to us, or sends someone else to apologize on their behalf? What if they want you to forgive them for something they did to someone else? Own it: what if they blame others rather than taking responsibility? What if they are more indignant than apologetic? Make good: what if they refuse to help clean up the mess they made? And Show growth: what if they show no signs of change or personal growth? Indeed, what if they demand forgiveness as an obligation you have to them? In this worst-case scenario, with everything going wrong, very few of us would say “I forgive;” we would be more likely to say, “get lost!” or something much stronger.
We still might decide for our own sanity to let it go, but moving on is not the same as forgiveness. After all of these detailed descriptions of true repentance, Maimonides encourages us to cut the offender some slack:
It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge. (2:10)
Perhaps easier said than done – we are not all by nature easy to pacify and hard to anger; some are easy to anger and hard to pacify, and most of us are somewhere in between. When I was a teaching assistant for undergraduates studying the Holocaust, we would invite two survivors to come and speak to the class – one was still very angry, while the other had made his peace with the Germans of today. Several years ago, after Kol Hadash walked in the Highland Park Fourth of July parade, we received an angry email asking, “How dare a Jewish congregation use a German car for their ‘float’?” (we had put banners on a member’s convertible BMW). I eventually responded that this is an issue to which different Jews have responded differently – visit any synagogue parking lot and you’ll see plenty of German-made cars. I also wrote that moving on in this particular area means neither forgiving nor forgetting. We may decide if and when it would be better for us to forgive, or even just move on, but we should resist making that decision for someone else.
How does Wiesenthal’s dying SS man fit these forgiveness criteria? Be direct: He talks directly to Wiesenthal, a Jew like those he killed, and not to a priest or fellow soldier – but at the end of life when he fears hell more than he fears his conscience. Own it: he clearly shows deep regret and accepts his guilt, though some respondents wonder if he ever would have done so had he not been mortally wounded; they also condemn his blaming of “the system” for his own choices to join the Hitler Youth and to volunteer for the SS against the values and wishes of his parents. Likewise, his late confession means he has no opportunity to make good, though he does try to will his few possessions to Wiesenthal, who refuses them. The open question is whether he shows growth – what would he have done if he had survived – would he have dedicated his life to reconciliation, or would he have hidden his crimes to resume a normal middle class German life? That we can never know. All in all, if I were to answer Wiesenthal’s question, “what would you have done,” this case is far enough from the ideal to merit dismissal rather than forgiveness.
Abraham Joshua Heschel’s response to Wiesenthal’s account presents another example to consider, where every criteria is met, but there is still something wrong (The Sunflower, pp. 170-171). The Rabbi of Brisk, on a train homeward, is rudely treated by a traveling salesman who does not recognize him. When they arrive in Brisk and the salesman realizes whom he has offended, he begs forgiveness repeatedly, tries to make good, and yet the rabbi firmly rejects him. He finally asks the Rabbi’s son to intervene, and the Rabbi explains to his son that the salesman had not known who he was, so he had offended a common man. It is to THAT person he should apologize. Remember Maimonides? Come back several times, and be willing to grant forgiveness. The salesman was doing everything right except for the big picture – it was not his offense against the rabbi’s prestige that was the failure, but rather his lack of basic decency to any ordinary person.
What makes The Sunflower narrative even more poignant is what Simon Wiesenthal did with his life after the Holocaust. Within a few weeks of liberation, he began the work of the rest of his life: to bring fugitive Nazis to justice for what they had done. As he puts it in The Sunflower (p. 83): “Years of suffering had inflicted deep wounds on my faith that justice existed in the world.. . . I thought the work…might help me regain my faith in humanity and in the things which mankind needs in life besides the material.” Wiesenthal grappled with forgiveness, yet he also he insisted on bringing justice to the world. For justice, honesty, loyalty to the truth are basic to human existence, especially if we believe that human beings alone have the knowledge and ability to bring them about.
I humbly offer this model for when to say “I forgive” and how to seek forgiveness: be direct, own it, make good, show growth. There are no guarantees, of course, like all of these simplest things to say. But if it works to bring a bit more shalom, peace into the world, then why not? All of these simple things to say, from “I hear you” leading to “I’ll help,” or “It’s my responsibility” opening up the possibility of “I forgive,” what they have in common is their potential to build bridges across the gulfs that divide us – misunderstanding, distrust, anger, isolation. The give and take of dialogue becomes the give and take of companionship and community. Even Simon Wiesenthal, in his solitary encounter with a representative of everything he has every right to hate with every fiber of his being, even then he sat, and he listened, he showed compassion, he grappled with the humanity of the other person. And afterwards, he needed to share his story with his fellow prisoners, and ultimately the world, to ask “what would you have done.” One of his comrades offered this interpretation: “a superman has asked a subhuman to do something which is superhuman. If you had forgiven him, you would never have forgiven yourself all of your life.” (The Sunflower, p. 66) If forgiveness would be superhuman, then it cannot be expected or demanded. But if forgiveness can be the bridge to a shared humanity and teshuva opens the possibility of a return to community, then we should be willing to take that first step. As I encourage you to do as we begin this new year.