Joel Cohen

Are we obligated to forgive? And, if not?

I began thinking about the religious significance of forgiveness while watching Van Jones’s CNN television series — “Redemption” — a few months back. There, crime victims or survivors interfaced with the criminals who wronged them. The daughter of a murder victim meets with and forgives the man who killed her mother during a drug deal gone bad; the family and victim of a horrible driving incident that reduced the teenage victim to broken shards of herself with the drunk driver; the father of an innocent young girl killed in a gang shooting intended for someone else with the youthful killer who had served twenty years.  Nothing about having “found God.” Simply apparent decisions by the survivors that they are somehow better off by forgiving, however inconceivable that willingness might seem to an outside observer.

In considering “forgiveness” generally, I’m not talking about Bill Clinton hypothetically seeking forgiveness from Monica Lewinsky. Or Joe Biden wanting Anita Hill’s. These are public figures and whether they are sincere, or insincere, who knows? More likely than not, it has less to do with being a more moral person and more to do with the politics or public face of it. Why else would a request for forgiveness be spread on the front page of the newspapers, rather than perhaps a more private moment?

But let’s look at it more personally. You’ve been badly, and publicly, insulted and defamed. Or the offender has done something else horrible to you that has had dire repercussions. You’re angry. Anyone would be. But the offender, after some time, comes to you hat in hand. Or not. Either way, though, you see no remorse in them, and there is none. And your anger hasn’t dissipated.

Nonetheless, you believe in God, or at least follow the traditions of Judaism, and often look to its precepts to guide how you live your life. Still, you know in your heart that if the offender were to come to you seeking forgiveness, your answer would be no.  In the fullness of time the scar has simply not healed, even slightly. But the offender does what the religion says must be done: (s)he asks forgiveness of you, three consecutive times if necessary, however silly that regimen may seem to you (as it does to me). Under it, even if you reject the offender, (s)he will then – and only then – be able to ask God directly for absolution in order to possibly gain it from Him.  At least that’s the party line for the observant.

And let’s say you don’t want to forgive. Don’t you have an “obligation” to forgive, or at least a willingness to extend forgiveness? Now, you say: some things are simply unforgivable. But what does God or the Torah tell us about our duty? The Christians have the easy answer and “lesson plan” for it in their Scripture.  There’s no more classic example than Jesus hanging on the cross at Calvary. If you accept the historicity of the Gospels, in those excruciating moments before his death Jesus beckoned God to forgive those who caused his crucifixion: “They know not what they do.”  This, even though, according to the Gospel, neither the Romans nor Jews asked Jesus or God for forgiveness, nor exhibited any remorse for their respective roles (according to the Gospels) in Jesus’s death. A pretty good example for followers of Jesus, right?

But what about we, as Jews? Can we find in the Hebrew Bible an affirmative obligation to accord forgiveness, especially when the offending person sincerely asks for it? Meaning, is there such a religious obligation in any of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah?

Many assume the answer is a resounding “yes.” In fact, though, an informal census of rabbis across the spectrum of Judaism yields a “no.” And while some try to find clues in the conduct of Abraham (after King Abimelech took his wife Sarah), Joseph and his brothers, and elsewhere, they come up with nothing directly. And indeed, we don’t even find, for example, affirmative forgiveness in the stories of Esau after having been defrauded by Jacob; Joseph’s brothers after having sold him into slavery; or Miriam having slandered Moses (although he certainly prayed to God for her recovery from leprosy).

But forget about Joseph and Moses not extending forgiveness.  In our prayers even today, particularly as we recite Al Chayt, we don’t specifically ask God to forgive us for having failed to forgive those who have wronged us (although in the prologue to the bedtime Sh’ma there is a formulaic statement to God of the declarant’s forgiveness for all those – none specifically — who have wronged us.  Perhaps, however, a prayer intended by many to ward off doom in the night).

And although the Torah commands us to not “hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19: 17), there’s nothing explicit about extending forgiveness. Should we conclude that Christianity is  more humanist than Judaism – it cares more about or better addresses human interaction than does traditional Judaism? Are we left to decide that our sole “religious” obligation is to leave the very idea of forgiveness to God Himself?  Meaning, if God wants to forgive sins against one’s fellow man that’s up to Him, but only Him?  Is that possibly right – we have no role in the forgiveness as a religious matter? Can one possibly ignore the intrinsic value to both parties when the offender gains forgiveness directly from the victim?

Perhaps the answer lies in considering the spectrum of the kindly, decent and forgiving people we have each encountered over our lives. Are we, as a people, more moral in interacting with others because we follow the Torah’s dictates? Or do we conduct ourselves in a (contemporaneously) more “moral” way because our “personal” ethic has moved us toward a Judeo-Christian ethic?  Perhaps our practical “morality” is influenced by a modern view  expressed in a very different context by, of all people, Richard Nixon as he left the presidency, that “others may hate you, But those who hate you don’t win, unless you hate them. And then, you destroy yourself.”

We don’t, forgive me, talk about extending forgiveness in the same seemingly obsessive way that we discuss the dictates of kashrut or Shabbat.  Still, as a people or as individuals, I don’t believe that we must find an identifiable commandment or episode in Scripture to know that something is right if we are simply taught to live a moral life –  “You, who are on the road, must have code that you can live by.” (Teach Your Children, Graham Nash, 1969).

A willingness to always extend forgiveness is hardly a sine qua non to a moral life.  Don’t expect or even seek my forgiveness when you kill my parent or attack my child or spouse, literally or figuratively. That said, even if God didn’t command it, we probably must  individually decide if a willingness to harbor real or perceived affronts is consistent with a moral life.

Perhaps the outline for the songwriter’s “code” needed to travel the hills and valleys of life lies in the stark words of Ecclesiastes: “A time to be born, and a time to die   .     .      . a time to embrace, and a time to shun embraces  .   .   .  a time to be silent, and a time to speak.    .      . a time to love, and a time to hate.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

Much to think about. And probably much for all of us to forgive, and about which to seek forgiveness – Scripture dictated, or not.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.
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