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Do we have the right to forgive the unrepentant?

Jewish tradition requires that wrongdoers repent and make restitution before they can be forgiven

hands reaching“You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you.” The pain in Nadine Collier’s voice is audible. Her mother has been taken from her along with eight others attending a church Bible class in South Carolina by a murderer motivated by nothing but hate for the other. “You hurt me,” Collier said to Dylann Storm Roof during a court hearing. “You hurt a lot of people, but may God forgive you.”

There is something transcendent in this act of forgiveness. Something that speaks to us of human greatness.

And yet, do we really have the right to forgive one who has wronged us, but is unrepentant? And do we have the right to forgive one who wronged someone else? The answer given by Jewish tradition is no. There are situations when one is not allowed to forgive — not only not obligated, but not allowed!

Who has the right to forgive?

In Judaism, there is no blanket forgiveness in the absence of restitution. If a person stole something, he must give it back. If he wronged someone through slander, he must take steps to make good the victim’s reputation. In other words, he must do everything possible to undo the damage set in motion by his acts.

But even this is not enough. For the sake of society at large, if not for his own sake, the one who did wrong must take upon himself the commitment never to repeat the wrong, even if he could do so with impunity. He must become a different person, one who is incapable or repeating the same behavior.

Then, and only then, can he approach the person whom he wronged and ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness does not depend upon the one who is wronged. It depends first of all upon the one who did the wrong.

Justice as healing

According to the Christian emphasis on beliefs and spiritual purity, it makes sense to ask that no harm come to anyone as a result of his actions, since neither he nor anyone else gain anything by it. Taken to its conclusion this could mean that we should not prosecute a murderer in this life, since no one gains anything by his punishment or death. Punishing him won’t bring the murdered person back to life. In fact, it only causes harm to the one who carries out the punishment.

But according to the Jewish view, asking that justice be suspended for the murderer is not doing the murderer any favors. After all, we don’t ask God to suspend justice in our own case in the absence of sincere repentance. We know that only by being held responsible for our actions can we grow. I would not want to live in a world where I can do harm and never get a chance to make right, just as I would not want to be handed a doctorate without ever opening a book.

Nor are we doing our society any favors by forgiving a murderer. To ask for justice for someone else but not for oneself is really to ask that there be no justice at all.

Further, we can’t ask that those who do wrong not suffer for it without also asking that one who does good not gain by it. The same word, g’mul is used for both kinds of ‘payment’ or ‘consequence’. It is blind.

Letting go vs. forgiveness

That doesn’t mean we should hold a grudge, or let hatred invade our inner spaces. Rather, we metaphorically “let go” of it by acknowledging the limits of human justice. We say, Hashem Yinkom (God will avenge the wrong), implying that ultimate justice is not up to us. We right the wrongs that we are able to deal with through the judicial system. Where we aren’t able to bring a perpetrator to justice, we figuratively hand it over to God, so we can move on to other things.

In the final analysis, there are grounds for saying that forgiveness of those who wronged us, in the absence of a sincere effort to put things right on the part of the person who did the wrong, is contrary to Jewish Law. Some things should continue to awaken our sense of outrage, because not to be outraged is to cease to be human. Murder is wrong, full stop. It is not the norm. But if it is not to become the norm then we must preserve our sense of outrage and never come to accept it as the norm.

Our tradition allows us — in fact, demands of us — to be ourselves, to be fully human. We aren’t required to be more than human, but we aren’t allowed to be less either.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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