Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.


All over the world Jews are gathering together in the synagogues, their temples, their places of worship, their places of learning, to focus on Yom Hakipurim – The Day of Atonement. This is perhaps the world’s oldest, continuously celebrated holiday.   It has been observed by our people without a break, from the moment we received the Torah, until tonight. And each year at this night, rabbis all over the world invite their congregations to focus on the difficult inner work of t’shuvah – of repentance. Given that this has been the topic for now 3000 years, it is not always easy to say something new about the subject. So what I would like to do instead is take a riff and say something very old, and not very popular. I am going to tell you what I am going to say, so you can brace yourself, and then we are going to talk about it. T’shuvah – Repentance – has always been linked in Jewish tradition, to forgiveness. We start this period with an observance called slihot, which is all about forgiveness. We begin the period before we have even said what it is we are sorry for. We come in expecting forgiveness, and not surprisingly then, all of the literature about t’shuvah focuses on our need to forgive. So that not-very-popular thing I am going to say tonight – and I am going to say it several times – is that there are behaviors that should not be forgiven. And there are times where the religious thing to do is to refuse to forgive. That is not very popular. We live in a culture, which has elevated forgiveness above all other values. So what I want to do is talk about is why it is, that in America, forgiving is the highest value of all, and why that is wrong, and why that is not the spirit of Yom Kippur. (You are all sitting I hope!)

So what is required for t’shuvah? What is required for repentance? I turn to my old friend, your teacher Rabbi Yohanan Yahon, one of the great Babylonian teachers from the 9th Century, and he writes in his Sefer Emunot Vedeot, his book on beliefs and opinions: “The requirement for penitence are four in number: The abandonment of sin; the feeling of remorse; the petition for forgiveness; and providing the assurance never to repeat the sin. Notice – 4 steps that are required for t’shuvah to take place. It is not enough to say ‘I’m sorry”. “I’m sorry”, if you were counting carefully, is #3 on the list of 4, that starts at its beginning with not repeating the offensive behavior. If the behavior has not stopped, t’shuvah has not started. Two: A feeling of sincere remorse. Sincere remorse is not “I’m sorry but you really made me do it”, which is how most apologies come these days. Take a look at any time the Palestinian Authority apologizes for an act of terror, and it always comes with that kind of an apology: “Gee, we are terribly sorry about all the killing, but it is really your fault.” That’s not t’shuvah. Then, if they have done those first two, and they come and they sincerely apologize, at that point forgiveness is in order, if they accomplish the fourth, which is to persuade the person whom they have wronged that this is not a set-up so they can wrong you again. That is t’shuvah says Sadya Gaon, and with that context, the expectation of forgiveness is a mitzvah – a Commandment. If someone comes to you, or a group would come to us with all four of those traits, then we are commanded to forgive. In the Talmud, in the masaht megilah, we are taught it is praiseworthy for a person to forgive someone who has wronged him, even if that person did not ask for forgiveness. It is equally a commendable practice for a person to say each night before going to sleep, “I forgive anyone who has wronged me today.” And this was the custom of Mar Zutra, who was a very righteous guy. Those of you who have looked at a traditional prayer book before going to bed and found that there are, in fact, a list of prayers to be said right before you go to sleep, will have noticed that they often start with a formula for forgiving anyone who has wronged you that day. That comes out of this line in the Talmud. So there are Jews within our tradition that also say that it is the highest act of hasidut – of piety – to forgive without any reciprocal gesture. Let me tell you a story.

In his powerful book – The Sunflower – Simon Weisenthal recounts his experiences in the Shoah, that period in which the Nazi Germans murdered millions of our people. He was a prisoner in a Concentration Camp, and he was called to a room where an SS officer lay dying. And on his deathbed, the SS officer realized that how he had been treating the Jews might interfere with his going to Heaven. So he told them to bring in a Jew to forgive him. Weisenthal sat at the side of this SS officer’s bed, and the man explained to him, “I need you to forgive me on behalf of the Jewish people.” While he was sitting with him, a fly that was buzzing around the room landed on the SS officer, and as an act of mercy, Weisenthal flicked it away. But he could not forgive that man. And in silence he stood up and walked out of the room. In a panel discussion of Jewish and Christian theologians, they were given that scenario and asked to comment on it. Without exception, every single Jewish theologian said that Weisenthal had behaved appropriately; that he had made the right choice. And without exception, every single Christian theologian said he had behaved badly, and that his obligation at that moment was to forgive. Abraham Joshua Heschel, when asked what he thought the right response would be to that, told the story of a Hassidic rabbi who was taking a train ride, and a group of young hoodlums got on the train that he was on, and seeing that there was just some weak, old Jew on the train, they took his luggage and ripped it apart; they started to pull off his hat; they started to yank at his clothing; they started to mock him verbally. As the train was about to pull into a station, there were about 1000 Hassidim there to greet their Rebbe. (This, by the way, is at the very least, a political mistake!) Realizing whom they had done this to, they turned to the man and they said: “Rebbe, we had no idea that you were a great Rebbe; please forgive us.” And the Rebbe said to them: “You did not do anything to a great Hassidic Rebbe – you attacked a poor old Jew. Go apologize to him.” And he got off the train. Heschel’s point here is that it is not our business to forgive someone for wronging someone else. We can only forgive those sins that have been committed against us, but not the sins that have been committed against other people, even though we may be their relative. To do that would be to deny a fundamental core of our faith, which is Justice – Tzedek. Only the person wronged has the authority to forgive the wrongdoing.

So what gives? Why this split? Why is it so obvious to Christian theologians that forgiveness is the highest possible value, and for Jews, what is it about us backward, stubborn, stiff-necked, primitive people, that we will not do the Christian thing? I want to think for a moment about our core stories, and I want to emphasize here, that I mean no disrespect to Christianity, which is a beautiful and powerful monotheistic faith. This is not a criticism; it is a disagreement.

The core story of Christianity is a God coming into bodily form without having been invited to do so, and ascending to the cross in an atoning death that was equally uninvited by humanity. Nobody asked God to be born into Jesus; nobody asked Jesus to take our sins and be crucified. Jesus just did all those things according to their story. I am not endorsing the truth of the story. Look at the difference between their story and ours. In our story, God seeks to give the world the Torah and comes to the Jewish people and says, “Will you accept this Torah?” and we respond: “naseh venishmah” – “We will do, and then we will hear.” A contract is made between the Creator of the universe and the Jewish people. The contract is a covenant, a brit, an agreement between two parties that is based on the terms of the agreement, which must be then lived up to. Of course God loves everybody! But our tradition teaches that God does not respect every action. And God’s love does not cover for acts of disrespect, for acts of brutality, for acts of exclusion. Our tradition teaches us ohave Adonai sinu ra – those who love the Lord must hate evil. It is sometimes a mitzvah, to hate. There are behaviors done, so atrocious, that the only way to not hate them is to kill your moral sensibility, to make yourself ethically dead. And to do that is, to the contrary, not an act of religious piety; it is an abandonment of religion. If God commands justice, if God liberates slaves from Pharaoh, then our job is to love those who deserve to be loved: The weak, the powerless, those who are outcasts. But those who behave in ways that are cruel and crushing, they do not deserve our love; they deserve our resistance. We believe that God’s love is like a parent’s love. Of course, a parent loves all of his or her children. But a parent, whose love prevents them from disciplining their children appropriately is a monster, and will raise another generation of monstrosity. Love that cannot discipline is barbarism, not love. Justice and decency are the cornerstones of t’shuvah and of forgiveness. And to forgive in advance of remorse, to forgive without a person saying “I will never behave that way again” and meaning it sincerely, to forgive prior to someone saying “What I did is inexcusable, and is solely my own responsibility”, to forgive in such a case is to invite further assault. That is true on the level of individuals, and that is true on the level of Nations. So I have some guidelines for you.

Whenever you are presented with a case of t’shuvah shlema, of complete and total repentance, forgive. If you are presented with someone who shows sincere remorse, is committed to never repeating the behavior again, demonstrates that by making good as good as possible, then by all means you have an obligation from the Torah to forgive – not to forget – but to forgive. But, when the sin was committed against someone other than yourself, it is none of your business to forgive. Then instead, your obligation is to protect the one that has been the victim of the wrongdoing. If you are presented with a scenario in which the wrongdoer offers you a false apology – and let me remind you what a false apology sounds like; a false apology starts with “I’m sorry” and then somehow quickly turns to why you made them do it – when you are presented with a false apology – if you can think of no other excuse, say to them, “I would like to forgive you, but Rabbi Artson tells me it’s a sin.” To forgive in that case is to infantalize (?) the sinner. It is to act as though they do not have the moral capacity to behave with decency. All human beings have that capacity; many choose to resist. When an apology is not sincere, you have no religious obligation to accept it. In fact, there is nothing to accept. Teaches Rabbi Mordecai Lichstein in his Mitzuot Halvavot, if you feel certain that the person who is asking you for forgiveness is insincere, you are not obligated to forgive him. When there is a pattern of offense and apology, offense and apology, wrongdoing and apology, do not forgive; there has been no t’shuvah. We are taught in Misehet Yomah in the Talmud, Haomer Ehteh ve’ashuv, Ehteh ve’ashuv Ein maspikim beyado La’asote T’shuvah: A person who says to you “I will sin and then repent, I will sin and then repent, this person does not have the capacity for t’shuvah, and even Yom Kippur does not atone for such behavior.

I know that is not the message that virtually every other rabbi in the country is giving to every other congregation. So if you do not like what I have just said, if you think it reflects a low level of spiritual evolution, disregard it. And then do not come to me next year when people continue to trample all over you. I give you this gift: In your dealings with your relatives and your neighbors, your colleagues and your community, in your dealings with other peoples in the world, let me tell you one truth: No one ever has the right to abuse you. I want to say that again; I mean you by this. Nobody EVER has the right to put you down, or to trample on your decency or your dignity, ever, for any reason. And if they do, and then they explain that they are sorry but you made them do it, do not forgive. Find a way to protect yourself instead, and then find people who believe that your dignity is given to you by God and is inviolate. I pray for you and for me, that of the times that it is not right to forgive, we will have the religious courage not to forgive, and that at the times when it is premature to forgive, we will wait until the time is right. And to those who come to us with sincere remorse having restrained their barbaric behavior, we will then welcome them with full and complete forgiveness. And in that act, knowing when not to forgive, knowing when forgiveness is premature, and knowing when it is commanded of us, we will then bring into the world the justice that is at the core of Jewish tradition. That is our obligation, and upon that I would have us reflect for the next 24 hours.

An easy fast.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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