Feb 2001 Journal

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Thoughts about forgiveness

How easy is it to forgive? For Jews, the answer would seem to be `not at all', particularly with regard to the Holocaust. Even the complex mechanism of seeking and granting forgiveness during the period preceding Yom Kippur belies the impression given by references to the subject in common parlance and biblical allusion that the process is relatively straightforward.

`Forgive and forget', `Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us', `Forgive them for they know not that they do', these maxims have become ingrained in the common culture. So much so that it came as quite a shock to hear the former president of Israel, the late Chaim Herzog, pronounce this seemingly uncompromising message at the fiftieth anniversary memorial ceremony of the Terezin concentration camp nine years ago: `I come not to forgive, nor to forget. Only the dead have the right to forgive and the living have no right to forget. It was, in a way, a shock of recognition because Herzog's words reminded me of a spontaneous debate I had witnessed, mesmerised, some months before. This was between a renowned Catholic theologian and a prominent Reform rabbi who was no newcomer to interfaith dialogue. The theologian's plea for Jews to come to terms with the need for reconciliation and forgiveness seemed to fall on deaf ears. The usually urbane rabbi was palpably pained at having to explain how agonisingly difficult it was for Jews to forgive on behalf of the victims of the Shoah. The subject had come to public attention some years earlier when reactions from Jewish communities worldwide to former President Reagan's visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg had prompted some Christian theologians to question why Jews remained so unforgiving. One went so far as to pronounce that `failure to forgive dehumanises the victims in a way that oppressors could never on their own achieve', thereby sparking the controversy that dominated the correspondence columns of The Times for several weeks.

Is there a Jewish response? As Rabbi Albert Friedlander pointed out at the time, a rabbi is not empowered to give absolution or be a pardoner if a perpetrator asks him to forgive him for his crime. Rabbi Friedlander also cited German church leaders he had been working with who, far from demanding a blanket Jewish forgiveness for Nazi crimes, insisted on propagating the message that atonement, remorse and the rebuilding of moral values were the prerequites for divine forgiveness.

This message echoes in many ways the process of repentance culminating on the Day of Atonement. The acknowledgement of wrongdoing is a crucial first step towards gaining divine forgiveness. In this context, a sinner who `turns from his evil ways', to quote the prophet Ezekiel, acquires the chance to be touched by what rabbis have referred to as `God's forgiving grace' even if he is in no position to make amends towards those he has wronged. The process of atonement also involves human effort. Seeking pardon and making amends are an integral part of the process, as is the need for the person wronged to find it in his heart to let go of his grievance and resentment and grant forgiveness.

Those Christians who expect Jews to forgive vicariously on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust may be influenced by their understanding of the life and death of Jesus as the ultimate expiatory sacrifice. Reenacted in the Eucharist - in the Roman Catholic church as a bloodless repetition of the bloody sacrifice of the crucifixion - Jesus' death and resurrection represented for all Christian denominations the source of eternal salvation.

Contemporary Christian thinking does find a place for a more humanistic perspective regarding repentance and forgiveness. The recently published `Oxford Companion to Christian Thought' speaks of a tension between those who regard the process of repentance as central and those who rely on the treasury of merit or grace earned through the sacrifice of Jesus and held by the church.

This tension may be reflected in the differing responses of families of victims of crime. We have all heard of relatives of victims of terrorism, for example, who express the desire to forgive. To what extent, one wonders, may their words of forgiveness be based on the assumption that the sin of the murderers has already been absolved? Most of us are likely to empathise more readily with the mother of the murdered toddler, Jamie Bulger, who cannot forgive his murderers despite their subsequent show of remorse. Nevertheless, her attitude, however understandable, merely compounds her tragedy.

In the wider sphere, the sincere efforts of many Germans on both a national and individual level to make amends for the sins of their forbears has been one of the more heartening features of the post World War II years. The visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel last year and his impressive acknowledgement of centuries of Church-fuelled antisemitism which sowed the seeds reaped by the perpetrators of pogroms and extermination camps has also helped to mitigate long-held resentments and barriers to understanding.

Unhappily, where the perceived injury or injustice retains the power to inflame the situation is very different. The current violence in the Middle East has shown how even the most dedicated advocates of conciliation have had to take a step backwards. Ironically, when the desire for revenge is uppermost andperpetuated from generation to generation, the need for forgiveness, vain dream though it may be, has never been greater.
Emma Klein

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