In a year marked by too many shootings, June 17 stands out for me. That’s the night that 21 year old white supremacist Dylan Roof stepped into a space not that different from this one, at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For an hour that evening, Roof was one of 13 people in the church’s sanctuary for a Bible study discussion. And then, he stood up and shot to death nine innocent church-goers - all African Americans between the ages of 26 and 87. The narrative surrounding this loss isn’t just marked by shocking violence. It is also marked by an astounding expression of deep forgivness.
Two days after the shooting, Roof appeared in court via videoconference from jail for a bond hearing. He was mostly silent during the proceeding. He only spoke to confirm his address, age, and employment status. But Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old victim Ethel Lance proclaimed: “I forgive you. […] You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” “I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said the sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor. “But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
The whole country, I think, was struck by the profound, even radical, sense of compassion that these family members and others expressed by offering forgivness to such a hateful person so soon after this awful tragedy took place. As we gather together on Rosh HaShanah, to what degree can we learn from the example of these heroic family members? And to what degree do their words make us more aware of both the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity, when it comes to the question of forgiveness? Let’s begin by trying to understand the religious context and worldview that some of these families are coming from.
Within Christianity, forgiveness is explicitly encouraged. The New Testament repeatedly makes the point. Collosians 3:13 is just one example: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
The verse teaches Christians that forgiveness between people is a privileged value because it is connected to the grace that Christians seek from God, not just for the mistakes they make in their everyday lives, but also for the larger sense of spiritual redemption that Christians yearn for, which grows out of their tradition’s belief in the notion of Original Sin.
Contemporary Christian theologian Reinhold Neibuhr approaches the subject from a different angle. He wrote: "Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who live in a dimension deeper and higher than that of moral idealism, [who] feel themselves as well as their fellow men convicted of sin by a holy God and know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in his sight.”
Niebuhr suggests that forgiveness grows out of a profound sense of humility. When people are able to acknowledge how imperfect they are as individuals, then they are empowered to forgive others - because they see their own imperfections in those of others. Desmond Tutu similarly wrote: “It is clear that if we look only to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. […] Without forgiveness, there is no future.”
Tutu isn’t just speaking about the practical political needs of modern day South Africa. He is channelling the assertion of any number of contemporary psychologists that tell us that we will live happier and more meaningful lives if we are able to find the strength to forgive the ones that have hurt us. Perhaps this is what motivated Pope John Paul II to share these words on the first anniversary of 9/11: “We pray for the victims today, may they rest in peace. And may God show mercy and forgivness for the authors of this terrible attack.” There is no question in my mind about the beauty of the Christian tradition, and the powerful healing that has been brought into the world because of this approach to forgiveness.
And yet….we Jews have historically approached the question of forgiveness very, very differently. Consider these words, which Elie Wiesel offered at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz: “Although we know that God is merciful, please, God, do not have mercy for those people who created this place. Remember the nocturnal procession of children, of more children, and more children, so frightened, so quiet, so beautiful. If we could simply look at one, our hearts would break. But it did not break the hearts of the murderers.”
Why is it that Christianity encourages the relatives of the Charleston victims to open their hearts up so compassionately, while Judaism respectfully draws boundaries to define circumstances that are forgivable, and those that aren’t? Compared to Christianity, Judaism has always minimalized questions of theological belief. I don’t mean to suggest that God isn’t important to Jews and Judaism - of course belief in God is important. What I mean is that, for our Christian friends and neighbors, their belief in God…and more particularly, in the Jesus narrative as it appears in the Gospels, stands at the center. To not believe in God is to call one’s very status as a Christian into question.
Our Jewish emphasis has always been on our humanistic responsibilities in this world. And those responsibilities are primarily understood as the obligations that we have to each other. Thus, the rabbis of the Talmud declared eilu d’varim sh’ein la’hem shee’ur - these are the things whose reward is limitless, and then they proceeded to list ten Jewish obligations. Tellingly, belief in God is not one of them. The rabbis of the medieval period were so fond of the passage that it was inserted into the prayerbook, and we still customarily recite it every morning to this day.
Our Reform Movement, too, has been ambivalent about exactly how important belief in God is. But it has never wavered from our obligations to our neighbors. Indeed, in the very first platform document summarizing the tenets of American Reform Judaism, issued in 1885, our spiritual forbears chose to conclude the document with these passionate words: “In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, […] we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.” Judaism’s emphasis, and Reform Judaism’s emphasis, has always been on the way that we treat one another, and the impact of those choices in this world.
Thus the rabbis of the Mishnah famously ruled: “For sins between man and God, Yom Kippur atones. But for sins committed against one another, Yom Kippur does not atone, until one appeases one’s fellow.” This teaching leads directly to our tradition’s realization that murder is an unforgivable transgression, because even if the murderer was moved to repent, the victims are not able to grant forgiveness.
Simon Wiesenthal writes movingly of this in his book The Sunflower. Wiesenthal wrote: “Today the world demands that we forgive and forget the heinous crimes committed against us. It urges that we draw a line, and close the account as if nothing had ever happened. We who suffered in those dreadful days, we who cannot obliterate the hell we endured, are forever being advised to keep silent. Well, I kept silent when a young Nazi, on his deathbed, begged me to be his confessor. […] Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? […] The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.”
Wiesenthal convincingly makes the case: that murder is always unforgivable, because the victim is not here to grant forgiveness. But as I stand here, and reflect on the notion that there are transgressions in our tradition that are truly unforgivable, it leaves me feeling spiritually cold and empty. It challenges basic Jewish bedrock presumptions I have about the ever-present possibilities of healing, growth, and change.
Rabbi Joseph Telshkin, in his excellent two volume work A Code of Jewish Ethics, tells the story of Ernst Werner Techow. In 1922, he was one of three German anti-Semitic radicals who murdered Walter Rathenau. Rathenau was the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a Jew. After her son’s death, Rathenau’s mother wrote a letter to Techow’s mother. She wrote: “Say to your son that, in the name and spirit of him who he has murdered, I forgive, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge he makes a full and frank confession of his guilt…and before a heavenly judge repents.” Techow served a prison term of only five years for the murder. But shortly after he was released, he met with Rathenau’s nephew. And in that conversation, he noted that: “Just as Frau Rathenau conquered herself when she wrote that letter of pardon, I have tried to master myself. I only wish I would get an opportunity to right the wrong I’ve done.” That opportunity came in 1940, when Techow went to fight with the French Resistance. He helped 700 Jews escape Europe with fake passports.
Telushkin concludes the story by observing: “Techow’s change of heart and his saving of lives comes as close as one can imagine to a model penitence by a murderer.”
When we try to navigate the question of what it means to authentically earn Jewish forgiveness, we need not be limited by the Jewish position that repentance can only be done if the one who was wronged is alive and offers forgiveness. And we need not be limited to the long held Christian notion that forgivness is something that can and should be offered automatically out of faith and love.
Techow’s story reminds us that there is a third option, in which the one who does wrong takes responsibility for their actions, and then commits themselves to a life filled with doing good and helping others.
As we struggle with these deep questions, of when to forgive and when not to…we can’t help but also conisder: to what degree are we prepared to reconcile with a neighbor, co-worker, or sibling…As we struggle with all of this, we call to mind the words of this famous midrash from Genesis Rabbah, written more than 1500 years ago.
“Rabbi Berechayah said: when the Holy One was about to create the first person, God saw both the righteous and the wicked who would issue forth from him. So God said: If I create him, the wicked will issue from him; but if I do not create him, how are the righteous to be born? What did the Holy One do? God diverted the way of the wicked from before God’s sight, and God partnered with the quality of Mercy, - saying to Mercy: Let us make man in our image…”
The midrash is powerful, if for no other reason than because it shows God wrestling with the very same questions that we are today.
But the midrash also resolves the question. At the end of the day, it privileges mercy over justice. Mercy is the quality that we are ultimately created with. Not because we are taught to stop pursuing justice, but to insure that we’re not just about punishing those who have done wrong. The rabbis seem to be saying that if we care about fostering more good and righteousness in the world, then - as the Techow example testifies to - sometimes we have to find it in our hearts to forgive. Because sometimes it’s that forgiveness that paves the way for goodness to come into the world.
Finding that sense of compassion is very difficult, particularly when we have been wronged personally. Nonetheless, it’s our job to locate that sense of Mercy that is within us - and that has been inside all of humanity from the very beginning. In this season especially, as we turn inward, may we be courageous enough to locate it - to find it - and to let it move us - to forgive, and heal, bring about a modicum of much-needed peace.