Saturday, November 16, 2013

On Forgiveness, Part 2

In the last post, I examined the dilemma posed by Simon Wiesenthal in The Sunflower and suggested that, in my (unsolicited) response, I would explore the Jewish idea of forgiveness, what it is, what it is not, and how it may differ from other conceptions of forgiveness.  I will start with the simpler, easier, answers before moving on the deeper stuff.  Also, my post will be split into two parts so it isn't so much to read all at once.

To answer Wiesenthal, first I respond to the direct question – what would I have done?  Like some others have stated in their published replies, I will not answer, because I have no answer.  That is part of what is so compelling about The Sunflower, the situation Simon is placed in is truly incredulous.  It is almost impossible to imagine oneself accurately in such an extreme situation.  To flesh this out a little more, I can’t answer because I truly have no idea of how I would be thinking if I had gone through what the Jews of the Holocaust went through.  I grew up in an entirely different environment, with little to no discrimination, much less brutality.  I do not know what it is like to be constantly expecting to die in some sudden violent manner.  What I do know is that, if I were face to face with someone who had tormented me and this person asked forgiveness, I would find it quite hard to be charitable.  But even this is not the situation at hand.  This is a person unknown to Wiesenthal but is merely a member of the same group of people who were systematically killing the Jews.  So perhaps I might be able to feel sympathy but, as I will explain shortly, that is not at all the same thing as granting forgiveness.

Moving on, I will briefly discuss the interaction with Karl’s mother.  Wiesenthal wonders if he was right to not tell her the truth about her son, to let her continue believing the lie that he was not a murderer.  I believe he was right in this.  She had lost her entire world, her family, her faith in her country.  To take away her last pleasant fiction would just be cruelty and perhaps more than she could bear.  There is one reasonable counter-argument to this though.  If we extend the principle further, and say in general we should let the “good” people continue believing in the supposed innocence of Nazis who committed atrocities, we are minimizing and excusing, perhaps even denying, what happened and are creating conditions where such evil can reoccur.  To me though, the mother’s situation is a special case.  It was too much too soon.  Also, she had tried to teach her son right from wrong and, from some of the things she said to Simon, one gets the impression she suspected he was not quite as innocent as she hoped.  Perhaps, if the meeting had happened many years later, or if her husband had not been killed too, maybe the circumstances would be different and it would have been the right thing to tell her the whole truth.  But at that time, sitting in the ruins of her bombed out home, with nothing but the memories of her family left – even her family was stolen from her –  and still coming to grips with the extent of the evil done by her country, the truth would not likely have done any good and could have done harm.

Now with the easy stuff out of the way, we move on to the deeper question.  Was Simon’s choice the correct one?  By that, I mean based only on abstract principles, taking what he had written to be the full complete and exact facts of the matter, was he morally correct in not granting forgiveness or would it have been appropriate to grant Karl’s wish?  All the commenters, even those who thought forgiveness should have been granted, take pains to point out this is in no way making a judgement on Simon’s character or questioning the appropriateness of the decision, especially given the circumstances involved.

Based on my view of Jewish traditions and assessment of the purported facts, Wiesenthal was right not to grant forgiveness.  In fact, it would have been incorrect for him to grant it.  It is for a reason mentioned even in the text of the story.  One of his friends back in the camp pointed out that these crimes were not committed against him, and Jewish tradition holds very clearly that one can only forgive sins committed against you.  You are only permitted to forgive in your own name, not in anyone else’s.  From this, the logical extension is quite obvious, and Jewish teachings confirm this:  murder is not a sin that can be forgiven, under any circumstances.  The reason is really quite simple:  the victimized party is deceased and is thus unavailable to hear, much less grant, a request for forgiveness.  As death is the definitive result of all murder, there are no circumstances where murder can be forgiven.  An interesting sidebar here is that Jewish teaching holds that there are in fact two – and only two – sins which are unforgiveable:  murder and lashon ha-ra, a term referring to the spreading of malicious gossip (other scholars have defined this sin as destroying someone’s reputation).  The reasoning why this second sin is unforgiveable is also another reason why murder cannot be forgiven.  That is because, just as one cannot raise the dead, damage done to a reputation cannot be undone.  Why this permanence is important we will see later.

But what about remorse?  Does it not count for something if a murderer is sincerely sorry for all the hurt he or she has caused, to everyone affected?  Yes of course it does, but it does not count for everything.  Without that remorse, forgiveness is never possible but, by itself, that is not enough.  Jewish traditions have a very well established process of forgiveness, called teshuva.  To start with, the approach to forgiveness depends on the sin.  There are two types:  sins against God and sins against people (traditionalists would say “against man”).  Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement.  It is the holiest day of the Jewish year, the day when Jews ask God for forgiveness of sins committed against Him.  But the thing about sin is quite often one action would be a sin both against a person and against religious law (i.e. God).  So in the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews are expected to atone for all the sins they committed against others, make amends and gain forgiveness, if possible.  Because it is said God does not forgive the sins against Him, until the sins against man have been made right.  With this in mind, even suggesting the SS officer beseech God for forgiveness might not be of much use, as no atonement has been made for the human sins.  And at any rate, this person is not Jewish, so any claim that he may be asking for a religious type of forgiveness is doubtful.  He was raised Catholic, so if that were his aim it would seem confessing to a priest would be more appropriate.

In any event, I’m really more interested in sins against people.  I’m not entirely sure I believe in God and, even if He (or She!) does exist, I believe that interpersonal relations have far more importance as far as morality is concerned.  We have to live with each other, so it is important we do so on the best of possible terms.  The process of teshuva here is well established.  The first step is admitting the commission of the sin to the injured party and expressing remorse.  But the most important part is still to come.  Teshuva means “to make right”.  This quite clearly means that the sin must not only be regretted, but concrete action must take place to correct matters.  If money was stolen, it must be repaid.  If one showed rudeness, one must now show kindness.  If there was an injury, assistance should be provided, as appropriate, in the healing process.  Some form of appropriate restitution is necessary.  Finally, the individual must find him or herself in the same situation and this time choose the correct course of action, and not repeat the same mistake. 

With those steps and requirements in mind, it is easy to see why the Nazi can not achieve forgiveness.  Since restitution, in the sense of undoing the damage, is critical, it is clear that this can never happen in the case of murder.  Try as one might, there is no repair of the damage done.  The only possible form of forgiveness conceivable in the case of murder is to seek forgiveness from the victim’s family and friends – not for the murder itself, but forgiveness for the emotional harm to loved ones this crime has caused.  This is nowhere close to a complete forgiveness but is a possible saving grace attainable by at least atoning for a collateral sin committed as a result of the other, unforgiveable one.  Another mark against the SS officer is that there is no way he could be tested in the final stage of teshuva, not repeating the action in similar circumstances.  As he is about to die, there will obviously not be the opportunity for this occasion.  Because it is never known whether a particular circumstance will ever arise again in one’s lifetime, this final step of teshuva is not necessarily essential to be forgiven, but it is necessary for complete atonement on the personal level.  Put another way, it is acceptable for an injured party to grant forgiveness without this final stage but the sinner would not be considered completely atoned until that final test is passed.  In the SS case, it may seem a non-issue, since this last stage is not essential to the request and there are many other reasons why it cannot be granted.  However, it points to another reason why this request for forgiveness is not appropriate.  Since the full process of forgiveness would require this evidence of changed behaviour, deathbed requests for forgiveness are thus highly dubious and not in my mind appropriate.  While as I just mentioned, it cannot be known whether the opportunity to test resolve will ever arise, if one asks forgiveness when one knows they are about to die, it is a certainty that the last condition will not be completed as it is abundantly clear there would be no time to do so.  It calls into question the sincerity of the remorse, since the sinner knows there is no way their change of heart will ever be put to the test.  And, as with the case we are examining, why was the request not made earlier?  The murders Karl confesses to were committed a year prior and there was no thought of remorse or forgiveness until he is about to die.  

There is still quite a lot more to this post, but I will end it here, since it is already quite a lot to digest.  But this time when I say the conclusion will follow shortly, I really mean it since the second part is already written.  Expect the post in a week from now or possibly sooner.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, as you say a lot to digest. Forgiveness seems both the hardest thing to do and the most important to all involved. Hugs