Jews are taught early that the atonement of Yom Kippur must be preceded by the effort to reconcile with persons one has hurt, and that it is forbidden to be callous when approached for forgiveness. September afternoons in the schoolyards of my youth were filled with the merry voices of children soliciting the forgiveness of their peers for all outstanding offenses during the preceding year. Adults, by contrast, find the process of reconciliation neither natural nor perfunctory. Asking forgiveness and forgiving are among the most demanding tasks of moral and religious life, and, when achieved, among the most ruggedly satisfying.
Forgiveness is a hot topic in psychology, politics, and philosophy. The upsurge of interest is probably not due to an increase in the number of pious Jews and Christians striving to live up to their religious commitments. It stems, in large part, from the growing fear that grudges are too dangerous to leave lying around, and the world too small for us to just walk away from them. At the micro level, unresolved resentments embitter lives and destroy marriages, even as their residue poisons the aftermath of divorce for the survivors. The process of forgiving is therefore increasingly popular in therapy. On the world stage, it seems to many that lasting peace between former enemies cannot be achieved by decisive military superiority or mutual exhaustion alone, but requires the gestures of reconciliation without which hatred smolders and renews itself. In the political realm, South Africa’s experimental Commission on Truth and Reconciliation promises a new way of putting to rest a history of violence and oppression.
This new emphasis on forgiveness thus highlights areas where secular considerations encourage resort to moral values of traditional religious provenance. Forgiveness is more dubiously mobilized in the service of a psychology that rejects the idea of subjecting other people, or oneself, to blame. Moral resentment, according to this outlook, is irrational and unhealthy; its elimination, through the techniques of forgiving, is therapeutic. Practitioners of this approach often identify it with the teachings of Christianity.
As Solomon Schimmel points out in his new book, Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness, classical Judaism and Christianity both mandate forgiveness, and both value the execution of justice and the importance of genuine repentance on the part of the offender. Jews nevertheless tend to be suspicious of sweeping claims on behalf of radical forgiveness, whether explicitly Christian or secularized, on both psychological and normative grounds. Radical, unqualified, unilateral forgiveness is, by all accounts, an undertaking that stretches human nature to its limits, and beyond. As with all overwhelming ideals, forgiveness is fatally cheapened when it degenerates into lip service, or when it is invoked as a way to condemn other people’s righteous resentment while leaving the advocate’s own grudges unchallenged.
Even when a gesture of forgiving is authentic, one may question whether it is right to forgive a perpetrator who has not shown genuine contrition or struggled to make amends for injury done. The central place of deeds in Judaism entails that forgiveness is a morally empty formula when it is bestowed unilaterally on an unrepentant offender. There is truth in the Kantian insight that such forgiveness demeans the offender by not taking the offense, and the suffering it causes, with appropriate seriousness.
Jews often think differently than Christians on several related issues as well. Since Jewish atonement requires action on the part of guilty individuals, it is harder for Jews to ascribe meaning to collective absolution, where one group, through its recognized (or self-appointed) representatives, begs the pardon of a victimized group, also spoken for by its putative leaders. Since forgiveness must be requested of the injured person, it is harder for Jews to conceive of forgiveness conferred by third persons on behalf of dead victims, although the Halakah does recommend public cemetery confession in such cases. And because the effort to atone must be proportionate to the harm done, Judaism, though never locking the gates of repentance, keenly appreciates the great difficulty in obtaining forgiveness for horrible evils such as rape, torture, or chronic abusiveness. Jews are probably more likely to be skeptical of the notion that unilateral forgiveness and relinquishment of the demand for justice possess the irresistible inspirational power to transform evildoers into penitents.
Schimmel comes to this book as a psychologist who also teaches Jewish studies. His attempt to produce a Jewishly informed account of the psychology and ethics of forgiveness fills a real void in the literature on the subject. Schimmel’s significant contribution is to sketch the Jewish and Christian approaches to forgiveness and repentance within the contemporary framework of interpersonal and inter-group relations, and with a philosopher’s concern for precise vocabulary and clear exposition.
Despite the range of disciplines utilized in the book, its governing perspective is a pragmatic one, insisting throughout on the need to balance forgiveness with justice. While Schimmel explains, to the best of his ability, and with considerable empathy, the pertinent teachings of Judaism and Christianity, he does not propose his own theoretical synthesis. Nor does he get bogged down debating with secularists the legitimacy of injecting religious imperatives into secular discourse, or with theologians the possibility of transplanting religious categories to a secularized context. Overall the book moves from ethical analysis in the opening three chapters, touching upon revenge and justice and the nature and morality of forgiveness, to more specific applications in interpersonal relations (“How to Forgive”), including the metaphorical uses of forgiveness in relation to oneself and God, the nature of repentance, and the achievement of reconciliation, with an epilogue on the author’s visit to South Africa. The intellectual and therapeutic strands in the presentation are interwoven throughout the discussion.
While the most salient feature of Schimmel’s position is his insistence on the legitimacy of retribution and the “active” conception of repentance, he makes several important observations about the language of forgiveness, drawing on the resources of analytic philosophy. Forgiving refers, he claims, to a variety of performances. “Internal forgiving” takes place when an individual lets go of resentful feelings and attitudes without interacting with the perpetrator; “interpersonal forgiving” entails some transaction with the person forgiven. The advisability, morality, phenomenology, and dynamics of these two types of forgiveness require distinct treatment. Likewise, the word “forgive” is often used loosely to refer to phenomena better described in other terms. Forgiving is not identical with simply forgetting about an offense, finding an excuse or justification for the perpetrator, or even displaying mercy to the offender and pardoning him or her. Forgiving may culminate in reconciliation, but that is not always the case; and reconciliation does not entail that the past has been forgiven.
Carelessness with language leads to mistakes in describing what people are actually trying to do, and in prescribing what they ought to be doing. Attention to these linguistic points helps Schimmel avoid some of the confusions that have plagued other psychologists. It also assists him in clarifying the notions of forgiving oneself and forgiving God. He regards these ideas as meaningless in the literal sense, since forgiving is not reflexive and traditional belief in God precludes His being the object of justified resentment. Having argued these points, Schimmel goes on to argue for the occasional therapeutic function of such metaphorical constructions.
Many readers will find Schimmel’s presentation of Jewish perspectives the most enlightening feature of the book. His discussion of issues in Jewish law—for instance, the restoration of the criminal offender to his prior position in the community—is informative and valuable, despite minor inaccuracies traceable to reliance on secondary material. On the more strictly theological concepts connected with repentance, where systematic, detailed scholarly surveys are unavailable, he works at a fairly general level. Thus he alludes briefly to his sojourn in a yeshiva aligned with the Musar movement founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the nineteenth century, but does not consider the question raised by Salanter and his successors about the advisability of seeking forgiveness when the undertaking is liable to cause additional pain, by reopening old wounds or revealing incidents of which the victim had been unaware.
In relying on the twelfth-century Maimonides as the sole representative of medieval Jewish thought—an eminently safe choice—Schimmel neglects other writers on repentance. Less than a century after Maimonides, Rabbi Jonah of Gerona disagreed with his view that it is commendable to confess, on Yom Kippur, sins that had been repented the year before. One of Rabbi Jonah’s arguments is that the repeated confession implies doubt regarding the efficacy of the first. While this dispute pertains to confession before God, the presuppositions about the psychological goals of repentance are relevant to the interpersonal dimension as well.
The effort to achieve balance and fairness is typical of Schimmel’s treatment of Christianity and of contemporary psychological approaches. Despite his Jewish agenda, he avoids stereotyping Christian views. Alert to the possibility that the excesses and indulgences of those who advocate radical, uncritical forgiveness may be due to misunderstanding of religious teachings, he quotes generously from the contemporary work of Christian psychologists and theologians, and goes back to Aquinas and the New Testament to demonstrate the complexity of Christian teaching in this area.
The survey of the psychological literature is lucid and free of jargon. Where Schimmel inserts his own opinions, which is often, he does so straightforwardly. One of the most moving sections in the book comments on the experiences of Eric Lomax, who survived torture at the hands of the Japanese, only to be tormented for decades by an obsessive hatred of the Japanese translator who had served as the bridge between the agents of torture and their powerless victim. Forty years later, he recognized the photograph and story of the translator, who had devoted his life to penance for the acts he had witnessed. Lomax’s memoir The Railway Man recounts their subsequent meeting and reconciliation. Ever the probing realist, Schimmel wonders whether the story could have had the same outcome if the Japanese had not been a bystander, but an active participant in the torture.
The narrative thrust of the book does not really focus on the lives of individuals committed to governing their lives on the basis of explicit religious imperatives. Schimmel comes closest in the epilogue, where, in reporting on the South African experience, he tackles evils that are both horrific and communal in nature. It is a mark of his forthrightness that he acknowledges, tentatively and carefully, evidence counter to his expectations, associating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a lessening of rancor. A thicker account of religious convictions in action might also have looked at recent novels, such as Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which portray explicitly Christian characters who reject the comforts of what they view as unearned forgiveness, and search for ways of making repentance meaningful to those for whom it is not yet accessible as a living experience.
The author maintains that “therapists, clergy, and pastoral counselors need to familiarize themselves with the philosophical, theological, and psychological literature on forgiveness if they intend to incorporate it into their practices constructively.” For professional and layman alike, this thoughtful and accessible volume is a good place to start.
Shalom Carmy teaches philosophy and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University in New York.