Yom Kippur is coming. After forty days of special prayers and reflection, we enter into a day of repentance, resolve, supplication, and forgiveness. The center of Yom Kippur is atonement between us and God and reconciliation with our neighbors. As year follows year, there’s always the danger of falling into routine, the merely ritual repentance, the pattern of obligatory sorrow and forgiveness that is rehearsed rather than discovered. This year I took up Martha Nussbaum’s new book Anger and Forgiveness. She attempts, among many other things, to assess Jewish and Christian approaches to forgiveness, which in some respects she finds wanting. I hoped her criticisms would help me focus my thoughts in the weeks leading up to the holy day of Yom Kippur.

Sin sets us at a distance from God, and seeking atonement for sin before God is therefore at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. As a secular thinker, Nussbaum is not interested in this spiritual dynamic and dismisses the idea that reconciling with God is the absolute telos. Moreover, she fears that the asymmetry of authority between man and God models a stance of self-accusation she thinks debilitating and harmful. At the human level, she approves of the Jewish principle that divine forgiveness is contingent on the effort to seek reconciliation with the injured neighbor. She criticizes the Christian (mostly Catholic) institution of confession. In her opinion, it puts pressure on the person to bare his soul to find favor in the eyes of someone of greater status and power. She exempts traditional Judaism from this criticism because it teaches confession before God alone rather than through a clerical intermediary.

Despite the gap between Nussbaum’s premises and traditional religion, some of the pitfalls she sees in the standard framework of forgiveness and atonement deserve our notice. Nussbaum is unhappy with Judaism’s requirement of formal apology as a vital element in the process of reconciliation (which is also a feature of Christian moral thinking). The logic of apology directs our attention to past harm rather than toward the future. Why insist on these scenes of begging and granting pardon? The requirement of apology places the offender in an abjectly inferior position. He comes before the person he has wronged as a penitent. This enables the wronged person to extract from him elaborate confessions of guilt and remorse as the price of forgiveness. Why can’t adults move on without such humiliating confrontations? 

Nussbaum cites a powerful scene in George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a better way. Bulstrode professes strict religious principles, but long ago he connived to gain an inheritance by disreputable means. His wife, who must now share his disgrace, goes to her husband. Instead of demanding that he exhibit remorse or even loftily offering him forgiveness, she simply asks him to look up at her and then joins him in his grief. By Nussbaum’s thinking (and very likely George Eliot’s as well), any further declaration on Mrs. Bulstrode’s part would have diminished, not enhanced, her moral achievement. It would be “one thought too many,” as Bernard Williams described over-deliberated moral behavior.

Nussbaum values Talmudic stories that support her objections to legally prescribed practices of reconciliation. She would prefer more like the one about Rav and the butcher. On the eve of Yom Kippur, Rav visits the butcher, who had done him an injury. He wishes to give the butcher an opportunity to apologize. As the tall rabbi looms over him, however, the butcher tells him to get lost. Then, while he cleans an animal’s head, a bone breaks off and strikes him dead.

At first glance, the butcher gets what he deserves for spurning Rav’s attempt at reconciliation. But this story includes a caveat. R. Huna, Rav’s great disciple, had warned beforehand that Rav would kill the man. The point is clear: Rav acted by the letter of the law, presenting himself before the offender on the eve of Yom Kippur. Yet he failed to anticipate that the butcher at his bench would feel intimidated by his presence and respond badly.

The fate of the butcher shows how scripted rituals of apology and forgiveness can go wrong. Nussbaum is right in her suspicions. Standard protocols for apology and forgiveness can too easily lead to coerced regrets that in turn pressure victims to offer formulaic pardons. Or, as in Rav’s case, attempts to invite apology under the wrong conditions can cause our already damaged relationships to break down even more.

Martha Nussbaum is well-known for her insistence on the importance of narrative and the value of great literature in helping us unpack moral realities, so this criticism of legalism and ritual formulae is predictable. But it is no less valid for that reason. Prescriptive moral systems, like Talmudic Judaism and the philosophical and moral texts grounded in it, are heavy on the law and light on the kind of stories that shed light on the nuances of human motivation, stories Nussbaum finds instructive.

Yet when Nussbaum calls religious repentance “anxious and joyless,” I don’t recognize the experience as my own. To be sure, the classical Jewish texts she read are prescriptive or hortatory. They set down formal requirements for contrition, repentance, and atonement, devoting relatively little attention to particular interpersonal dynamics. If this is all there is to it, one is left with mere ritual; abrupt, often sullen apologies; and perfunctory, compulsory grants of pardon, like the shallow remorse expected of small children. But when we put away childish things, we discover that legal requirements create the room for a variety of fine-tuned realizations. (Others may say similar things about the repentance incubated in the confessional box.)

Ritual, in fact, provides a structure for the sorts of deeply human encounters Nussbaum cherishes. People who are graceful in apology and, even more so, people who are gracious in forgiving devote enormous attention to preparing encounters of reconciliation, seeking the right words and the right moment for those words, trying to anticipate obstacles and unexpected sensitivities, working hard to minimize the unavoidable pain, embarrassment, and awkwardness on all sides. We do well to read George Eliot. Her fiction can refine our insight and sensitivity. But this work of deepening our moral imagination is neither sufficient nor necessary for those who have formed their consciousness religiously. As with music, the moral and spiritual beauty of genuine reconciliation looks effortless because this difficult and often painful feat is the result of relentless preliminary work.

Is this dependence upon ritual, formulae, and law “anxious”? Yes, in the sense that all creativity that really matters is anxious, precisely because we cannot predict the other person’s response or even micromanage our own. Anxious, because the risk of failure is inseparable from the task of getting it right. Anxious, because the difficulties Nussbaum warns about may doom to failure our efforts to apologize and to forgive, no matter how punctilious our conformity to the law. This is all the more true today. Our therapeutic and politicized society preserves only jumbled fragments of religious practice. Alienated from their roots in man’s relationship to God, apology, confession, and other instruments of healing and redemption are more and more likely to succumb to the flaws she detects.

“Joyless”? No date in the Jewish calendar is as joyful as Yom Kippur. It is a solemn affair to place oneself in the hands of the living God. But it is an incomparable joy to come into his presence. To the outsider, the spiritual tourist, so to speak, there seems little occasion for joy in fasting and tears, confession and penitent self-reflection. Yet to renew our lives in his presence is an awesome and astonishing creative experience, and one that becomes more awesome and astonishing as year follows year.

The preparation for Yom Kippur can be onerous. But I do not know a serious Jew who would want Yom Kippur itself to be even a moment shorter.

Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva College and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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