We still claim to think well of forgiveness, but it has in fact very nearly
lost its moral weight by having been translated into an act of random
kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of personal release it gives
us.” So writes Wilfred McClay in a recent essay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” To forgive, he argues, is to have a just claim and abandon it in
the name of love. But when we pardon those who trespass against us because
we have been told that it’s good for our physical or mental health, we’re
doing something different. We are acting not for the benefit of the
offender, but for our own sake. We confuse a freely offered, transcendent
act of love with the psychological equivalent of a laxative.
Self-regarding release from resentment is not always a bad thing. Forgiveness or no forgiveness, why remain the psychological hostage of an abusive person? It is neither healthy nor reasonable to allow such a person power over our thoughts. All the same, relinquishing angry feelings is an act of pardon, not forgiveness, because it is not done out of concern for the offender. “I no longer resent you because you are not worth resenting” may be justified as a strategy of self-defense. The offender may deserve to be diminished in our eyes. But rather than ennobling the forgiver, this approach merely relieves his pain.
So what is the alternative? If we offer forgiveness altruistically to someone who has injured us, despite the justice of our resentment, out of Christian or Jewish duty, we demote the offender, turning him into an occasion to express our righteousness. Offering forgiveness because the offender supposedly didn’t understand what he did surely facilitates pardon by extenuating the act, but it does so at the cost of minimizing the offender’s true intentions. The offense is not so much forgiven as overlooked.
If we take seriously the transgression and transgressor, we want the offender to apologize, attempt restitution, and otherwise repent. This enables us to treat him or her respectfully, as an adult. Conjoined with repentance, forgiveness no longer seems ungrounded and arbitrary. “You have injured me, but you have admitted your guilt, you have demonstrated a change of heart, and therefore I forgive you.” This is a response that safeguards the dignity of the offended person, who should not be expected to “play the doormat.” It recognizes the presumed gravity of the offense, and does not disrespect the person of the offender. In this scenario, forgiveness is earned, and the act of forgiving comes close to becoming a straightforward moral obligation. “He has shown contrition, therefore I owe him conciliation.” Many dialogues of forgiveness are in fact conducted along these lines, with satisfactory outcomes.
Nonetheless, there is something religiously and emotionally inert about the type of transaction I have outlined. Psalm 51 suggests more. There, the penitent David pleads with God to “restore unto me the joy of your salvation.” R. Jonah of Gerona, writing in thirteenth-century Spain, rephrases this element in atonement as the “restoration of the light of one’s face.” He regards this bestowal of joy, insofar as it is provided to the penitent, as a deepening of the basic experience of repentance. In seeking forgiveness, the penitent wants more than to undo offense, more than the cancellation of rightful punishment, more than the restoration of civility. He seeks to restore the violated relationship. And the reflective penitent asks how this can be done.
The most extensive and perhaps the most intensive biblical story about reconciliation is that of Joseph and his brothers. Much exegetical attention is devoted to Joseph’s strange conduct when his brothers visit Egypt and he pretends not to know them. By these stratagems, he induces them to bring Benjamin to him. Then he manufactures a crisis by planting the stolen goblet in Benjamin’s sack. This forces Judah to confront him, leading Joseph to break down and reveal his identity. The brothers, among themselves, have already expressed remorse for selling Joseph into slavery. Now it is time for them to do so in front of the brother whom they betrayed.
Whether Joseph planned it that way and why is a fascinating question but not the one that concerns me right now. My interest is in what happens after Joseph’s revelation of his identity (Gen. 45). At first, his brothers are incapable of responding to him. He asks them to approach him and maintains that they should not sorrow over having sold him, for God had destined Joseph to relieve the famine, and this in turn has ensured the survival of his family. He then moves from consequentialist consideration to theological ascription: “You did not sell me here but God.” This way of thinking may explain why Joseph sheds his resentment. Things have worked out well all around, thanks to the hand of Providence. Joseph has even gone so far as to mitigate his brothers’ guilt by making God the agent of his enslavement, as if divine foreknowledge annulled human responsibility.
Years pass. Their father, Jacob, dies. Apparently, the brothers have not felt the light of forgiveness on their faces, for they now fear that Joseph will repay their evil. They send a message (Gen. 50): “Please bear the sin . . . of the servants of the God of your father.” They follow up by going to Joseph and promising to serve him. Again Joseph responds by referring to God’s will: “You plotted evil against me; God meant it as good.” And the narrator adds: “And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
Did Joseph forgive his brothers in the way David petitions God to forgive him? The direct quotations in Genesis do not contain formal words of forgiveness. To be sure, the Hebrew root salah is used in the Bible only with respect to God; mahal, which literally means “to pardon,” as in the case of forgiving a debt, first appears in postbiblical literature, a phenomenon that Gary Anderson has investigated in detail. Joseph could have adopted his brothers’ language and agreed to “bear” or tolerate the burden of their sin, which would be a technical formula of forgiveness. However, Joseph does not respond directly to their plea. He likewise does not respond to their protestations of submission to him. His response again treats their evil as insignificant within the larger picture of God’s plan.
Does the absence of explicit forgiveness language mean that Joseph did not forgive his brothers? I don’t think so. The goal of reconciliation is to “restore the light of one’s face.” This may require more or less than the formal transactions of appeasement and satisfaction. Our goal in seeking and giving forgiveness is not the self-regarding reaction of the individual disburdening himself of past hatred for the sake of inner tranquility, nor is it the one-sided enactment of self-negating sacrificial love. Joseph performs the work of reconciliation by reframing his brothers’ misdeeds and his suffering as the story of shared history and destiny. Joseph advocates the divine perspective, according to which the very acts the brothers must apologize for form the foundation of their shared future. This makes further recriminations unnecessary and beside the point.
We do not know the precise content of the comfort and kindly words that Joseph offered his brothers by way of reassurance. I suspect that these unreported words and gestures provide a more potent model of reconciliation than his preceding dismissal of their responsibility. Like Joseph, each one of us must seek out the appropriate words of kindness and appreciation for a shared destiny that will reconcile us with those we have injured and those who have injured us.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.