The limits of forgiveness
Nelson Mandela preferred reconciliation to retribution in post-apartheid South Africa
It’s the season of forgiveness, are we ready to forgive? It’s not always easy to let go of our resentment and bitterness towards those who have hurt us. Sometimes the scars are permanent. Can those who have suffered loss and injury in war and terrorism ever find it in their hearts to forgive? Should they even try?
Jewish lore offers powerful models of forgiveness; some are extreme. When thieves burgled the impoverished home of the Chafetz Chaim, the saintly rabbi’s sole concern was that no one should suffer guilt or punishment on his account. So he chased the robbers through the streets shouting, “Whatever you have taken is a gift from me!”
Not everyone is so forgiving and circumstances can be more complex. In Simon Weisenthal’s book, The Sunflower, the famous Nazi hunter described how he was summoned to the bedside of a German officer. This war criminal confessed to driving hundreds of Jewish families into a house and setting it alight. When the victims tried to escape the inferno, he shot them.
The dying officer begged Weisenthal to forgive him, but he could not. Judaism teaches that only the victims can grant forgiveness. It would be presumptuous for anyone else to speak on their behalf.
Sometimes, however, victims are in a position to forgive their attackers. Albie Sachs was a white Jewish lawyer who defended the rights of black people in the South African courts. His anti-apartheid activities led to months of incarceration in solitary confinement. Shortly after his release, an apartheid agent placed a bomb under his car. It ripped apart Albie’s body.
After a lengthy recovery, Albie returned to the new South Africa as a judge in the constitutional court. One day, someone booked an appointment to see him and Albie found himself standing face to face with the man who had attempted to kill him and caused the loss of one of Albie’s arms and an eye. Now that man was seeking forgiveness. What to do?
Albie responded that he would not shake the man’s hand until he testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body charged with hearing and recording the testimony of the villains of the apartheid era.
Months later, at a chance meeting, the man told Albie that he had confessed before the commission. Albie shook his hand. There would be no trial and no punishment. Forgiveness took the place of justice. As a victim, Albie’s priority was that the perpetrators of brutal crimes acknowledge their guilt, so that the country could let go of its brutal, racist past and move forward peacefully. It was a generous gesture, but was it the right thing to do?
Jewish law generally expects society to put its criminals on trial and to punish them for their crimes. But it also insists that we should not be cruel. Justice should take its course, but we should also try to forgive those who genuinely recognise their crimes, seek to make amends and apologise (Maimonides, Laws of repentance 2: 10).
The Talmud derives these rules of forgiveness from our forefather Abraham and his wife Sarah’s journey to Gerar (Baba Kama 92a). As they entered the city, Abimelech, the local king, seized Sarah with the intention of raping her. God intervened, brought a plague on Abimelech and ordered him to repent.
In the morning, Abimelech offered Abraham a stream of excuses and counter-accusations, but amid these protestations, he also repented and paid compensation. Abraham was in no position to punish the local king.
Instead, he accepted the apology, prayed on Abimelech’s behalf and the king’s sickness was healed (Genesis 20).
Abraham was aware that Abimelech was a complex character, whose kingdom lacked godliness and morality. It’s hard to believe that Abimelech was the perfect penitent, since things never really improved there, years later when Abraham’s son, Isaac visited Gerar, he too suffered from dishonesty and sexual impropriety in Abimelech’s palace.
Nevertheless, Abraham forgave Abimelech. Perhaps, precisely because Abraham understood that Abimelech was not an entirely salutary figure, our forefather’s willingness to forgive is so impressive.
We dare not become infused with bitterness. All of us make mistakes and if we are forgiving to others, then God will be generous in forgiving us. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 606:1).
When fear, hatred and bitterness remain strong, history weighs us down and future threats loom; it is hard to grant forgiveness or to seek it. In our entrenched Middle Eastern conflicts, things sometimes seem hopeless, so it is inspiring to see how South Africans used a process of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation to heal a broken and divided society.
As we enter the New Year, we look forward to a time when Israel will dwell in peace among the nations (Maimonides, Laws of Kings Chapter 12) and “nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). To achieve that goal, justice will be necessary, but forgiveness too must have its place.
Gideon Sylvester is Israel rabbi of the United Synagogue