Even though it’s decades after the Holocaust, the shivers still pierce us when people ask, “Can’t you forgive and forget?” How can a people with a long memory forget? We still feel the pain of the slaves in Egypt, the burning of the Temple, the expulsion from Spain, the persecutions and pogroms. If we have maror on the Seder table, if we fast on Tisha Be’av, how can we erase the memory of the Holocaust?
We wonder how others can forget, some even denying the Holocaust happened, even though it wasn’t just Jews the fiends targeted but civilization as a whole. We can’t forget. The world shouldn’t either. The memory should haunt everyone. The world should join us in saying, “Never Again!”
We can’t forget, but can we forgive, even though Judaism believes in forgiveness? I know that Moses says to God, “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people” (Num. 14:19). I know that God says, “I blot out thy transgressions” (Isa. 43:25). I know that God forgives and man is (generally) expected to follow His example. Ben Sira says (Ecclus. 28:2), “Forgive your neighbor: and when you pray your sins will be forgiven.” The Rosh (Asher ben Yehi’el) said, “At night before retiring, forgive whoever offended you.” The Roke’ah (Elazar ben Yehudah) said, “The finest thing a person can do is to forgive.”
But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard?
There are four issues:1. What are we asked to forgive?
• The deprivation, dehumanization and destruction of others, the cold-blooded doctrine that deliberately defied the biblical “Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13), “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19:17) and “Let your brother live with you” (Lev. 25:36).
• The indifference, apathy and acquiescence of many nations, including leaders of Christianity, transgressing the command, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19:16).
• The failure of some Jewish leaders to urge escape from Europe while it was still possible – in particular those who said, “Leave it to God.” This defies the command against abdication of human responsibility, “You shall be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).2. Who are we asked to forgive?
• The Nazis and their henchmen? There can be no forgiveness of those who had no shame, scruples, compassion or compunction, murdering babies in the morning and playing classical music at night. Most showed no remorse or repentance, justifying themselves on the basis of superior orders or saving their own skins. Forgiving them abets their actions. It gives Hitler the last laugh.
• Those who stood by, including Christians without moral courage who rang church bells for the Nazis? Some are honest and say, “Mea Culpa.” We hope they mean it. We value their repentance and their pledges of conscience, but why don’t they protest new acts of evil?
• The Jewish leaders who left it to God to save the Jewish people from catastrophe. We can try to forgive the shortsightedness of that generation so long as we do not repeat their errors.3. Who is asked to do the forgiving?
• The six million martyrs? They are in the world of the afterlife; we cannot speak for them. If they did not forgive, how can we?
• The thinning ranks of the survivors? If they wish to be forgiving, they can decide for themselves – but their forgiveness is not for having been murdered, but for the pain and grief they suffered.
• The new generation, those not there in the evil years? In Faith After the Holocaust, Eliezer Berkovits calls them Job’s brothers, not Job. The decision should be left to Job himself. He was the one in pain.
• The gentiles? The gentile victims must speak for themselves. The silent bystanders must be counted among the accused who – if they were not Nazis themselves – are guilty of condoning the evil.
• God? When humans kill each other, part of God dies with the victims made in His image. Let Him decide if He wants to call the Nazis His children. But how can He forgive their crimes against other humans?4. What is meant by forgiveness?
There are three categories of Divine forgiveness, sliha, mehila, and kapara. Slah lanu, mehal lanu and kaper lanu are three stages:
• Sliha is forgiveness, ceasing to blame. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I shall no longer blame you for it.”
• Mehila is pardon, freeing from penalty. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I shall no longer penalize you for it.”
• Kapara is expiation and redress. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I see your guilt as paid out.”
Forgive and forget? We can’t do either.The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia.
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