God, am I
forgive the terrorists?
Rabbi Benjamin Blech gives
a poignant response to possibly the hardest question to come out
of the rubble of September 11th.
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Rabbi Benjamin Blech/Jewsweek.com
I need your guidance. I grieve for all
the victims of September 11th. My heart is filled
with pain, and with anger at the terrorists responsible for the
horrible crimes committed on that day. But I know that you teach
us to forgive those who sin. In the Bible you often tell us that
you are a God who is slow to anger, merciful and forgiving. We
are supposed to imitate you and adopt Your behavior as guidelines
for our own personal conduct. Does that really mean that no matter
how difficult it is, I have to tell myself to forgive all those
who turned the twin towers into a mass graveyard? Am I guilty
of failing my spiritual obligations if I’m not willing
to respond to terrorism with love and forgiveness?
God, how far does clemency go? In the name of religion, must
I be prepared to pardon even those who committed murder?
is a divine trait. It defines the goodness of God. Without it
human beings probably couldn’t survive. Because God forgives,
there’s still hope for sinners. When we do wrong, God reassures
us that he won’t abandon us as a result of our transgressions.
Divine forgiveness is the quality that most clearly proves God’s love for us.
why the many
the Bible that
willingness to forgive our sins
are so important.
They comfort us and they fill us with
confidence. We know none of us are perfect. If we would be judged
solely on our actions we would surely all fall short. Thank God
the heavenly court isn’t that strict. We can rest assured, as
the prophet Isaiah told us in the name of the Lord, “Though your
sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
makes perfect sense, then, for us to understand that if we expect
God to forgive us for our failings we have to be prepared to forgive
others as well. What we need when we’re being judged from above
certainly deserves to be granted to those we are judging.
So we obviously have to be guided by the profound words of Alexander
Pope: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
all makes it seem like we have no choice in the matter.
Forgiveness appears to be our only moral option. But the more
we study the Bible, the more we recognize a peculiar paradox.
The same God who
very often doesn’t
forgive. Instead, he
He holds people responsible. He criticizes, he condemns,
and afflicts those
who committed crimes. Adam and
and they were
kicked out of
the Garden of Eden. Cain
sinned and he
to become a
the face of
The generation of Noah sinned and
a flood destroyed them. The
builders of the Tower
of Babel sinned
and their speech
was turned into babble. In
one story after
the five Books
of Moses through
the works of
we read of
of accountability, of divine
an innate contradiction in
The same book
in which God
identifies himself as merciful and forgiving, repeatedly shows
us a God of justice who withholds undeserved
pardons. It almost sounds hypocritical to hear God glorify forgiveness
as an ideal way to act and then most the time not to put it into
practice in his dealings with human beings.
must be something we’re missing. There
can’t be such
an obvious contradiction in the Bible.
And sure enough,
just a little
clear why there
are times when
people for their
sins and why
at other times
Price For Forgiveness
great gift to us is a heavenly
pardon. But his present is predicated on a condition. What he asks us
to do before
He grants us forgiveness is to
acknowledge that we were wrong
and that we
the wicked forsake
and the unrighteous
man his thoughts;
and let him
and He will
have mercy upon him; and
to our God, and He will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
Forgiveness is willing
the sins of the past for the sake of
an altered future.
It is ready to
pardon the most terrible wrongs for the price
regret and the desire for
a new beginning. But the one
forgiveness is unwilling to do
is to condone
vicious crimes by
simply accepting them. An unrepentant sinner mistakes God's mercy for
continue in his
ways. To forgive such a person isn't kindness; its cruelty to
all those who’ll be hurt by the evil that
wasn't stopped before it could
do more harm.
it was the same
God who drowned
the wicked generation of Noah and who saved the evil people of Nineveh. Those who were destroyed by the
flood were given plenty of warning. They watched Noah build
for many years. Noah told them what
God planned to do if they didn't repent. But they didn't believe him - even when it started to rain and
to pour like never before.
So of course people who didn't see the need to ask for forgiveness
when Jonah told the residents of the city of Nineveh that they
were doomed because of their evil behavior, they took the message
to heart and committed themselves to a new way of life. And the
people who changed were immediately forgiven.
God wasn't going to hold
their past against them
- because it
was really a
thing of the
of forgiveness as if it were
entitlement of every criminal is to pervert a noble sentiment
into a carte
blanche for mayhem and chaos. We might as well open the doors of every jail and release all the thieves,
rapists and murderers. Our
wonderful act of compassion wouldn't take too
long to be followed by the cries of the
victims of our folly!
a Jew, I recognize
this idea as
a basic principle of our faith. In our
tradition we are taught that, “He who forgives
the wicked hurts the good.” But you
don't have to be Jewish to acknowledge the validity of this concept.
The New Testament unambiguously affirms it as well: “And if your
brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents,
forgive him. And if seven times of the day he sins against you, and seven
times of the day turns to you saying, I repent, you shall
forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) Forgiveness isn't an orphan. Its
parent has to be repentance.
Forgive Them Unless….
people who aren’t sorry for what they
did makes a statement: Repentance isn't really necessary. No matter
what you did, you don't
have to change. Can anything be
than encouraging evil by refraining
from any condemnation of those who commit it?
after the Columbine
massacre, a group of
that they forgave
the killers. A short while
after the Oklahoma
people put out a call
to forgive Timothy McVeigh. And, on September 12th, on
several American campuses,
colleges groups pleaded
for forgiveness for the terrorists
the horrific events
of the previous
just misguided gestures of compassion.
They were serious sins with potentially tragic consequences. Evil unchallenged
is evil condoned. To forgive and
so well put
it, “means to throw valuable experience
out the window.” And without
of experience’s lessons we are almost certain
to be doomed to repeat them.
the planes into
the twin towers
us to be
forgiven. They expressed not the slightest
remorse as they went to their deaths together with their victims.
Those who sent
them, those who
and those who
mission never for a moment
happened. Forgiving them is
no less than
license to murder
4000 more innocent
people. That's why to
forgive in a case like
this is to
become an accomplice
to future crimes.
If a Nazi Asked For Forgiveness?
what if a brutal murderer realizes the enormity of his crimes
and honestly regrets his past deeds? What if the plea for forgiveness
is accompanied by sincere remorse? Can the crimes of the past
be forgotten? Is a troubled conscience sufficient to secure automatic
not just a theoretical question. Something exactly like that
happened towards the end of the Holocaust. And the man who had
to decide what to do in such a situation, a concentration camp
victim who had suffered indescribable mistreatment and torture,
wrote a remarkable book about his experience.
Wiesenthal was a prisoner of the Nazis confined to slave labor
in a German hospital. One day he was suddenly pulled away from
his work and brought into a room where an SS soldier lay dying.
The German officer, Karl, confessed to Wiesenthal that he had
committed atrocious crimes. Although raised as a good Catholic
and in his youth God-fearing, Karl had allowed himself to become
a sadistic accomplice to Nazi ideology. Now that he knew his
end was near and he would soon be facing his Maker, Karl was overcome
by what he now realized was the enormity of his sins.
than anything else, Karl knew that he needed atonement. He wanted
to die with a clear conscience. So he asked that a Jew be brought
to him. And from this Jew, Simon Wiesenthal, the killer asked
has been haunted by this scene his entire life. When it happened,
he was in such shock that he didn't know how to respond. His
emotions pulled him in different directions. Anger mixed with
pity , hatred with compassion, and revulsion with mercy. His conclusion
was to leave in utter silence. He didn't grant Karl the forgiveness
the German desperately sought.
later, Wiesenthal shared the story with a number of prominent
intellectuals, theologians and religious leaders. How would they
have reacted?, he asked them. In the light of religious teachings
and ethical ideals, what should have been the proper response?
Was there a more suitable reply than silence?
collected the answers and had them published as a book called
The Sunflower. The ranges of responses offer a
fascinating insight into different views on forgiveness. Some,
like the British journalist Christopher Hollis, believe that the
law of God is the law of love, no matter what the situation. We
have an obligation to forgive our fellow human beings even when
they have caused us the greatest harm. A remorseful murderer deserved
the other hand, Cardinal Franz Konig believes that Wiesenthal
did Karl a favor just by listening to him. Wiesenthal did pass
up the chance to offer his forgiveness to Karl, although in those
circumstances doing so would have been " superhuman."
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent American theologian and author,
offered a different perspective. No one can forgive crimes not
committed against him or her personally. What Karl sought could
only come from his victims. It’s preposterous to think that one
solitary Jew can presume to speak for 6 million.
Who Are You To Forgive?
years ago, Rabbi Heschel had occasion to elaborate on this idea.
He had been invited to address a group of prominent business executives.
Among them were some of the most important CEOs in the country.
His lecture dealt with the Holocaust and its lessons for us.
He stressed the importance of memory and the need to continue
to bear witness to the crime of genocide.
he finished, one of the very famous names in American corporate
life angrily rebutted the essence of Heschel's talk. " I'm
tired," he said," of hearing about the Holocaust. You
claim that you're speaking in the name of morality. Why can't
you demonstrate true morality by learning to forgive and forget?"
a stunned audience, Heschel replied by asking them for permission
to tell a story. Before beginning, he introduced his listeners
to the man he would be speaking about. In the history of the
Jewish people, he explained, there has hardly ever been someone
considered as saintly as Rabbi Israel Kagan, commonly known as
the Chafetz Chaim (“the one who desires true life”). A Polish
rabbi and scholar of the late 19th and early 20th century, he
was universally revered not just for his piety but more importantly
for his extreme concern for the feelings of his fellow man. It
is an incident in the life of this holy figure that Heschel said
he wanted to share before he would respond to the question put
Kagan was traveling on a train, immersed in a religious book he
was studying. Alongside him sat three Jews anxious to while away
the time by playing cards. The game required a fourth hand so
they asked the unrecognized stranger to join them. Rabbi Kagan
politely refused, explaining that he preferred to continue his
reading. The frustrated card players refused to take no for an
answer. They began to beat the poor Rabbi until they left him
later, the train pulled into the station. Hundreds of people
swarmed the platform waiting to greet the great sage. Posters
bore signs of Welcome to the Chafetz Chaim. As the Rabbi, embarrassed
by all the adulation, walked off the train with his bruises, the
crowd lifted him up and carried him off on their shoulders. Watching
with horror were the three Jews who had not long before accosted
the simple Jew sitting in their cabin, now revealed as one of
the spiritual giants of their generation. Profoundly ashamed
and plagued by their guilt, they managed to make their way through
the crowd and reached their unwilling card player partner.
tears, they poured out their feelings of shame and remorse. How
could they possibly have assaulted this great Rabbi? They begged
for forgiveness. And incredibly enough, the Rabbi said no. The
man who spent his life preaching love now refused to extend it
to people who harmed him and regretted their actions. It seemed
incomprehensible. So the three Jews attributed it to a momentary
lapse. Perhaps, they thought, it was just too soon for the rabbi
to forgive them. He probably needed some time to get over the
hurt. They would wait a while and ask again at a more propitious
weeks passed and it was now close to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Even the simplest Jews knew that they had to gain forgiveness
from their friends if they wanted to be pardoned by God. With
trepidation, the wicked three wrangled an appointment and once
again were able to speak to the Rabbi. They pleaded their case.
Still the Rabbi said no. He would not forgive them.
rabbi's son was present as this strange scene played itself out.
Puzzled by his father's peculiar behavior, he couldn't contain
himself. It was so unlike anything he had ever witnessed before.
Why did his father suddenly act so cruelly? Why would he persist
in tormenting people who only asked for a simple expression of
son dared to ask. His father explained. "Do you really think
I don't want to forgive these poor Jews before the High Holy days?
If it were only in my power to do so, don't you know that I would
have forgiven them when they stood before me at the railroad station?
Of course I, Rabbi Kagan, forgive them for what they did to me.
When they learned who I was, they were mortified and filled with
shame for what they had done. But the man they beat up was the
one they presumed to be a simple, unassuming poor person with
no crowd of well- wishers waiting to greet him. He
was the victim and only he is the one capable of granting them forgiveness.
Let them go find that person. I am incapable of releasing them
from their guilt."
Heschel completed the story. He then turned to the executive who
suggested that it was time for us to move on after the Holocaust
and to forgive and forget. "I would be more than happy to
do so if I only could. But I was not the one who was sealed in
the gas chambers to die a horrible death. I didn't have my child
pulled from my breast and shot it in front of my eyes. I was
not among the tortured, the beaten, the whipped, and the murdered.
It is they and they alone who can offer forgiveness. Go and find
those 6 million and ask them if they are prepared to forgive and
we forgive the murderers of the thousands of victims of terrorism
on 9/11? Perhaps the most appropriate response is simply this:
We are not the ones who have the right to make that decision.
has been a Jewsweek exclusive excerpt from the soon-to-be published
book, September 11th: God, Let Me Ask You Some Questions,
by Rabbi Benjamin Blech.
Rabbi Bejamin Blech
is the author of seven highly acclaimed books, including Understanding
Judaism: The basics of Deed and Creed. He is a professor of
Talmud at Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel
of Oceanside, NY which he served for 37 years and from which he
retired to pursue his interests in writing and lecturing around
the globe. }