On the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day (referred to in Israel as “Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah” or “Yom HaShoah” in short) —today, January 27— Yerachmiel Gorelik, a Rabbi and Philosopher of Traditional Judaism at the Colorado State University, has written a most thought-provoking essay on the complexities of the human action of forgiveness, usually considered to be an indicator of compassion and strong moral values, with a twist
Friday, Jan. 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day – an annual day that honors the memories of the victims of the Nazi era. Seven decades after Hitler perpetrated his terrible genocide on the Jewish people, the world is faced with a disturbing question: Can the Nazis be forgiven?
NOTE: This is not a post on science per se. If you so wish, please feel free to skip these musings of mine.
Having described his growing up amongst Holocaust survivors in Australia, Rabbi Gorelik takes the reader through his examination of Judaism’s ethical mores and theological beliefs, which place forgiveness in the exalted position of an act of healing, for both the forgiver and the offender.
Judaism teaches that the concept of forgiveness constitutes one of the most essential fundamentals of the human relationship with God and with each other.
Throughout the Bible there are numerous examples of God forgiving human sin and humans forgiving their fellow beings. Furthermore, one of the basic principles of Jewish ethics is that humans are mandated to emulate the divine characteristics through which God relates to us.
Thus, just as He is kind, merciful and forgiving, so too must we strive to conduct our own lives in the same manner toward others. And indeed, inasmuch as every human being is imperfect and needs the favor of forgiveness from God and from his fellows, Judaism’s “Golden Rule” necessitates that we be prepared to grant others the very same favor that we expect from them.
However, as Rabbi Gorelik explains, the Jewish law —the system that weaves practical moral code and relevant ethical considerations into the Judaic religious observances— does place certain limitations or qualifications on forgiveness. First, forgiveness doesn’t mean freedom from consequences of, or abdication of responsibility for, the action. Secondly, forgiveness cannot come by proxy, and must emanate from the direct victim of an offence; which means, forgiveness cannot be offered on behalf of a victim by someone who is not. Thirdly —and I think this is the most crucial point in this context— an offender cannot expect forgiveness for their actions without adequate repentance (or teshuvah), which includes uncompromising self-examination, genuine regret, and sincere attempts at reparation. Which means, forgiveness MUST be earned and cannot be granted willy-nilly.
Rabbi Gorelik ties this discussion to the question of whether Nazis can be forgiven, and indicates that by all the measures incorporated into the Judaic law, they cannot. He writes further:
The level of teshuvah that would be necessary to rectify the monstrous Nazi crimes would be enormous indeed. It also begs us to ask another question: Has any individual Nazi ever demonstrated this type of remorse, contrition and superhuman determination to make amends?
I have not heard of a single such instance. And even if there was such a person, his murdered victims are no longer alive to even consider granting forgiveness.
So, since we are human beings who still have a conscience to discern good from evil, the only conclusion we must come to is that we cannot in any way forgive the Nazis. To think otherwise would be to dishonor the victims of the Holocaust and to degrade our own moral compass.
I am a non-Jewish person, atheist by way of reason. In this post containing my musings on Rabbi Gorelik’s essay, I shall not get into theological arguments, except to state (as a disclaimer) that my moral compass is not derived from any divine dictum from a mythical entity or driven by the fear of a mythical afterlife.
Nevertheless, what the Nazis did was to design, perpetrate and support immoral acts of unspeakable evil. It was evil then, it is evil now, and shall be forevermore – an inkblot, a dark patch on the name of humanity, an insult to everything humanity stands for. The Jewish people of those times were the direct victims of that monstrous evil, but its putrid stench should never be forgotten even though generations pass, and should continue to haunt the collective memory of humanity for aeons to come.
Forgiveness may well be a virtue in Judaism, and it does have the power to heal both the perpetrator and the victim in terms of individuals. But that context does not apply to the Nazis. Forgiving them is tantamount to forgetting what they did, thereby pushing humanity yet again towards repeating or revisiting the same horrors again; it would be a grievous insult to the memories of the six million Jewish victims of HaShoah, as well as about five millions of non-Jewish people brutally murdered by the Nazis in Nazi-occupied or Nazi-allied territories in the world.
Even considering, or calling for, forgiveness for the Nazis is an affront to humanity in the contemporary times, especially when, to this day, the poison of Nazi ideology, marked by the uncouth obsession with racial purity and White Supremacy, continues to percolate through our societies in form of hatemongering Neo-Nazis and other White Supremacist groups, and totalitarian rulers subscribing to those abhorrent ideologies and engaging in historical revisionism to justify their heinous and vile actions; when, to this day, pernicious echoes of these venomous ideologies continue to reverberate through many other equally noxious, fascist-leaning groups around the world, which often employ the languages of religious supremacy and exclusionary, hateful and dehumanizing ultra-nationalism in their strident screeds.
It is not enough to pay token lip-service to the mantra of “Never forget” or rejoice at the Never Again Pledge. We must remember their historical contexts, and proactively keep those thoughts and memories alive in our words and actions again hatred and fear if we are to ever survive as a species and keep our essential humanity intact.