Forgiving a war criminal

What does Judaism say about forgiving criminals - what factors influence that concept? Addition: Thoughts for this week's parsha.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple ,

Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond Apple
Larry Brandt

FORGIVING A WAR CRIMINAL

Q. I was recently reading a biography of an American soldier who suffered terribly at the hands of a particularly sadistic prison guard while incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. After the war, the American became a born-again Christian who wrote to his tormentor offering him total forgiveness in line with Christian teachings. Does Judaism believe that victims should automatically forgive the perpetrators of a crime, no-matter how severe?

A. There is a saying, "To err is human: to forgive, divine".

The author, the poet Alexander Pope, was making assumptions which are only partly true.

"To err is human" echoes the classical Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which says that because we are descendants of Adam who sinned, therefore we are all born sinful. In other words, to err is an inbuilt human trait.

Judaism, on the other hand, knows that human beings sin, but not because they have to. They err because they sometimes go wrong, not because being human requires it.

In the case you report, the prison guard was cruel not because he was a human being but because of his situation and how it impacted on his ethical conscience or lack of it.

He would probably blame the system, or his superiors, or some other external influence, but the Jewish principle is that of Elazar ben Durdaya in the Talmud (A.Z. 17a) who finally saw that he had to stop blaming others and accept that “it all depends on me myself”.

A human being does not have to go along with wrongdoing. He should have the moral courage to resist even at a high cost.

What do we say about "To forgive (is) divine"?

Certainly forgiveness is a basic attribute of the Almighty. The Bible constantly states that He is a forgiving God.

But the question is whether His forgiveness is an act of grace, in which He acts out of sheer love for His creatures – or whether He requires the sinner to show some sign of remorse, a beginning, however small, to which He can respond, on which He can build: "Return to Me, and I shall return to you".

Jewish thinking seems to prefer the second view. In the case of the prison guard we therefore have to ask whether he was at all embarrassed by his actions and anxious for atonement.

If he remained totally unrepentant and even proud of how he had acted, it would make it harder for God to exercise forgiveness.

Of course there is a question as to whether it was God whom he offended as well as human beings. To this the answer is that an offence against any of God’s creatures wounds God as well. Cruelty to human beings is a transgression of the Divine ethical law.

We do not need to ask whether the erstwhile guard was a religious believer giving at least lip service to Biblical teaching: any faith or culture has ethical principles.

Now comes the issue of whether a human victim of the guard’s cruelty can and should forgive him.

The same Bible that posits God as forgiving expects human beings to be forgiving too: "As He is merciful, so should you be merciful". A victim must not obstinately refuse to forgive. A person must not be obsessed with revenge or retaliation. One must not rejoice when an enemy suffers. One must try and requite good for evil.

But we do not go as far as the Christian concept of turning the other cheek and letting someone hit the other cheek too. We have to be realistic and wrap up our wish to forgive in a broader sense of responsibility for the broader picture.

Forgiving the guard might make it easier between you and him, but what about the other guards, what about the other victims, what about the world as a whole? The personal link between two individuals is not and cannot be the whole story.

By way of postscript let me add that whilst there is and always will be an issue with the perpetrator of an evil, there is a principle derived from the end of Psalm 104 that says, "Try to eradicate the sin more than the sinner".

Whatever attitude you take up to the perpetrator, you must make every effort to ensure that the sin does not recur.


GROUPTHINK

Q. "Groupthink" is the name for pressure to conform to the group’s views. Isn’t this similar to a problem the Sanhedrin used to face?

A. Definitely. In the 1970s Irving Janis developed the concept of "groupthink", which has a clear connection with the ancient Sanhedrin.

To avoid giving "the group" an unfair advantage, junior members expressed their views at the Sanhedrin before the seniors, obviating the pressure to conform to the arguments of the "big boys".

A ruling was not final so long as anyone could come to Jerusalem with new evidence. A ruling could be postponed overnight even if a verdict had apparently been reached. A unanimous verdict of guilty was always suspect.


For the parasha: Shelach


THE LAND EATS ITS INHABITANTS

One of the worst and most frightening things that the spies reported when they came back from their mission was that the land "eats its inhabitants" (Num. 13:32).

These words are explained by some of the commentators as saying that the soil of the land was so hard and the climate so harsh that no-one could settle down there and expect to lead an ordinary calm life. The effort to till the land was beyond the capacity of most people and it overwhelmed them to the extent that sometimes they died in the attempt.

Whether this description of Eretz Yisra’el was justified and truthful is highly doubtful. Though Caleb argued to the contrary, assuring the people that if God supported them they would be alright, the majority of the spies embroidered the facts and invented difficulties which disheartened the people.


AGENTS OF MOSES

Chapter 13 of B’midbar is an example of the law of agency. Moses carried out the investigation at the Almighty’s command by means of agents.

The notion of agency is that A can perform a legal act by means of B so the act will be recognised as the legal act of A. The Hebrew phrase is "Shelucho shel adam kemoto", "a person’s agent is as himself".

Jewish law utilised the idea from an early period in its history. In Exodus 12 the paschal sacrifice is offered by means of agency. In a worship service conducted by a cantor or officiant, the latter is the "sh’liach tzibbur", the agent of the congregation.

Anything the principal can do himself can be done by an agent, but this does not apply to the commission of an offence. The rule is "ein shaliach lid’var aveirah", "one may not appoint a shaliach to commit a transgression" (Kiddushin 43b).


CALEB’S PROBLEM

The story of the twelve spies is a tragedy.

Apart from Joshua and Caleb, they all came back from the Promised Land with an unpromising report. It was a fertile land, they agreed, but the Israelites would never be able to conquer it.

Caleb, however, had a different view. No sooner had they given their report than he tried to silence them, saying, "We can surely take possession of the land!"

But all they had done was to carry out instructions. They were told to report on the strength of the Canaanite inhabitants and the nature of the land, and they did both things. Why cut their observations short? Why stop them speaking?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that they changed the order of the two items on which they were meant to report.

Moses had told them to assess first the strength of the Canaanites and then the quality of the land; the purpose of the operation was to work out a strategy for the conquest of the country, because this was the land promised to them by God.

The ten spies, however, first reported on the material benefits that the land would bring, and then they made their negative observations on the conquerability (or otherwise) of the country.

Caleb had a truer order of priorities. The crucial thing to him was not how rich the land would make its inhabitants, but how to implement the Divine imperative to go up and settle the land.

The important thing is to decide to do God’s will. Whether any material benefit results is a side issue. Even without milk and honey it is still God’s chosen land. The spiritual quality of living there is what matters.

Maybe this explains why people who make Aliyah know they will not be as well off financially as they were in the Diaspora. But spiritually and culturally they will feel fulfilled.

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com



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