The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple has appeared widely on other websites and in print, including on The Jewish Thinker (published 26 March, 2012), on J-Wire, (27 March, 2012), and in the Australian Jewish News (13 April, 2012).
Jews don’t forget their tragedies. We still suffer the pain of the slaves in Egypt, the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion from Spain, the persecutions and pogroms in so many lands and so many ages, so when it comes to the Holocaust we cannot possibly forget. If we place marror on our Passover tables to represent the bitterness of Egyptian bondage, if we fast on Tishah B’Av and see ancient Jerusalem on fire, how can our minds blot out the memory of the Holocaust?
We wonder why others find forgetfulness of the Holocaust so easy – and some even deny that the catastrophe happened – when it wasn’t just Judaism which the fiends targeted but human civilisation as a whole. Jews cannot forget, and we don’t think the world should either. If remembering the wickedness of Amalek is a sacred duty (Deut. 25:17), shall we not still feel the pain of the Nazi Amalek? The memory haunts us, as it should all mankind. The gentiles should join us in saying, “Never Again!”
The agonising question is whether we can forgive. On the surface it seems we have no choice. Our teachings cannot imagine life without forgiveness. Moses says to God, “Pardon, I pray Thee, the iniquity of this people” (Num. 14:19). God says, “I, even I, blot out thy transgressions” (Isa. 43:25). It is not only God who forgives: man must follow His example. Ben Sira says (Ecclesiasticus 28:2), “Forgive your neighbour: and when you pray your sins will be forgiven you”. The Talmud constantly adjures us to forgive. Amongst the later sages, the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechi’el) said, “At night before retiring, forgive whoever offended you”. The Roke’ach (Rabbi Elazar ben Yehudah) said, “The finest thing a person can do is to forgive”.
But if it sounds so easy, why is it so hard?
In relation to the Holocaust there are four issues – 1. What should be forgiven? 2. Who should be forgiven? 3. Who should do the forgiving? 4. What is meant by forgiveness? Each question is complicated. There are no easy answers.
1. What should be forgiven?
a. The deprivation, dehumanisation and destruction of a sizeable part of the Jewish population of Europe and of many gentiles, in pursuance of a cold-blooded racist doctrine and policy that deliberately defied the Biblical commands, “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).
b. The indifference, apathy and acquiescence of many nations including leaders of Christianity, transgressing the command, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Lev. 19:16).
c. The failure of some Jewish leaders to urge escape from Europe whilst 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 should be forgiven?
a. The Nazis and their henchmen? Jewish ethics places a price tag on forgiveness. There can be no forgiveness of those who had no shame, scruples, compassion or compunction, murdering babies in the morning and enjoying classical music at night. It can be withheld from those who 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.
b. Those who stood by, including Christians who rang the church bells when the Nazis arrived? Their lack of moral courage cannot be easily cleansed. Many are honest enough to say “Mea Culpa”. We hope they mean it and will resist evil in future. We value their repentance and their pledge of moral courage, but they compound the problem when they fail to protest at acts of intolerance on the part of the Islamic world.
c. The Jewish leaders who left it all 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 should do the forgiving?
a. The six million martyrs? They are in the world of the afterlife; we cannot speak for them. If they did not forgive before their death, how can we forgive their murder?
b. 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.
c. The new generation, the ones who were not there in the horrific years? As Eliezer Berkovits puts it in “Faith After the Holocaust”, they are not Job who suffered, but Job’s brother, and their pain is not enough to warrant a decision that should be left to Job himself.
d. The gentiles? The gentile victims must speak for themselves. The silent bystanders must be counted amongst the accused who – if they were not Nazis themselves – are guilty of condoning the evil.
e. God? When humans kill one another, part of God dies with the victims, who were made in His image. He can decide for Himself if He wants to call the Nazis His children and weep for their crimes. But wrongdoers cannot expect God to forgive the evil they perpetrated against other humans.
4. What is meant by forgiveness?
There are three categories listed in the Yom Kippur liturgy – selichah, mechilah and kapparah. God exercises these categories towards His creatures; man is obliged to emulate the Divine, exercising the same categories towards fellow man. On a simple reading, Selach lanu, mechal lanu, kapper lanu, says the same thing three times, but it is possible to see the three terms as stages, not mere synonyms:
a. Selichah: forgiveness, ceasing to blame. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I no longer blame you for it.”
b. Mechilah: pardon, freeing from penalty. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I no longer penalise you for it.”
c. Kapparah: expiation, redress. The forgiver says, “The act has been committed but I see your guilt as paid out.”
Can we forgive and forget? Forget – no. Forgive – hardly.