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.