Jewish Responses to the Forgiveness Paradox

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Michael Kurin

The 1960s were a time of hope. Unfortunately prematurely, many people believed the world had entered into a post-war period in which all nations would work toward world peace. To this end, both the West German government and the French government considered applying a 20-year statute of limitations to prosecution of Nazi war criminals. A French moral philosopher named Vladimir Jankelevitch wrote a scathing letter arguing that both governments should refuse, as applying the statute of limitations would be akin to forgiving the criminals.[1] He strongly advocated that they could not be forgiven. Jankelevitch was something of an expert on the topic, having written a book about the philosophy of forgiveness.[2] There, he defined ultimate forgiveness not as a decision to forget or accept a wrong that was done, but as treating the wrongdoer as if the wrong had never been committed. In his letter, he argued that this ultimate kind of forgiveness can be extended only up to a point. Perpetrators of certain crimes of extreme severity are simply unforgivable. Nazi war crimes and perpetration of the Holocaust are beyond the realm of forgiveness.

Subsequently, and partly in response to Jankelevitch’s letter, another French philosopher named Jacques Derrida took the surprising position that real, true forgiveness essentially doesn’t exist.[3] The purpose of this essay is to explain the paradoxical nature of forgiveness, and to suggest an approach to resolving it based on the thought of Rav Soloveitchik.

The Forgiveness Paradox
Derrida outlined two different kinds of forgiveness:[4] Unconditional (or absolute) forgiveness and conditional forgiveness. Absolute forgiveness is similar to Jankelevitch’s notion of ultimate forgiveness. It is the purest form of forgiveness whereby a person wholeheartedly and immediately decides to erase an event in which someone else slighted him or her, without any expectation of repentance or change. By definition, this type of forgiveness can only be offered without any conditions attached, without any action taken by the sinner, and without any benefit to the forgiver. Any such conditions attached to the forgiveness would not be consistent with the complete erasure of the past. This is truly forgiveness for the sake of forgiveness. This is a kind of forgiveness we rarely, if ever, see, but it is the only kind of forgiveness that actually means the transgression is completely deleted from history.

Conditional forgiveness is a more practical form of forgiveness that is familiar to us from our own experiences. It involves a give and take between the perpetrator and the one who was wronged. The perpetrator repents, or shows remorse, and the person who was wronged decides to let it go. In conditional forgiveness, two people decide to move on from a past fight, transgression, or wrongdoing, and rebuild their relationship. This is a process of reconciliation, not a pure, automatic, or immediate forgiveness, but a calculation. The wronged party decides that, because the perpetrator changed for the better, repented, or showed remorse, or because the wrongdoing was not so severe, or occurred long ago, it is time to move forward. In this type of forgiveness, the past wrongdoing is not truly erased, it is just moved on from. The wrongdoing is still extant, but it is no longer consequential because the relationship has been mended.

Based on these definitions, Derrida argued that absolute forgiveness can never actually happen in practice. One can split transgressions into two categories. Ones that are forgivable, and ones that are not. When a transgression is forgivable, conditional forgiveness is perfectly sufficient. The two parties can reconcile and move forward, without needing to erase the past. More importantly, absolute forgiveness is definitionally impossible for a forgivable transgression, because any forgiveness offered is inherently tied to the fact that the wrongdoing was forgivable, or that the wrongdoer deserves forgiveness. On the other hand, if a transgression is unforgivable, so terrible that one cannot possibly reconcile with the perpetrator, conditional forgiveness is impossible. The only path forward for one who committed an unforgivable sin is to completely erase it, using absolute forgiveness. However, because the sin was unforgivable, by definition no kind of forgiveness can be offered. One cannot forgive the unforgivable. Therefore, absolute forgiveness is practically impossible for both forgivable and unforgivable transgressions. This is what Derrida calls the “forgiveness paradox.”

Jewish Responses to the Forgiveness Paradox
Derrida believed his forgiveness paradox was religiously problematic because he assumed that traditional religion considers absolute forgiveness an important tenet. Others have also noted that it can lead people who have committed unforgivable sins to despair when they realize there is no way for them to be forgiven for what they have done.[5]

It is tempting to think that these problems are of little concern to traditional Judaism. In Judaism, forgiveness is basically always associated with repentance, making it conditional, and Derrida’s absolute forgiveness is not necessarily a Jewish value. It may be that traditional Jews should accept that we do not have a concept of absolute forgiveness as defined by Derrida. Forgiveness in Jewish thought is much more similar to conditional forgiveness, whereby a reconciliation occurs through remorse and repentance among people and/or between people and God, after which the decision is made to mend the relationship and move forward. There is no inherent religious problem with denying a practical application of absolute forgiveness.

However, even we cannot completely escape the relevance of the forgiveness paradox. The Talmud cites a statement of Resh Lakish:

“How great is repentance, because [through it] intentional sins are made into merits.” (Yoma 86b).

It’s an incredible claim, and it defies Derrida’s understanding of forgiveness. If Derrida is correct that in the practical realm only conditional forgiveness exists, and in conditional forgiveness the past is never erased, how can Resh Lakish claim that through repentance we can change the past? Not only can we erase the past, but we can edit it to replace sins with merits. That is a power that could only be accomplished by absolute forgiveness, which according to Derrida does not exist.

Is it possible to reconcile the statement of Resh Lakish with Derrida’s understanding of forgiveness? I would like to suggest three approaches to doing so.

  1. Maharsha to Yoma 86b explains that Resh Lakish only meant to say that when a person sins they will feel such remorse that they will overcompensate by doing extra mitzvot. In the end, there is a net benefit, in that they end up with more merits than they would have had they not sinned. Maharsha believed Resh Lakish never meant to imply that sins are actually transformed into merits. According to this interpretation, there is no need to invoke the concept of absolute forgiveness, and thus there is no contradiction to Derrida’s philosophy.
  2. There is a school of thought that maintains that repentance is a mysterious gift that was given to the Jewish people. It has no rational explanation. Repentance simply breaks the rules of nature. These thinkers embrace the illogical nature of changing the past through repentance, and leave its functionality a mystery.[6] According to this opinion, there is no need to reconcile the statement of Resh Lakish with Derrida’s understanding of forgiveness. Resh Lakish’s statement actually highlights the mystery of repentance.

  3. Rav Soloveitchik similarly emphasized the impact of the process of repentance, offering an innovative interpretation of Resh Lakish’s statement. He explained that the transformation of sins into merits is actually unrelated to forgiveness, and does not necessarily imply editing the past. It is not the forgiveness that turns our sins into merits, but the repentance itself. The mechanism by which we can convert sins into merits is not the forgiveness granted for repenting, but rather is a natural outgrowth of the process of repentance itself, when performed to its fullest.[7]

The Rav suggested two mechanisms by which sins can become merits through repentance. First, he suggested a phenomenon called the “impulsion of longing.”[8] When a person becomes distant from another person or God through sin, that distance may cause them to appreciate the connection that has now been lost. The desire to rekindle that broken relationship will bring more excitement and passion into that relationship than if the sin had never been committed in the first place. In that way, the sin has become a merit.

Secondly, and perhaps more powerfully, he suggested that a deep investigation of the root causes of sin may lead one to discover things about himself that he never knew. He stated,

For example, on page 17, R. Soloveitchik talks about the nature of sin:

By sinning, he discovered new spiritual forces within his soul, a reservoir of energy, of stubbornness, and possessiveness whose existence he had not been aware of before he sinned. Now he has the capacity to sanctify these forces and to direct them upward. The aggression which he has discovered in himself will not allow him to be satisfied with the standards by which he used to measure his good deeds before he sinned.[9]

Part of the process of repenting can involve investigating character flaws that have led one to sin, and determining how to channel them positively. If a person is successful in this, he or she will have in effect transformed a prior sin into an asset.[10]

The changing of prior sins into merits is entirely disconnected from forgiveness, and thus poses no challenge to Derrida’s belief that only conditional forgiveness exists in practice. It is indeed possible that absolute forgiveness is not a Jewish concept.[11] The impetus of repentance then, for Rav Soloveitchik, is not to erase the past, but to embrace the past in a way that transforms our transgressions into merits.

[1] Later published as Vladimir Jankelevitch, “Should We Pardon Them?,” Critical Inquiry 22 (1996): 552-572.

[2] Vladimir Jankelevitch, Forgiveness, trans. Andrew Kelley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2005).

[3] Jacques Derrida, “To forgive. The unforgivable and the imprescriptible,” in Questioning God, ed. John D. Caputo et al. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 21-51.

[4] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (London: Routledge, 2001), 44-45.

[5] Edith Wyschogrod, “Repentance and forgiveness: the undoing of time,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 60 (2006): 157–168 Dr. Wyschogrod, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude as my former teacher and the one who introduced me to this topic, suggested that this concern can be mitigated by considering different forms of forgiveness identified in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Kapparah, or atonement, can be defined as acquittal, becoming absolved of punishment. Taharah, purification, on the other hand, represents a person’s standing, his religious status. While it is true that one who commits an unforgivable crime cannot achieve kapparah, he need not despair because he can still accomplish taharah. However, due to my limited capabilities, I continue to be uncertain as to whether I have fully grasped her thesis.

[6] See, e.g., Abarbanel to Shemot 7:1; Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael 48.

[7] Pinchas H. Peli, On Repentance: the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, Inc., 2000).

[8] Ibid., 261.

[9] Ibid., 263.

[10] I should note Rav Kook suggested a similar idea, in Orot Ha-Teshuvah 9:5. Rav Kook writes there that it is imperative for a repenting person to differentiate between the positive and negative aspects of the energy that led him to sin. One must be careful to feel remorse only for the negative aspect and to extract the good from the depths of the bad. In doing so, he will be able to use that same energy in a positive way, which will transform his sins into merits. Complete or ideal repentance, for Rav Kook, involves a person using all the energies at his disposal, including ones that previously led him to sin, towards the service of God.

[11] Interestingly, when considering the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there are many synonyms used to describe what we pray God will do to our sins. These include: selah, meheh, marek, taher, kapper, ha’aver. Although there are different ways to translate some of these, none necessarily translate to erase. The word that does mean erase, mehok, is only found in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer with regards to our “contracts of debt” and not to our sins.

Michael Kurin is a gastroenterologist at MetroHealth Medical Center. Prior to entering medical school he studied in Yeshiva University, where he obtained his Semikha from RIETS and an MA in medieval Jewish history from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Michael and his wife, Devorah, are proud parents of 4 children, and live in Cleveland, Ohio. Michael can be reached at