Thank you for inviting me to say a few words in response to Michael Henderson and to offer a Jewish reflection on Forgiveness.
The most powerful aspect of what Michael Henderson has said to us today – amply illustrated in his most recent book, No Enemy to Conquer – Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World (Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas, 2009) – is how vital it is to listen to people’s personal testimonies, and so find out how and why they were able to forgive and be forgiven, and to reconcile with former enemies.
Michael Henderson gives us reason to hope and he also helps us to understand that ‘forgiveness’ is not a theological construct; it emerges out of people’s lives and their needs; forgiveness is a way people find for dealing with their feelings of hurt; not an idea. And so, forgiveness takes place between people because individuals feel the urge to forgive, or to be forgiven – or both. And so, forgiveness can not be imposed by external third parties; forgiveness cannot be given or received by those, who are not directly involved; forgiveness can not be isolated from the particular context in which the pain, the damage, the wrong has been inflicted and experienced.
It is important to remind ourselves of these things because alongside the reality of conflict and violence and injury and suffering – all the deadly ingredients that feed hatred of the ‘enemy’ and poison people’s hearts towards one another – there is a trope of Forgiveness that is very unhelpful – and may even damage any hope of people finding their way to forgiveness. I call it a trope because it is basically a theological message that some people have absorbed from their religious teachings, and which they tend to articulate all too readily on behalf of others. I’ll never forget one shocking example of this. Do you remember the case, some years ago, when a young woman was raped by an intruder, in her own bed, in her parents’ home, and her father, a Christian minister, let it be known, when interviewed by the press, that he forgave the rapist? The victim was silent; the perpetrator showed no remorse – and yet the father pronounced ‘forgiveness’ – I say, ‘pronounced’ because, although he was her father, he seemed to speak as a spokesman for Christian teaching. Of course, it may be that he actually felt the need to forgive the man who violated his daughter. But, even if he did – did he have a right to forgive him on her behalf? Perhaps, he might have forgiven the rapist for the injury he experienced as a father; but could he forgive the rapist for the crime he perpetrated against her?
From the perspective of Jewish teaching, forgiveness is the outcome of a process that begins with expressions of remorse and sincere confession of the wrong we have done, and encompasses a journey of repentance that, where possible, includes making reparation. Forgiveness is the gift that the one who has committed a wrong – or wrongs – receives from the one, or those, whom he or she has wronged at the end of this journey. Of course, a victim may choose to forgive the perpetrator in the absence of any signs that he or she has made this journey, and may be moved to do so for a variety of reasons – because the perpetrator has disappeared, for example, or because the victim simply feels the need to let go of the hurt and pain he or she is carrying, and move on. But, it is not possible for one person to forgive another for the wrong he or she did to someone else.
Only the victim has the power to forgive – and in the best circumstances, forgiveness is the outcome of a journey that the perpetrator makes towards their victim. This is the Jewish approach to Forgiveness. But what happens when the victim is also a perpetrator and the perpetrator is also a victim? Some of the conflicts between peoples today – for example, that raging between Israelis and Palestinians – involves wrong and suffering on both sides. As some of the examples of conflict Michael Henderson has given demonstrate, in these circumstances, any hope of breaking the cycle of wrong, injury and retribution, is dependent on both sides finding a way to acknowledge the narrative of the other, which necessarily involves acknowledging the humanity of the other, their experience and their needs. In the case of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, such mutual acknowledgement would involve Israelis recognising why the establishment of the State of Israel on 15th May 1948 represented a naqba – a ‘catastrophe’ for the Palestinians; and Palestinians recognising that re-establishing a nation in their ancient homeland as a refuge from persecution, represented for Jews the renewal of life following the murder of third of the Jewish people, and the destruction of thousands of Jewish communities across the continent of Europe. Such mutual acknowledgement would be a first step towards reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
When we think of conflicts between peoples, the key issue is reconciliation. Individual Palestinians and Israelis may or may not feel moved to forgive one another, but both peoples do need to find a way of living side by side: two peoples, two sovereign states, occupying the one land that, rightfully, belongs to both of them. Reconciliation does not mean succumbing to the other, but it does demand compromise on both sides; compromise that reflects acknowledgement, on both sides, of the rights of the other, and an understanding of where the other is coming from.
Only the direct parties to any conflict can become reconciled to one another – but they can be helped. One of the most important aspects of the work that Michael Henderson is doing – and is being done by the other individuals and groups that he has brought to our attention – is that of enabling people in conflict to meet and speak together. Whether or not people whose lives are caught up in conflict and violence are able to forgive and be forgiven is up to them, but outsiders do have a crucial role to play in bringing warring parties together, and creating the kind of safe and neutral conditions away from conflict zones that are a pre-condition for any possibility that enemies will see each other as human beings and begin to acknowledge one another.
Hinneh mah-tov u-mah-na’im, shevet achim gam-yachad – ‘How good it is – and how pleasant when brothers – and sisters – dwell together in unity’; so begins Psalm 133 in the Hebrew Bible. It is an ideal. How do we achieve it? By acknowledging that we are all brothers and sisters? Before such acknowledgement is possible, people need, simply, to sit together – the word shevet in Hebrew means ‘sit’ as well as ‘dwell’. But in order to get people to sit together, someone needs to hold the vision of ‘how good and pleasant’ it could be – eventually, in the future – for everyone concerned. What is so important about the work of all those involved in conflict resolution is that they help us all to see that it is possible for those engaged in conflict, to break the cycle of violence and direct their energies towards establishing justice and peace. May we all summon up the courage, the sense of responsibility, the patience and the determination to be counted among them. As we read in Pirkey Avot, the ‘Chapters of the Sages’ (2:16), the philosophical teachings of the early rabbis, compiled around 200 CE: Lo alecha ha-m’lachah ligmor, v’lo atah ven-chorin l’hibateil mimenah – ‘It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.’
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Interfaith Week Event with Michael Henderson, Friends’ Meeting House, Ship Street, Brighton, 15th November 2009