friday, february 10, 2012 .
letters to the editor the rabbi’s turn
“Were it not for the righteous, for people like the Rosier family, perhaps there never would have been an Eban, a Golda or a Dayan.”— Seattleite Michael de Haan on the honor bestowed upon the family that hid his father during the Holocaust.
Repentance: A teachabe
rAbbi rob toren
Much has been writtenlately in these pages aboutProessor Martin Jaee’s nal(alas!) column, his and theeditor’s apologies, letters o praise and castigation. Oneletter inspired me to look into our traditional Jewishsources, providing a “teach-able moment,” an opportu-nity to learn some orah.Mr. Perry Weinberg, in the January 13,2012 issue o
, wrote: “Is there noroom in all this or orgiveness? One thingI would hope we could all agree upon…is to allow each other to acknowledge oursins, to make
, and to start again.”Mr. Weinberg’s initial question is obvi-ously rhetorical, since he immediately answers armatively, as he calls out or
and starting over.Tere are many statements through-out the amazingly rich history o Jewishthought attempting to distill Judaism’srich abric into an essence or a ewundamental principles. According toMaimonides, repentance is one o our tra-dition’s undamentals. Repentance is alsoinextricably bound to the concept o reewill, that we humans are ree moral agents.God commands and we obey or dis-obey; we are rewarded or punished orour choices, good and bad. When we dis-obey, when we make mistakes, God grantsus the opportunity to restore our relation-ship with Him and those whom we havewronged through the process o
whose root meaning is “turning” but unc-tionally has come to mean repentance.
involves several steps: Rec-ognition o the wrong, repairing or com-pensating or the wrong when possible,asking the injured party or orgiveness,committing to not repeating the badaction, and conessing the specic trans-gression beore God. Our tradition sup-plements the purely ethical on the humanplane with the concept o atonement, theprocess through which we sinners can bereconciled with God.Do we humans indeed have the capac-ity to choose? Does ree will exist or isit a ction we use to convince ourselvesthat lie is meaningul, that the choiceswe make are indeed real choices, and thatwe genuinely and authentically can holdourselves and others accountable or ouractions? In the Jan. 28, 2012
Wall Street Journal
, Gerald Russello, reviewing
by Raymond allis, observes:
Proponents argue that ree will doesnot exist; seemingly ree or intentional actions can be explained rom materialistic causes.Because these causes aect every organism, there is nodierence between “humanconsciousness” and that o animals and everything can thereore be explained as either a set o physical responses or the workings o some hidden genetic code.
In other words, these proponents arguethere is no ree will. However, allis, thereviewed author, vigorously argues inavor o ree will. Te review continues:
He [Tallis] takes on the “neuroma-nia” [belie that we are our physi-cal brains and nothing more] and “Darwinitis” [the insistence that our consciousness can be reduced to evo-lutionary terms] in a robust deenseo the unique nature o human con-sciousness…Experiments that try toisolate specifc actions to show that we are only reacting to stimuli…aremisplaced…Such irreducibly com- plex reasons [or actions] are indica-tive not o biological avatars without ree will but o something even moremysterious: ourselves.
Te Midrash, supplementing the Gene-sis narrative, places in Cain’s mouth a sim-ilar deense when conronted by God overhis murdering his brother, Abel (I para-phrase): “You, God, rejected my gi toYou. You created in me this Evil Inclina-tion, making me capable o murder. Whatdo you expect?”Essentially, Cain complains to God thathis murder is God’s ault, not his own. Itis this matter o choice, the uniquenesso human consciousness, which is o sig-nicance to the concept o repentance,as Maimonides states, writing 800-plusyears ago: “Tis (
) is a great un-damental and pillar o the orah and [theconcept o] Mitzvah as it is said (Deuter-onomy 30:15), ‘See, I have set beore youtoday lie and good, death and evil’” (
5:3).Te Book o Genesis tells us that wehumans are created in God’s image. Tisesoteric statement has been interpretedin many ways, one o which is our natureas thinking, reely choosing beings. Wehumans are not
by our natureto act in prescribed or predeterminedways. Obviously and eventually in theMidrashic narrative I paraphrased above,God does not accept Cain’s rationalizationor his ratricide. We may be
by our inherent personality characteristics, orthose that have been developed within usthrough education and experience, to actin certain ways. But justice systems o thecivilized world are based on the assump-tion that people are reely choosing moralagents. Both Jewish law and our criminal justice system allow or exceptions whereindividuals such as the mentally incom-petent are incapable o acting reely. Tey cannot know right rom wrong and there-ore cannot be held criminally accountableor their actions.One o the great challenges o Jewishthought is how to reconcile an all-know-ing and all-powerul God with human reewill. I God knows what we’re going to dosince He’s all-knowing, how can we be saidto be reely choosing and thus responsible?Similarly, i God is all-powerul…well,then we have the problem o evil. Why does He allow such horric suering?Our ancient rabbis do not shy rom con-ronting this challenge: God indeed cre-ates everything, including good and evil inthe world, allowing us humans to strugglealong, providing the orah as a “spice” or“medicine” to help us contend with suchnasty problems as the evil we are
but not orced, to commit.Repentance, which involves seekingorgiveness, is one aspect o the moralstain o transgression and sin. Te otherside involves the injured party and his/herobligation to orgive. Again, Maimonidesis quite clear and strong on this issue o orgiveness: “One is
to be cruel,resisting being appeased; rather he shouldbe easily pleased and dicult to anger.And at the moment the transgressor seeksrom him orgiveness, he should orgivewith a whole heart and generous spirit.Even i he has inficted much pain andsinned against him grievously, he shouldnot seek vengeance and retribution...Suchis the way o the Jewish people” (
Laws o Repentance
2:10, emphasis added).Maimonides’s Hebrew or what I’verendered “the Jewish people” is
, literally, “the seed o Israel.” Tis isan unusual ormulation or Maimonides.Indeed, the only other relevant instance Icould nd in Maimonides’s law code is ina similar passage, dealing with the case o one person physically wounding another.According to Maimonides, even i onehas nancially compensated the woundedperson, that compensation is not su-cient to gain atonement, atonement beingthe restoration o the relationship betweenGod and the transgressor, or the separateact o divine orgiveness. Te one who hasdamaged must ask the wronged person toorgive the transgression in order to gain“atonement.” Financial compensation isnecessary but not sucient.Jewish tradition is thus concernedabout the spiritual well being o the onewho has committed the physical damage.Just as in the aorementioned
Laws o Repentance
, Maimonides goes on to say that “the wounded person should not becruel and withhold orgiveness, or this isnot the way o the Seed o Israel” (
Laws o Wounding and Damaging
5:10). Te term“seed o Israel” suggests that this path o granting orgiveness is in some way nearly biological or genetic, “hard-wired” as wemight say, in the Jewish people (“seed”),a notion quite unusual or Maimonides.Also note that to not orgive is consideredan act o
by Maimonides.Yes, Mr. Weinberg, you are correct innoting the importance o repentance; it isindeed a undamental pillar o the Jewishway o lie. You are also correct that weJews are bidden, by the very act o beingour being Jews, the “seed o Israel,” to or-give. Only through repentance and or-giveness are we granted by God atonement(or, to play with this word,
I am frankly puzzled by Robert Wilkes’s extensive dissection of Omar Barghouti’s Janu-ary 5 talk at our local landmark, St. Mark’s Cathedral (“Barghouti’s own life reveals the BDSdeception,” Jan.27). Let’s begin by separating objective facts from opinion. BDS stands forboycott, divestment, and sanctions in respect to the State of Israel. Should anything Mr.Barghouti presented have been anything of a surprise? I was not present, so my analysisis a ”he said, she said,” but Wilkes’s offhand description of the audience as ”well-meaningChristian and Jewish
-nistas” offends those of us who sincerely seek to ”repairthe world.” I believe that the action called for to (God-willing) achieve a secure, peacefuland democratic Israel is the establishment of a secure, peaceful and democratic Palestinianstate alongside. Make no mistake: This must include just and fair land swaps as necessary.The Israeli writer Amos Oz likes to remind us that Israel began as a dream. Blood, sweatand tears made it a reality. We now must do the hard and painful work on the ground of preserving the Jewish State. Throwing verbal tomatoes at a speaker who is antagonistic toour cause is a waste of energy and a waste of good tomatoes.
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