Is it time time to pardon the crimes of the Nazis?

March 27, 2012 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Two generations after the Holocaust, the shivers still pierce our being when people say, “can’t you forgive and forget?” …writes Rabbi Raymond Apple.

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 maror on our Passover tables to represent the bitterness of  Egyptian bondage, if we fast on Tisha 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 Yehi’el) said, “at night before retiring, forgive whoever offended you”. The Roke’ah (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:

What should be forgiven? Who should be forgiven? Who should do the forgiving? What is meant by forgiveness?

Each question is complicated. There are no easy answers.

What should be forgiven?

1.  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)

2.  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)

3.  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).

Who should be forgiven?

1.  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.

2.  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.

3.  The Jewish leaders who left it all to God to save the Jewish people from catastrophe. We can try to forgive the short-sightedness of that generation so long as we do not repeat their errors.

Who should do the forgiving?

1.  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?

2.  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.

3.  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.

4.  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.

5.  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.

What is meant by forgiveness?

There are three categories listed in the Yom Kippur liturgy – selihah, mehilah 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, selah lanu, mehal lanu, kapper lanu, says the same thing three times, but it is possible to see the three terms as stages, not mere synonyms:

Selihah: forgiveness, ceasing to blame. The forgiver says, “the act has been committed but I no longer blame you for it.”

Mehilah: pardon, freeing from penalty. The forgiver says, “the act has been committed but I no longer penalise you for it.”

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.

Rabbi Raymond Apple is the emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney. He lives in Jerusalem.


6 Responses to “Is it time time to pardon the crimes of the Nazis?”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    As the good Rabbi rightly says, our minds are created so that we should not forget.
    Humans are also not meant to forgive those who perpetrated murders with clear intent.
    The question is rather if those who are the descendants of the groups who comited the murders should be included in the forgiveness. The answer, I belive would be found in the sincere penitence of the descendants for the crimes of their forerunners.
    We must be vigilant that the same places of “cultural” tradition have changed for a profile acceptable in full humane terms. Forgiveness must respect the substantive charcter of the subject. A comprehensive tashuva is mandatory by the people who are the descendants of criminals, otherwise the natural tendency of respect for ancestors would seriously affect the quality of an acceptable new generation. They must be comprehensively explicit in recognising their criminal past and demonstrate that the past is as repugnant to them as the present and future are based on changed, acceptable norms. Proof must be evident, tangible !!!

  2. Paul Winter says:

    Rabbi Apple has written a powerful and comprehensive essay on forgiving and forgetting. But perhaps we should also ask why are Jews being asked to forgive and forget? Why aren’t antisemites being asked to forget their irrational hatred and blood-lust? Why aren’t mohammedans asked to forgive Jewish successful self-defence and get on with building a future for themselves and their children? And while Rabbi Apple does comment on the nightly prayer to forgive those who have wronged us, it is a appropriate to consider the type and magnitude of the wrong. If someone has been rude to me, well yes, I can overlook that and take steps to avoid future insult. If a member of my family had been cruelly murdered, none could ask me to pray that I might forgive. Rabbi has correctly noted that we cannot forgive on behalf of the dead. But we cannot insult their memory by fogetting their fate. And we must never forgive any but the genuinely repentant.

  3. Ben says:

    WHo is left to forgive ? The Nazis are dead or in prison.

  4. EthanP says:

    The Nazis are our Amalak. Never forgiven. The Gentiles want to forgive and forget because they cannot forgive nor ferget the Jewish people survived. In every generation there arises those would destroy us. If WE forgive and forget, they win!

  5. Richard says:

    PS: the top line should read “we DO NOT have the right to forgive offences and crimes against others ….”

  6. Richard says:

    Rabbi Ray is perfectly correct. We do have the right to offences and crimes against others, only the victims have that right. Christians have asked me why Jews don’t ‘forget’ the Shoah and other offences against Jews; I tell them pretty much what the rabbi said but I ask them why they don’t ‘forget’ the killing of their Jesus. This usually silences them.

    Nazism still exists, and types of it are incalcated into the education and belief systems of most ‘Islamic’ countries. I haven’t heard any strong condemnation of the recent murders of a young rabbi and small children in France from any major Muslim sources. Their silence speaks volumes.

    To receive any kind of ‘forgiveness’ the perpetrator must first request it and seek to atone for their offending acts. The Nazis and their confederates, including several major Christian denominations e.g. the Lutherans whose entire hierarchy during the ’30s and 40s were card-carrying Nazi Party members (a matter of historical record), never have. In a sense, to ‘forgive’ come perilously close to endorsement. perhaps that is why the Torah instructs us NOT to forget and from this, obviously not to forgive what is often unforgivable.

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