Not Always Divine


The horrific murder of five Amish schoolgirls and the response to those murders by the Amish community has attracted extensive news coverage and inspired much meaningful commentary. Perhaps the most thought provoking interchange centered on the limits — or, if there should be limits — of forgiveness.

The position of the Amish community has been simple — if extreme. Forgiveness — complete and without any strings attached — characterizes their attitude towards the murderer, Charles Carl Roberts IV. This approach has, in turn, inspired emotional and eloquent reactions in the media. Some columnists, such as Rod Dreher, have expressed admiration of the Amish, even going so far as to the lament their own inability to act similarly. Others, like John Podhoretz, have voiced discomfort with such quick and complete forgiveness.

I believe that the balance of Jewish tradition — as reflected by both law and philosophy — would indicate that declarations of forgiveness are premature and uncalled for. One can admire the emotional strength of the Amish while disagreeing with their philosophy and it is important to distinguish between noble intent and moral clarity.

Central to any discussion such as this must be the question of who is empowered to grant forgiveness. On this point Jewish law is clear. Much as only the creditor can forgive a debt, similarly, only the victim of an offense is in a position to forgive the perpetrator. In fact, we are taught that even God will not forgive a person who has sinned against another human being before the aggrieved party has granted forgiveness. It appears clear, therefore, that although the Amish community leaders — and even the relatives of the deceased — have been affected by this tragedy, they are simply incapable of granting meaningful forgiveness.

Furthermore, all related discussions in the Talmud and Code of Jewish Law presuppose that the transgressor asks — and even begs — for forgiveness. In this case, there is no indication that Roberts ever gave any thought about, let alone actually asked anyone for, forgiveness before taking his own life. And even were one to maintain that it is legitimate, and even admirable, for a victim to absolve unprompted by any request, that is still only a piece in the puzzle. For human forgiveness is a necessary but insufficient requirement for earning God’s absolution. And an essential ingredient of that ultimate forgiveness is a feeling of sincere regret — again, something that there is no evidence Roberts possessed.

And perhaps most troubling about such premature and misplaced forgiveness is that it runs the risk of denying the very existence of evil. In fact, the most widely reported story about the community’s reaction seems to do just that. Apparently, while standing next to the body of one of the murdered girls, the victim’s grandfather was reminding his family that, “We must not think evil of this man.” The reverend who overheard this declaration went so far as to comment that he considered this one of the most inspirational things he had ever witnessed.

On the contrary; I cannot think of a more misguided statement.

If the deliberate and planned execution — and other monstrous abuses which Roberts didn’t have time to perpetrate — of children is not evil then, pray tell, what is? When forgiveness, no matter how well-meaning, is the first reaction to such a crime, then not only does that display a lack of moral seriousness, but, I am afraid, it actually — however unintentionally — disrespects the dead.

As David Gelernter argues powerfully in his book, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, it is through capital punishment of murderers — and not by running to forgive them — that we, as a society, “show our respect for the dead, and proclaim the value of human life.”

He is actually presaged by God, who declares to all mankind, Jew and non-Jew alike: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:6)

In other words, the sanctity of all human beings demands judgment of one who willfully takes the life of another. Non-judgementalism towards a murderer, such as was expressed by the Amish grandfather, falls well short of the respect that the victims deserve.

Even as our hearts go out to the victims, their families, and the entire Amish community, we must remain resolute so that if faced with similar tragedy in the future, we as a society have the strength and moral clarity to recognize and condemn evil, because otherwise we have no chance of preventing it.

Also published in the Baltimore Jewish Times, Oct. 20.

Dovid Gottlieb is rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, MD.
* Not to be confused with Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb of Yeshivas Ohr Somayach, Jerusalem.

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One Christian's perspective
8 years 11 months ago

A few comments from a Christian perspective:
1. How can the Amish forgive ?
I believe, for a Christian, forgiving others is never optional. That said, it doesn’t mean that one is always able to quickly forgive as our Amish brethren have. Sometimes it takes time as we turn to G-d for help and He changes our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. An Amish leader explained: “G-d has offered us forgiveness for our sins in the work of Christ on the Cross, but we must accept that gift to enjoy it . Once we’ve accepted it, then we can share it in small measure with others.”

2. Those who have been forgiven much, love much and those who have been forgiven little, love little.

An Amish elder said that it is not only the ‘English’ who do bad this murder could have been done by one of us. Yet, as one of only two outsiders observed, their talk was constantly of G-d and prayer and love.
The entire family observed the mother lovingly prepare her daughter’s body for burial; her wounds were visable. With a teary smile she told the children ” See, she’s with G-d in Heaven now.” The grandfather stood at the foot of his slain granddaughter’s coffin and said: “It is important to teach our children not to think evil of the man who did this.”

3. Yehoshua Friedman said ‘the decent Christian looks at a Holocaust and shrugs and says that is all you can expect of fallen man.’

Yet, it was Hashem himself who said the thoughts of man are evil all the time. An honest Christian would say that the seeds of evil dwell in my heart, G-d keep me from walking in ways displeasing to you all of my life that I may glorify your Name and live in your house forever.

4. What is good ?
Micah said: “He showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you ” To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your G-d.”
a. The Amish knew the shooter; they saw him every day. They said he was a good man but his heart was troubled. They forgave the man – something he couldn’t do himself.
b. The oldest girl asked the shooter to kill her and let the others go.
c. Her very young sister, who saw that the first opportunity has passed, said ‘please kill me and let the others go’ .
d. The Amish approached the shooter’s family with sincere offers of forgiveness and it was readily accepted. This is Micah’s picture in full. The cycle of violence and hatred has been replaced with the cycle of forgiveness that will go on to heal the community much faster than one embroiled in hatred and vindictiveness.
e. Since the man who shot the girls had taken his own life, the remaining judgment – as always- resided with the Lord. The stain of sin falls on the victim as well as the innocent and thus makes the innocent a victim as well. In sincerity, the Amish offered forgiveness. In humbleness, the shooter’s family accepted their offer.
f. I offer these snippets in sincerity and with a thankful heart knowing G-d has touched my heart of stone and is now healing my deepest pain – the shame of emotional child abuse. To Him be the Glory.

Ori Pomerantz
8 years 11 months ago

I think we have a semantics issue here.

Judaism is a very practice-oriented religion. I think that Jewish forgiveness is a practical matter. Yesterday you stole $10 from me. Today you gave me back the $10 and said you’re sorry. I forgive you, meaning I am not going to persue this matter further or let it affect my behavior, other than being more cautious in the future.

Christianity, or at least Protestant Christinity which has “sola fida” (faith only) as one of its founding principles, seems to be more concerned with thoughts and emotions. Forgiveness in a Christian context means letting go of anger. It’s the kind of forgiveness a judge exhibit when saying: “may G-d have mercy on your soul” while directing the executioner to have none on the condemned man’s body.

If I am correct, then forgiveness in Christianity means trying to resolve the issue instead of being angry. It does not mean the issue is already resolved.

This makes the Amish grandfather’s comment more understandable. He is not saying the murderer does not deserve punishment. He is merely saying that as required by his religion, he has no desire for that man to suffer. Perhaps he leaves the judgement to G-d. Perhaps he believes that the only punishment possible in the after-life is everlasting damnation, and he would not wish that on anyone.

8 years 11 months ago

Steve Krone,

There is also a distinction between sin and sinner in Jewish thought. But when a person is a rasha, a particularly malevolent individual, then no such distinction is possible on a public or policy level. (If he personally chooses to repent of his malign ways the door is always open to him, but that does not mean he can escape punishment either).

Actually the capital punishment points are apropos. Rapid forgiveness of a person who committed evil leads logically to the conclusion that he is… forgiven. And therefore why should he be punished?

Additionally I think think public policy arguments in favor of the death penalty are generally quite robust. At the most basic level it is fundamentally–even grossly–unjust that somebody who deliberately and maliciously murders another person gets to keep his own life. Additionally, without the death penalty how can society distinguish between, for example, somebody who defrauds 500 people of their pensions (a representative offense for which a life sentence could easily be ordered) and a person who extinguishes an innocent life?