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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17 comments to Not Always Divine

  • Ori Pomerantz

    I agree. The Amish are like sheep, who can only survive in the real world, with its abundant supply of wolves, through the agency of sheep-dogs (I got this similie from http://hobbes.ncsa.uiuc.edu/onsheepwolvesandsheepdogs.html).

    It is good that the US allows groups like the Amish to survive. From everything I read, they are good people – just misguided.

  • Ahron

    I feel so refreshed to finally hear a voice in public announcing what should have been obvious to all: The murderer of the Amish children was a malevolent and evil man. He has not earned “forgiveness” on our earth. The only forgiveness that may ever be available to him will have to come from another Place.

    I tend to feel that we would be a healthier nation if people would say in public: ‘This murderer was evil. I hope he is punished in Hell for what he did.’ But as a society we seem unable to express such a basic sentiment. The thoughtless endorsement of the Amish community’s “forgiveness” of this murderer is an unsettling sign about the current state of our larger society’s moral character. I am troubled by it.

  • Yaakov Menken

    Thank you, CE… I’m going to post that.

  • Steve Krone

    I agree with most of the Rabbi’s comments, but:

    1. The argument about “denying the existence of evil” is in my view off the mark. First, the Rabbi fails to address, yet alone take seriously, the distinction between “sin” and “sinner” that is popular in Christian thought. I see no indication that the Amish would say that the perpetrator should not be considered blameworthy nor (had he survived) not be punished.

    Rather, the statement expresses the Christian philosophy of unconditional love, even for those who do evil and must be punished, which is closely related to the acknowledgment that we are all created in G-d’s image. For example, we unconditionally love our children, yet hold them responsible and punish them nonetheless. There is no inconsistency. This is an interesting ideal that does not in my view show a lack of moral clarity or courage. I may not agree with it, but it should not be conflated with the view that there is no evil or that evildoers should not be held responsible and punished.

    Furthermore, the capital punishment points are extraneous and even more off the mark. I don’t know any serious commentators proposing forgiveness (in the legal sense) as an alternative to capital punishment — that would make the (flimsy) public policy case for capital punishment a lot better than it actually is. I have yet to hear a decent public policy argument why very severe punishment short of state-sanctioned killing would not serve all goals, while eliminating the many practical shortcomings of capital punishment.

  • Steve Brizel

    What an excellent statement of the halachic view of t such a horrific event and its aftermath by a wonderful young rav ( who is a RIETS Musmach and product of its Wexner Kollel) . For those interested, R Gottlieb has also published an exellent sefer whose exact name escapes me.

  • Dr. E.

    Steve-

    The sefer is Ateres Yaakov.

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    I cannot agree more with the position of Rabbi Gottleib. The health of society requires that it have a clear moral position backed up with action to defend it. Were that not so, the perverse yetzer ha-ra, evil inclination, of individuals would not be sufficiently in check. For a Christian the issue is more radical because they believe in the doctrine of original sin. The various interpretations of such a doctrine include a position that there is no counterpart of the yetzer ha-tov, good inclination, but rather the “unsaved” person is abjectly evil. Even his good deeds are tainted and will not make him better. Therefore he is ultimately not responsible for his acts and must be pitied and helped to be saved so that he can become good. Thank G-d we do not have this problem. I suspect that this is where those Amish are coming from. They are complete pacifists who refrain from using force in any case based on a passage in the Christian Bible not to resist evil. I agree with Ori’s point that society, in order to maintain its health and existence, must have an orientation which protects such people who cannot or will not protect themselves and certainly not others. But in an age of relativism, the “truth” of the Amish, the “truth” of the murderer, the “truth” of the bystander and the “truth” of the executioner are all valid. The implications for us as Jews are frightening. If we live in a society and a world where there is much passive acquiescence to such acts of evil, the decent Christian looks at a Holocaust and shrugs and says that is all you can expect of fallen man. Those who refuse to resist evil are passive allies of those who perpetrate it.

  • Roman Catholic

    As a Christian, I’d like to second Steve Krone’s general presentation of the Christian view as an accurate one. I especially appreciate his underscoring the distinction between unconditional love and the need to hold someone responsible for their sin.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Maybe the Amish forgive the murderer for the harm he has done them, by taking away their loved ones, rather than the harm he has done to the loved ones by killing them. That would make more sense.

    The Amish do punish members of their own community by shunning them. I assume that means they do not believe that evil acts should have no reprocussions.

    Yehoshua Friedman, from my experience here in bible belt Texas, while Christians believe that man is fallen and doomed to sin, most of them do believe that they need to resist evil and that being fallen is no excuse for any specific sinner.

  • Michoel

    I think Steve Krone, above in comment 5, has made some points worthy of discussion.

  • Joel Rich

    See http://www.yutorah.org for more of R’Gottlieb’s excellent torah (click on advanced search and scroll down under teachers)

    “Rather, the statement expresses the Christian philosophy of unconditional love, even for those who do evil and must be punished, which is closely related to the acknowledgment that we are all created in G-d’s image.”

    If so, perhaps it’s like a chok for them, not subject to a logical refutation (or would you subject, lhavdil, mitzvat mchiyat amalek to the same scrutiny?)
    KT

  • Ahron

    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?

  • Ori Pomerantz

    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.

  • One Christian's perspective

    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.

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