Should Jews forgive and forget? The problem of evil in Jewish philosophy

Friday, 28 September, 2012 - 6:20 am

Jews have suffered persecution, pogroms, massacres and expulsions throughout their 3000 year history. Beginning with the Babylonians, the Romans and Christian Europe during the Crusades to the Almohads in Spain, the Dark Ages and most recently the Holocaust, the long string of suffering has been recounted by many historians. The question that arises is should Jews or any human being who has suffered at the hands of man just forgive and forget the evil that was dealt to them or should evil always be remembered and begrudged to be sure it does not reoccur?

On Yom Kippur we beg for forgiveness. The central theme of the day is to confess before G-d and ask for His forgiveness. However, it is equally important for man to ask of his fellow for forgiveness for wrong that may have been done.


Maimonides writes (1): Repentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and God; for example, a person who ate a forbidden food or engaged in forbidden sexual relations, and the like.


However, sins between man and man; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like will never be forgiven (by God) until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.


It must be emphasized that even if a person restores the money that he owes the person he wronged, he must appease him and ask him to forgive him.


Even if a person only upset a colleague by saying certain things, he must appease him and approach him repeatedly until he forgives him.


If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request forgiveness. If the wronged party is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he still does not want to forgive him, he may let him alone and need not pursue the matter further. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered as the sinner.


It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge or bear a grudge.


This is the path of the seed of Israel and their upright spirit. In contrast, the insensitive do not act in this manner. Rather, their wrath is preserved forever. Similarly, because the Gibeonites did not forgive and refused to be appeased, [II Samuel 21:2 thus] describes them, as follows: "The Gibeonites are not among the children of Israel."

While it is required for a Jewish person to have the trait of compassion and willingness to forgive, how is this realistic in practice when grievous harm may have been dealt and suffering occurred because of an aggressor’s behaviour? How can a person not bear any grudge and be expected to immediately forgive?

One may argue that forgiveness is only required when there is acknowledgement of guilt by the offender and only then is a people expected to forgive. If there is no guilt or acknowledgement then indeed one need not forgive.


Elsewhere, Maimonides writes (2) The early Sages said: Anyone who becomes angry is like one who worships idols. They also said: Whenever one becomes angry, if he is a wise man, his wisdom leaves him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him. The life of the irate is not true life.


Therefore, they have directed that one distance himself from anger and accustom himself not to feel any reaction, even to things which provoke anger. This is the good path. This is the way of the righteous: They accept humiliation, but do not humiliate others; they listen when they are shamed, but they do not answer; they do this with love and are joyous in their sufferings. Of them, Judges 5:31 states: "And those who love Him are like the sun when it comes out in its strength." 

It would appear from Maimonides that acknowledgement of guilt is indeed necessary for the purpose of the aggressor’s rehabilitation but as for the victim, one should be ready to forgive, not seek revenge, nor bear any grudge. This seems to be a difficult request of a person! On what philosophical basis can Judaism expect this unnatural attitude of a person?

The philosophy of forgiveness is founded on a number of principles in Jewish philosophy and mysticism, including the work of the Talmud.

The question we will first address is whether a person seek revenge from someone who constantly harasses one. The Talmud (3) relates that in the neighbourhood of Rabbi Shimon Ben Levi there was a heretic who continuously harassed him. Rabbi Shimon Ben Levi had negative thoughts and wished that harm befall the heretic. However, the sage was criticised for this, as such behaviour is not befitting the righteous.

The philosophy of this incredible trait of compassion and forgiveness is based on the principles of the Jewish philosophy of evil and free choice. Jewish thought believes that man has free choice (4). However that is only as far as the person's actions are concerned. One may however separate the person’s free act to the action itself that causes harm to befall the person. The behaviour of the person is done freely but the harm that is caused to the person is predestined. The person is merely the deputy for what is intended to be done to a person (5).


Jewish philosophy therefore sees the effect of evil as predestined though the active deputy, the medium, is a free agent and thus held accountable. However, as the evil or harm that befalls the person is predestined there is little room for grudge against the medium.

The reason for the harm that befalls the person may be for the purpose of presenting the person with a challenge to which the person has the choice to overcome or capitulate. Indeed, according to Jewish mysticism, the main purpose of the existence of man in a world with good and evil is to be presented with the test whether he will overcome the test or capitulates (6) (7).


A principle on the philosophy of evil that is also found in philosophy of religion is the concept that evil is an illusion and is only in existence in the eyes of man. The Midrash (8) writes that no evil descends from above, and everything is good, though it is not apprehended. On the essential level of G-d there is nothing that conceals before G-d. The perception of evil as a cause of anger or grudge is a sign that man does not recognise that everything in all of existence is a part of G-d, justifying the saying of the Sages of the Talmud that someone who shows anger is as if one serves idols (9). It is soft denial of G-d.

Thus, when harm befalls a person there is no room for grudge or upset at all as evil is nothing but an illusion. Forgiveness is therefore desirable and natural.

Jewish thought offers further insight into how a person's attitude towards evil should be. Not only should a person not seek revenge but one should shower the aggressor with kindness. This is illustrated in the story of Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was sold by his brothers to Egypt for 22 years. Having been banished to Egypt by his very own brothers with untold suffering in a foreign land, he held no grudge against his brothers and when they met he showed them kindness, as soon as they showed remorse.

The philosophy for such an attitude of relaying evil with kindness is based on the concept of the Benoni that is discussed in the work of the Tanya. Man is given two inclinations, according to the Talmud (10), the good inclination and the evil. There is a continuous struggle in the intermediate man, the Benoni, between good and evil, where each desires control over the faculties of the person. It is the goal of the Benoni for the good inclination to overcome the evil.

Thus the desire to not pay revenge against one who has committed evil towards him but rather to show kindness is an expression of the strength of character of the Benoni whose purpose is to overcome one's negative impulses.

In a final analyses I would take this concept a step further. One should not just not seek revenge and offer the person kindness but one should find space in one's heart to love the person. Although, the person has committed evil, the negativity does not define the person. It is the person who has committed evil and has evil within him rather than the person is evil. The Midrash interprets Psalms 104 (11) "Let the sinners be consumed from the earth, and the wicked shall be no more", that the verse actually states: "Let sin be consumed from the earth," adding that "the wicked shall be no more" (12).


Ultimately, man is usually both good and evil and sometime one may follow the good and sometimes the evil. One should be able to find a way to love the good and hate the evil, however, the idea of grudge and revenge against the person themselves is inconceivable. Thus forgiveness would be seen as merely a procedure on behalf of the person seeking forgiveness . The person, however, who was a victim would find the ability to only love, forgive and forget.

A great sage of the Talmud Rabbi Nechunia lived to a very old age and someone once asked him how he did he attain such longevity? What was his secret? He responded “I never went to sleep with a grudge in my heart” (13).

This however may not be confused with the principle of “turn the other cheek” found in Christian thought, as the above philosophy of forgiveness is only ex post facto but would not go as far the precipitation of harm to oneself.

In conclusion, one should not harbour ill feelings towards another person, as ultimately a negative circumstance may be seen as a challenge that was predestined for the person to overcome. However, this does not relieve the person of their responsibility to feel remorse and to ask for forgiveness to rectify the deed.

As we look to forgive those who may have harmed us and acknowledged their wrongdoings, we ask G-d to forgive and forget our misdemeanours and give us a happy and sweet year with prosperity.


1. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:9-10

2. Laws of Deot 2: 3

3. Berachot 7a

4. Maimonides, Laws of Repentance Chapter 3

5. Tanya, Iggeret Hakodesh  25

6. Tanya , Iggeret Hakodesh 11

7. In philosophy of religion, this is called Irenaean Theodicy.

8. Genesis Rabbah 51:3; Tanya , Iggeret Hakodesh 11

9. Talmud Shabbat 105b

10. Talmud Berachot

11. Midrash Tehillim 104:35

12. See Midrash Tehillim 118 for story of Beruriah rebuking her husband Rabbi Meir for praying that their wicked neighbours should die; he should rather pray that their sins should cease.

13. Talmud Megillah 28a

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