When I was growing up, the Holocaust cast a long shadow over my family. Three of my four grandparents were German Jews who had made their ways to New York in the late 1930s, and by doing so escaped what so many others did not.
The fourth, the sole non-Jew, gave up his German citizenship, quit his job, and left his parents in order to emigrate to the U.S. and marry my grandmother after intermarriage between Aryans and Jews became illegal under the Nuremberg Laws.
But while both sides of my family shared a great deal of history, there were also some pretty significant differences.
Like many Jews, my mother’s parents vowed never to go back to Germany once they left; not when a ship they were travelling on years later unexpectedly ported in the country in which they had been born, and not to visit my mother when she was living there as an adult.
That was a stark contrast to my father’s family, who would regularly travel back to see my grandfather’s relatives and even put my father in a German boarding school for a year of high school. That was uncommon enough among the Jews I knew. But the real departure was the relationship that my grandmother resumed with a friend who had been a Nazi party member during the war.
I learned about that friend’s past shortly before I started university. At the time, I was deeply unsettled. I remember trying to make sense of my grandmother’s choice. Was she ashamed of her Judaism, I wondered? Some kind of Nazi apologist? Just naive?
In reality, she was none of those things. She wasn’t someone who believed in simply turning the other cheek, nor someone who felt some kind of obligation to offer absolution. Rather, she was a person who was able to make space for forgiveness when she felt it was warranted. Unlike so many others, this friend had reached out in the post-war period and demonstrated what my grandmother believed to be deep and sincere remorse, and a desire to repair harm.
I’ve been thinking about that choice a lot right now, amidst the calls for post-election empathy and forgiveness.
For example, during his victory speech, President-elect Joe Biden pleaded for bridge-building. “Let’s give each other a chance,” he implored. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again. Listen to each other again. And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies… This is the time to heal in America.”
In many ways, that’s a beautiful sentiment and a welcome change in tone from what we have been hearing for the past four years. But such calls can also feel burdensome to those who have been harmed. In fact, a simple call to heal can actually put the onus of doing the work of building bridges on people whose anger is justified and whose pain and trauma persist. When such calls are accompanied by the message that we should let bygones be bygones, these types of directives can even be dangerous. If we fail to examine the roots of what has caused harm, we are more likely to allow the resurgence of those very conditions which allowed the initial transgressions to occur.
To me, such calls also feel, well, Christian. There’s a reason for that. Forgiveness is central to many Christian teachings, and these often highlight the importance of showing mercy to others. Even for those of us who don’t go to church, such notions can feel familiar since the language woven into everything, from politics to self-help, is typically born of this tradition.
The Jewish view on forgiveness, however, differs. According to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women and the author of a forthcoming book on repentance and repair, in Judaism, if the harm caused was irreparable, there is no requirement to forgive. Even if someone apologizes, you have no obligation to accept if they haven’t taken sincere, meaningful actions to fix the hurt they caused.
“We really put the emphasis on the work of repentance and not on the work of forgiveness,” Ruttenberg tells me. “Our focus is on people who have caused harm and asking what they need to do in order to make whole what they have torn.”
That isn’t to say Jews have no capacity for forgiveness — nor is choosing not to forgive the right answer for us all. For many people, holding onto anger prevents them from moving forward and doing so can expend valuable energy better directed elsewhere. But making space for real forgiveness can be a process that requires accountability, acknowledgement, and repair. That can be done on an institutional level (as attempted with Germany’s Holocaust reparations, or via the truth and reconciliations progams that followed Rwanda’s devastating civil war and genocide).
It can also be done on a personal level, as my grandmother knew. But in Ruttenberg’s view, forgiveness requires true effort, and failing to take this into account can actually maintain power structures and allow cycles of abuse to continue. “If we are just going to absolve somebody without asking them to do any work, then the harms are basically still there. Nothing has been healed and there is the possibility that the same harm is going to happen again and again, even if it shows up in different ways,” she says.
As we know from work on restorative justice, programs that center the needs of the offender over those of the victim are far less likely to give survivors closure and a sense of justice than those which are adequately victim-oriented and in which offenders are encouraged to take responsibility. The same holds for those situations that don’t rise to such levels of intervention.
Right now, there is a lot of reparative work that needs to be done. I want to believe that much of this work will be undertaken by those who most need to undertake it. But if that doesn’t happen, and if those who have been harmed choose not forgive, to empathize, or to bridge-build, it is important to understand this choice and to recognize it as a wholly legitimate one, both for Jews and for non-Jews alike.