God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

Q. As a Christian, I'm required to forgive those who sin against me. My question is: Must the recipient of this forgiveness request it, or should I give blanket forgiveness to anyone who trespasses against me? What if someone who sins against me doesn't acknowledge the offense or, in fact, revels in it? Must I still show mercy or save it for those who ask for forgiveness? -- T., via email

A. The conventional view of Christianity is that we must forgive without being asked for forgiveness. However, I'm not certain this is a fair reading of Christian teachings. I think the best text supporting the view that Christianity is not in favor of unconditional forgiveness is the famous parable of the prodigal son. In this story, the father forgives and fetes his profligate son, but only after the son has first asked for forgiveness: "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." -- Luke 15:21 (KJV).

Similarly, in Matthew 5:23-24, we have perhaps the clearest teaching of Jesus that reconciliation must precede forgiveness: "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." (KJV)

Those who interpret Jesus' teaching in the conventional way as requiring absolute and unconditional forgiveness do have textual support for this view. Most powerfully, in Luke 6:27-29, we have the turn-the-other-cheek teaching that's often used to support Christian pacifism: "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also." (KJV)

In Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus also seems to teach the virtue of repeated unconditional forgiveness: "Then came Peter to him, and said, 'Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?' Jesus saith unto him, 'I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven."' (KJV)

This looks like a clear and unambiguous support for unconditional forgiveness, but even here it's not clear to me whether the 70 times seven forgivenesses are or are not dependent upon 70 times seven apologies. Perhaps the best text for proving that Christianity teaches the virtue of unconditional forgiveness is Luke 23:34, where Jesus on the cross pleads with God on behalf of his unrepentant tormentors: "Then said Jesus, 'Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.' " In sum, I think that Jesus' teachings about forgiveness are susceptible to different interpretations.

In Judaism, by contrast, the teachings are much less ambiguous. Forgiveness must be given, but only to those who ask for it. Jewish law requires a sinner to ask three times for forgiveness even if he or she is rebuffed by the offended person.

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However, one must be immediately willing to forgive. One of my favorite rabbinic teachings is that we must always consider sins against us as minor sins and sins we commit against others as major sins.

My life with my dear friend Father Tom Hartman has given me a deeper appreciation of the virtue of unconditional forgiveness. This is how Tom has lived his entire life. Forgiving absolutely and with no preconditions is a worthy goal because it frees you of the burden of anger and resentment. Offering absolute and perhaps even unmerited forgiveness to those who've sinned against you frees you of the burdens of resentment and anger. These emotions are spiritually and psychologically corrosive; they force you to relive the insults. By forgiving, you're not allowing yourself to be hurt continuously by giving up your need for an apology that might, after all, be insincere or coerced.

On the other hand, my life as a rabbi has also taught me to see the value of conditional forgiveness. Forgiving some evil monster who's not only unrepentant but also might, as you say, revel in his or her ability to hurt you, seems to me both psychologically and morally impossible.

Parents who forgive the unrepentant murderers of their children are not admirable to me. They are incomprehensible to me. A pious Christian friend once told me that Jews should forgive Hitler. I couldn't even begin to consider this a productive spiritual challenge. And yet I know the corrosive weight of keeping score and carrying around old hurts. In the end, I believe that we must forgive, but that we also must be asked.