Begging For Forgiveness


A man who likes extinct languages, Mel Gibson had a chance to practice his Latin this summer — he made several mea culpas.

Following his drunken, sexist, profane, anti-Semitic tirade in Malibu in July, the actor-director apologized to the police officers who arrested him. He apologized in a general public statement for saying “despicable” things. He apologized “specifically to everyone in the Jewish community,” to “those who have been hurt and offended by those words.”

Gibson is now in treatment for alcoholism, and spin control experts aren’t sure if his apologies can save his Oscar-winning career.

Is Gibson, who was accused of harboring anti-Semitic feelings when he directed the controversial 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” forgiven?

The Jewry is still out.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman said he accepts Gibson’s apology. Other prominent Jews said they are withholding judgment.

And Gibson turned down an offer to make a public apology from the pulpit of a prominent Los Angeles synagogue on Yom Kippur.

In 5766, the Gibson affair was probably the most conspicuous case of apologies made and forgiveness sought. But it was one among many, in entertainment and sports and politics and other areas, which make headlines nearly every day. The latest example: Pope Benedict XVI this week offered a quasi-apology to Islam for comments he made the previous week that quoted a medieval Christian text that called the Muslim religion “evil and inhuman.”

Apology and forgiveness are not new. They are as old as the Bible, as Joseph and his brothers. But apology and forgiveness are news.People in the public eye err, apologize and are forgiven — or they aren’t. In recent months a political candidate in a New York State election, a philandering husband of a supermodel, and a well-connected Washington lobbyist have all admitted their missteps. Their fates are still uncertain, whether Alan Hevesi will win his race for re-election as comptroller, whether Peter Cook will reconcile with cuckolded Christie Brinkley, whether Jack Abramoff will go to prison or resume his flourishing career if he serves hard time.

This year may be the year of the mea culpa — or maybe it isn’t. It brought us a book about “public apologies,” one about “Forgiveness and Child Abuse,” another about a victim of the Rwanda genocide who has forgiven her African nation’s ethnic killers. And, on the other hand, there were these stories: an unrepentant soccer superstar from France, an unapologetic mayor from England, an obtuse major league pitcher from Philadelphia. They earned wide condemnation for, respectively, head-butting an opponent in the World Cup championship game, calling a Jewish reporter “a German war criminal,” and, after accusations of spousal abuse were reported, stating that “I’m sorry it had to go public.”

Everywhere you turn, it seems, contrition, and the expectation of acceptance thereof, confront us.

But apologizing and forgiving are not concepts du jour, a fad that will fade. They are perennials, foundations of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin tonight with Rosh HaShanah and end with Yom Kippur.

According to Jewish tradition, before we seek to clean our slate in heaven, we must settle our accounts on earth; we must apologize to those whom we have wronged; and the petitioned are enjoined to forgive the petitioner.

That is the theory. In practice, the Jewish community honors this tradition no more or less than any other custom, no more than the wider world.

“Judaism teaches that God models forgiveness for human beings. All of us fall short, and we ask God to forgive us. Our task is to grant others what we hope from God,” Rabbi David Wolpe writes on the Web site. “According to one rabbinic tradition, Rosh HaShanah … celebrates the day of the creation of human beings. That sixth day of creation, the same tradition goes on to teach, is the day in which Adam and Eve were placed in the garden, ate the fruit, were ejected from the garden and were forgiven by God. The point of this tradition is that the world begins with forgiveness.”

Forgiving A Terrorist“One who is sinned against is duty bound to forgive,” says Rabbi David Blumenfeld.

He speaks from experience.

Rabbi Blumenfeld, who recently retired from an executive position with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was shot by a Palestinian terrorist in the Old City of Jerusalem one Friday night in March, 1986. The bullet grazed his head, but the rabbi escaped without serious injury.

The attack was the basis for a book “Revenge: A Story of Hope,” by his daughter, Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld. She tells how she met and befriended the terrorist’s family (she did not reveal her identity), then met the terrorist himself, Omar Khatib, a member of the Syrian-backed Abu Musa PLO cell.

When Khatib learned who Blumenfeld and her father were, when he learned about the rabbi as an actual person and not as a vague target, he apologized to Rabbi Blumenfeld through a letter to the rabbi’s daughter. “He asked in the end that I should forgive him. He said he was wrong. I forgive,” Rabbi Blumenfeld says. He forgives the person who tried to take his life. “But I will never forgive the act. The act of trying to murder me I will never forgive.”

Rabbi Blumenfeld and Khatib have never met. But the rabbi’s daughter has told her father that Khatib, now sick with asthma, released from Israeli prison after serving 15 years, has turned his life around, renouncing terrorism.

Khatib became a student of international politics and a proponent of peace, Rabbi Blumenfeld says. “He has sworn on his mother’s grave that he will use the rest of his life for a constructive purpose, for a useful purpose.

“It’s humanly possible for a person to change,” the rabbi says.

Rabbi Blumenfeld forgave because Khatib apologized.

Superficial Apologies

In American society, forgiving has trumped apologizing. Superficial concepts of right and wrong have brought superficial apologies, for which instant absolution is expected, or no apologies at all. Where there is no shame, there is no apology. “There was a time … when bad behavior was judged harshly, when transgressors had the decency to be properly embarrassed and when redemption had to be sorely earned,” Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin write in the introduction to “My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them,” a recently published book that quotes the words of athletes and entertainers, politicians and clergy members. “No more,” the authors opine. “Over the past quarter century, the public apology … has come to provide forgiveness … without the discomfort of disgrace. It’s like going bankrupt and getting to keep your credit cards. Any misdeed, no matter how egregious, can now be immediately negated by a bleat of casual contrition.” In the Jewish faith, sincere feelings of regret are sine qui non, and forgiveness in a vacuum, without the sinner’s admission of guilt, is deemed virtually meaningless.

“More than a decade of weekly dialogue with Christians and intimate conversations with Christian friends have convinced me that, aside from the divinity of Jesus, the greatest — and even more important — difference between Judaism and Christianity, or perhaps only between most Christians and Jews, is their different understanding of forgiveness and, ultimately, how to react to evil,” author and talk-show host Dennis Prager writes.

“The relevant Jewish view of forgiveness is that a person who hurts another person must ask forgiveness from his victim and that only the victim can forgive him,” Prager writes. “God Himself does not forgive a person who has sinned against a human being unless that human being has been forgiven by his victim.”

Prager’s words appear in a seminal Jewish work about the subject, Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower.”

Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor best known as the world’s most prominent hunter of Nazi war criminals, describes a death camp incident. As a prisoner he was called, apparently randomly, to the bedside of a dying German soldier, a backslidden Christian who had participated in anti-Jewish atrocities and wanted a Jew to forgive him. “In his confession there was true repentance,” Wiesenthal writes, “even though he did not admit it in so many words.” In that moment, the powerless wielded the power. “Without a word I left the room,” Wiesenthal remembers. The Nazi died unforgiven.

Did Wiesenthal do the right thing? Should he have forgiven the soldier? Was it in his power to do so?

Wiesenthal devotes the rest of the book to those questions, to answers that fellow prisoners gave him then, and to solicited replies several dozen thinkers, Jews and non-Jews, sent him in later years.

Answered Prager: “People can never forgive murder, since the one person who can forgive is gone, forever. Even parents cannot forgive the murderers of their child (to assume that parents can forgive their child’s murderer is to render children property rather than autonomous human beings).”

Finding Forgiveness For Abuse“Forgiveness is a way of putting closure on situations that I do not think should be closed,” Lois Einhorn writes in “Forgiveness and Child Abuse: Would YOU Forgive?” recently published by Robert D. Reed Publishers.

Einhorn, a professor of communications at SUNY Binghamton, was sexually abused by her parents.“I have no desire to forgive my parents,” who are now deceased, she writes in an early chapter. They never apologized to her. “I think that society’s encouragement of forgiveness relates to people’s need to avoid dealing with pain, to deny the extent of human cruelty and to distance ourselves from collective guilt.

“How can I forgive my parents, people who tried to force me to hate myself, live in terror, and forget and/or rewrite my childhood? Are there acts too horrific to ever forgive?” she asks. And, like Wiesenthal, in her book she poses her question to several dozen people, including artists, health care professionals and members of the clergy.

The answers, many of which urged forgiveness, changed Einhorn. “I cannot condone the behavior, but I can and do forgive my parents,” she writes at the end of the book. “I realize that responding to violence with violence (and I consider lack of forgiveness to be a form of violence) only perpetuates the cycle.

“At my best,” Einhorn writes, “I forgive Hitler and today’s terrorists.”

Hitler and contemporary terrorists, of course, fall in the category of the unrepentant.

Where apology is not present or forgiveness is not possible, gestures of tolerance from the slighted can be healing.

Judea Pearl, whose son Daniel, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped by Islamic terrorists and beheaded in Pakistan in 2002, began a series of dialogues with a Muslim scholar in 2003.

“It’s not a model of forgiveness. It’s revenge — eliminating the threat,” the poison of extreme Islam that took his son’s life, “from happening again,” says Pearl, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of California at Los Angeles. He and his dialogue partner, Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic scholar in Washington, offer an example of interfaith tolerance. “The symbolic impact is profound.” Whether for murder or for lesser offenses, Judaism teaches that apology and forgiveness are the bedrocks of life at the national and personal level. Judaism rejects the putative statement of Ron Ziegler, President Richard Nixon’s press secretary during the Watergate scandal, that “Contrition is bunk” — some historians record that Ziegler used stronger language.

Reconciliation For Apartheid

Jewish theologians over the years, most notably Maimonides, have outlined the steps that are part of the teshuvah — Hebrew for repentance, or return — process. They include stopping the forbidden behavior, feeling regret for those actions, verbally expressing those feelings to God, apologizing to the wronged individual, making recompense if that is possible and not repeating the behavior.

If apology does not bring closure, a buzzword that inadequately reflects the depth of teshuvah, it makes a decided symbolic statement, both for individuals and groups. Who has forgotten the image of Pope John Paul II placing his note of apology into a crack of the Western Wall, or West German Chancellor Willy Brandt bowing before the Ghetto Fighters monument in Warsaw?

A simple “I’m sorry” can make all the difference in the world.

Dr. Meir Wikler, a psychotherapist who works in New York City’s haredi community, writes that the three most important words in marriage are “I was wrong.”

In this country, it took years for the Jewish community to grudgingly accept the Rev. Jesse Jackson after he used the terms “Hymie” and “Hymietown” to characterize Jews, and finally apologized.

In Australia, Aborigines whose forebears in the last century unwittingly became part of “The Stolen Generation” — an estimated 100,000 Aborigine children were forcibly removed from their parents to be raised in “civilized” white homes — continue to bear anger over the government’s unwillingness to admit its role in the kidnappings and apologize.

In South Africa, blacks who were victimized by the violent excesses of the apartheid regime found some comfort in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which required the perpetrators to admit their complicity in order to earn amnesty. The TRC did not demand apologies or offer forgiveness, but it effectively performed that task, allowing the society to pass without major violence from white rule to black rule.

Gillian Slovo, a South African-born novelist who grew up in an activist, anti-apartheid Jewish family and suffered a personal loss because of their work — a parcel bomb sent by the country’s security forces killed her mother in 1982 — says reconciliation fits when forgiveness doesn’t.

“I think reconciliation is a better word,” Slovo says. “I’m not a person who finds it easy to embrace the concept of forgiveness.”

Her father Joe, one of the few whites in the inner circle of black anti-apartheid fighters, became a cabinet minister in Nelson Mandela’s government and a creator of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Testimony of white police and other officials, who admitted their guilt, gripped the nation for months. Among them were the killers of Slovo’s mother, who confessed their deeds but did not apologize.

“I regret the fact that the people who killed my mother got off scot-free,” Slovo says. “I don’t regret the fact that they did not apologize.”

She says the TRC, even without apologies, served a cathartic function for her homeland. “The victims heard. The nation bore witness to what happened. That made the nation come to terms to what happened” under Apartheid. “It never was said that it never happened.

“I think the TRC helped the nation move on,” Slovo says. “Without it there never would have been peace in South Africa.”

The TRC, in retrospect, followed a Christian model.

In “The Sunflower,” Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt points out a crucial difference between the Jewish and Christian concepts of teshuvah. “First one must ask forgiveness of the aggrieved party,” she writes.

Lipstadt continues: “A number of years ago, on 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace interviewed Chuck Colson, former head of the Nixon White House Plumbers, the Watergate-era dirty tricks unit. Wallace asked Colson, who while in jail had become a devout Christian, if he felt any need to go to the people whose lives he so severely dislocated and apologize to them.

“‘No,’ Colson answered. ‘I have made peace with God in my heart.’ This is in striking contrast to teshuvah, which calls for going to the wronged party first. Judaism believes that it is only through human interaction that the victim can be healed and the wrongdoer most profoundly changed. Making peace with God comes later.”