We all know that the work of asking for forgiveness from others is necessary, albeit difficult. What do we do when a person we have wronged has already passed away?
The Rambam teaches:
One who commits a wrongdoing, and the victim dies before he has a chance to request a pardon – he should bring ten people with him and stand by the victim’s grave. There he should say before all of them, “I have sinned before Hashem, the God of Israel and before this individual in that I did such and such.” If he owes the victim money he should pay it to his heirs. If he doesn’t know who the heir is, he should give it to the Beit Din and confess (Hilchot Teshuva 2:11, Yoma 87a).
Other Jewish teachings reinforce the Rambam in stating that one should offer public confession and give any money owed to the deceased to his or her heirs (Bava Kamma 103a). Important Jews have made public graveside requests for forgiveness. Recently, Rabbi J.J. Schachter went to the Sreedei Aish’s grave (Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg) after publishing his private letters. It was a great lesson about the value of restrained privacy over scholarship and yirat shamayim (fear of God) over career advancement.
Many people have asked for forgiveness from a deceased person who was wronged. For example, in 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologized for the mistreatment of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who was persecuted and driven to suicide for being a homosexual. Turing had played a pivotal role in cracking the German Enigma machine code during World War 2, which greatly helped Allied intelligence by exposing the location of German submarines and battle plans. After the war, he worked to help create modern computer science, working on the one of the first true computers. However, in 1952 he lost his government job and security clearance when he was convicted of “gross indecency” for having had a homosexual relationship. Faced with a sentence of forced chemical castration (female hormone injections usually reserved for men with prostate cancer), Turing committed suicide in 1954. After a long-term campaign to redress this injustice, the British leadership agreed to publicly acknowledge its mistreatment of Turing and many other gay men who had served the nation well. Prime Minister Brown’s apology read in part:
This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.
But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind … It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.
So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.
Prime Minister Brown’s public apology illustrates many of the aspects addressed by the Rambam and other Jewish teachings. He apologized for a wrong that had been committed against Turing and other homosexuals, he acknowledged the tremendous service that Turing had given to his nation, and in doing so he made it clear that these injustices would not be repeated.
The mitzvah of asking others for forgiveness is very important. It is complicated when the one who deserves an apology has passed away. The most important moral act is to repair any damage and to improve one’s ways. Spiritually, our tradition also offers the precedent of a public statement at the grave. This would require a great deal of courage, but we must ensure that we do not perpetuate a wrong.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”