If we are to move past our blindness, if we are to grasp the pain we have inflicted, knowingly or otherwise, if we are to move forward, we must know the tales of the Other.
I struggle first with myself. What do I do with that fury? Even though I understand its roots, its genesis, it shakes me. I cannot live there, imprisoned by a past that itself is less than objective. It is raw, raging, poisonous. It obstructs. It divides. What good does it do?
I wonder what the reaction would have been if Archbishop Tutu had come to Charleston, South Carolina, to Reverend Pinckney’s AME chapel, the very place of the murders, and told the parishioners, and by extension, America, that it was time for African-Americans to forgive slave traders and slave owners, the whole of the confederacy, the whole of its lingering stain on the country, and pray for their souls?
Perhaps he would have.
Instead it was the parishioners themselves, the family members of the murdered, who bestowed their forgiveness on the murderer of their kin. Their act of grace compelled the nation toward a heshbon hanefesh, accounting of the soul, forcing many to look deep into the unforgiving mirror of racism, opening eyes – and hearts, some perhaps for the first time.
I am moved, and awed, by the poignant enormity of their faith, even in the abyss of grieving, perhaps especially so, even as I am bewildered by it. There is a chasm of sorts between Christianity and Judaism, and another between Christian forgiveness and Jewish teshuvah, repentance.
Eternal damnation, Hell, and the Devil are not Jewish concepts. Neither is original sin. There is no imperative to forgive as Jesus forgave. And while it’s true that forgiveness is for the sake of the one who forgives, releasing them from hatred and anger, teshuvah binds forgiveness to atonement, repentance, accountability. It would be unthinkable to forgive someone who has never shown remorse. It would be unthinkable to say that God forgives them if they have not apologized, have never tried to make amends to those they harmed.
Perhaps it’s not rational for me to expect to grasp Christian forgiveness. I am a visitor; it’s not my native tongue. But as President Obama said in his eulogy, “God has visited grace upon us for He has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.” The national self-examination wrought in the wake of Charleston – the challenge of facing history, truthful history and its ongoing consequences, and confronting it without hatred – is as familiar to me as my name.
We Jews, of course, have our own blind spots, cherry-picked facts, false prophets. Sometimes we are blinded to those outside our tribe, sometimes we turn on each other, forgetting hard-learned lessons from our past. The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the loss of sovereignty for over two thousand years, the ancient rabbis decided, resulted from sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews. I have my own work to do.
But what would it take to quell that fury? Teshuvah, but that is unlikely to happen. Even Pope John Paul II’s “We Remember,” his treatise on the Church, the Jews, and the Holocaust, never offered an apology, maintaining that the Church itself was blameless, pure, infallible, a non-apology apology in the spirit of “mistakes were made.”
Perhaps that is all I can hope for, or expect. I turn again to President Obama’s Charleston eulogy, his reference to the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which he then sang, joined swiftly by the gallery of mourners.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
The man who wrote that hymn, John Newton, was a slave trader who later became an Anglican priest and ardent abolitionist. Newton’s own story has been mythologized; he is often depicted as having converted to Christianity while bearing his human cargo on raging seas, turning from his sinful ways, penning his now-beloved hymn after God saw fit to save his life. The truth is more nuanced; Newton, a slave buyer and then slave ship captain, continued to ply his trade after his conversion. He turned toward abolition more than thirty-three years later, eight years after he composed “Amazing Grace.” For the last twenty of his eighty-two years, he fought to end slavery.
But Newton never freed his “merchandise” or later sought their freedom. He was unwilling to undo what he had done. He fell short. But he did, as implored by the prophet Isaiah, ultimately “cease to do evil, learn to do good, devote (himself) to justice, aid the wronged.”
My mother-in-law lives her faith. Years ago, her husband divorced her to marry the last of his mistresses, leaving her to raise their sons. So far as I know, he never asked for her forgiveness, never acknowledged the hurt he caused. Still she forgave him, as Jesus would have her do, and I honor her act of grace, her faithful sincerity – even though that faithfulness means she will never stop trying to “save” me. I understand that. I love her. I can’t say I forgive her, but I spare her. I gird my civility and hold my tongue.
As for me, I forgave my husband for what he had done, because he faced it and took responsibility. But mostly because we faced it together. He has done teshuvah. So have I, and our marriage, our bond to each other, is stronger for it.
There is a traditional Jewish prayer, recited upon awakening each day: “Blessed are You, Adonai, who opens the eyes of the blind.”
I cannot pray for the souls of mass murderers, those who were cogs in the relentless machinery of death. Nor is forgiveness mine to offer, either collectively or on behalf of those persecuted, now or in the past. But I can pray for God to open the eyes of the blind, and I can strive to open my own, to see what needs to be seen, to seek the spark of the Divine in every human being, to wrestle with the tortured legacy of the past, and to open my heart to those who are willing to do the same.
Rosalind Holtzman has worked as a pediatric nurse, childbirth educator, and most recently, as a religious school teacher in her synagogue, although she set out to be a physical anthropologist, studying human evolution. She writes creative nonfiction essays and is especially keen on wrestling with “big picture” issues. She lives in southeastern Pennsylvania.