(Pro)claiming Forgiveness as a Right (Commentary on Magid’s Paper)

Dov Nelkin, University of Virginia

I would like to pick up on one point made by Shaul Magid in his insightful reading of Rashi, Nachmanides, and Maimonides on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. He writes that Nachmanides’ classification of the story as a special case of “extraordinary sin” and “extraordinary punishment” “may be difficult for those of us who live in a legal culture that unequivocally denies the viability of cruel and unusual punishment, even when the perpetrator in question shows no remorse or claims to live outside any system of justice.” I would argue that, while the term “cruel and unusual” has resonance in both the legal and public dialogue, the sticking point here is not the nature of punishment, but a popular (and perhaps theological) desire for ever-available forgiveness (or grace) that one may argue is a basic tenet of Judaism and Christianity (I leave off Islam simply because I lack the information, not as an assertion of any sort). Judaism, however, makes a distinction between sins against God alone and those that involve another human. The latter require that forgiveness be sought and obtained from the injured party before any appeal to God is made (e.g. Baba Kama 92a).

Indeed, to bring in another text, this may be one way of explaining God’s comments to Abimelech in Genesis 20:

6)And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.

7) Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.

According to my reading, God tells Abimelech that Abraham is a prophet not because the title implies any special access to God (Who is, after all, talking directly to Abimelech). Rather, the title of prophet indicates a special righteousness and its attendant willingness to forgive Abimelech’s sin against him (as indicated by Abraham’s praying for Abimelech). God will then forgive Abimelech’s sin (and he will live). [14]

Why is it that we concern ourselves more with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart than with the case of Abimelech, despite this text’s focus on two aspects of “moral luck” – lack of appropriate knowledge and God’s interference in Abimelech’s ability to sin (a matter of will in the scripture, of physical ability in the Midrash)?

I suggest that the answer is found in our collective interest in easy forgiveness, which may be a phenomenological corollary to our experience of human fallibility or a theological understanding based on a misreading of Jewish and Christian sources, or some combination of the two. This interest in asserting the existence of easy forgiveness overwhelms the other myth of contemporary liberalism, that of absolute freedom, to the point that the willingness to punish, itself an acknowledgment of the sinner or criminal’s free will in acting improperly, loses out to a desire to rehabilitate those who have no desire to be rehabilitated. As Moses is taught, according to Nachmanides’ commentary to Ex. 4:21 cited by Magid, there is a time to do what is just (indicated by God’s command) and not what is dictated by the sometimes capricious canons of human mercy.

We may argue about the availability of forgiveness in response to most sins and each of us knows better than all others but God what corruption he harbors within and considers unforgivable without what must be considered miraculous divine mercy. It is, however, an error to assume that there is no gradation to sinfulness or that the sins of dictators and enslavers of peoples such as Pharaoh are not themselves worthy of a new category. Maimonides ( Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, chapter 4) lists several categories of sins for which repentance (and therefore forgiveness) is impossible. These primarily represent a psychology of sin and repentance, but the first category comprises sins so great that “God will not provide sufficient resources” for the sinner to repent. Are we today going to claim that there are no sins for which it is impossible to find forgiveness? Are there no evil deeds that it is impossible to make right? We know the answer, but we are unwilling to admit it because we are afraid that our own sins will qualify.

We chafe at the idea that Pharaoh’s will was not entirely free, though we recognize that our actions impact our characters, because we believe that forgiveness is a right, rather than a gift. The ability to “make a new heart” (Ezekiel 18:31) is denied Pharaoh. Is there a difference between this situation and one who dies? But “there is no man who has power over the wind to retain the wind; nor has he authority over the day of death” (Eccles. 8:8, cf. bottom of Shabbat 30a). (There may be a right within the covenant to be able to repent, (e.g. Deut. 4:29-31) but that seems to be only for the people as whole.) Death is a sign that we cannot procrastinate forever our need to correct the mistakes of our life. “One hour spent in repentance in this world is better than all the life in the next world” (Pirkei Avot 4:17). More explicit is the teaching of R. Eliezer, to “repent one day before you die” (Shabbat 153a).

The world is too ready to cozy up to former dictators and terrorists. The goal of scriptural reasoning is to mend the world, but some wounds must be left open. If closed before their time, they fester and the gangrene that grows within spreads its corruption and death.

One separate note: Professor Magid cites Rashi’s elaboration of the Talmud (to Ex. 7:3) The Talmud there, Yebamot 63a (Soncino), reads: “R. Eleazar b. Abina said: Punishment comes into the world only on Israel’s account; for it is said, I have cut off nations, their corners are desolate; I have made their streets waste, (Zephaniah 3:6) and this is followed by the text, ‘I said: Surely thou wilt fear Me, thou wilt receive correction’ (ibid, 7). This continues a thought expressed earlier on the page “All the families of the earth, even the other families who live on the earth are blessed only for Israel’s sake. All the nations of the earth, even the ships that go from Gaul to Spain are blessed only for Israel’s sake.” What these verses speak to is not a matter of justice, nor of ontology, but of God’s special relationship with Israel and the greater providence God therefore shows that nation. Nowhere does the text say that the nations cut off did not deserve that punishment; perhaps the way to read these texts in light of the centrality of the freedom to choose between good and evil to the rabbinic world view is to understand that God would not have bothered to punish nations outside the covenant were it not to show Israel the way to repentance. As with many topics, the rabbis do not have a unitary position concerning the status of the nations of the world and it is easy to see the influence of their contemporary situation upon the pronouncements they make concerning umot ha’olam . One moving Midrash relevant to the Egyptians’ ontological status has God quieting the angels’ songs of praise during the drowning of the Egyptians, “the work of my hands is drowning in the sea and you want to chant a song before me?” (Sanhedrin 39b, Meg. 10b, but see Exodus R. 23:7). This sentiment is incorporated into the Jewish liturgy which abridges the recitation of Hallel during Passover.

Two final points in response to Prof. Ochs’ helpful analysis of the first four papers:

I think it may be going too far to say that Judaism sees God as being “more in charge” on the matter of a hardened heart. First the sinner must harden his heart (as does Pharaoh in the first five), then God may remove the ability to repent. To have “Fear of God” is the only choice given mortals, but that choice is supremely theirs (the first time, in any case).

I would also like to add to Prof. Ochs’ list of prototypes for “reasoning along with (through?) protest”: Resh Lakish, who as model student may also be the model Jew. I leave to the group to consider the relevance of his sinful youth.

Resh Lakish died, and R. Johanan was plunged into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? Let R.Eleazar b. Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.’ So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by R. Johanan he observed: ‘There is a Baraitha which supports you.’ ‘Are you as the son of Lakisha?’ he complained: ‘when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, “A Baraitha has been taught which supports you.” Do I not know myself that my dicta are right?’ Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha’ (Baba Metzia 84a, Soncino).