In Hebrews 9:22, the Bible says that forgiveness can only be achieved by the shedding of blood. In ancient Judaism, this entailed the sacrifice of an animal, performed by a priest in the Temple. However, Jews have not practiced animal sacrifice since Biblical times. In Christianity, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross vicariously washed away humanity’s sins. For Jews, the process is not that simple, and there is at least one sin that can never be forgiven at all: murder.
The Meaning of Sin in Judaism
In Christianity, man is born in “original sin.” Judaism rejects this idea, teaching that people are basically good, but we all possess inclination to sin. Only action on evil inclination is sinful. Judaism recognizes two categories of sin: against God and against fellow human beings. Because God is merciful, if the sinner demonstrates genuine remorse and repentance, God forgives almost any sin committed against him. Harming fellow human beings is a different story. Forgiveness cannot, in that case, come directly from God, only from humans themselves.
Forgiveness Is a Process
Judaism believes in a forgiving God. For humans, forgiveness is harder to offer. Judaism understands this fact of human nature and sets up a specific process for forgiveness in the case of person-to-person sin. Confessing to a rabbi is not part of that process. Nor can rabbis grant absolution, the way a Catholic priest can. A sinner is required to ask his victim for forgiveness directly. The request must come from a genuine feeling of remorse. But just as importantly, it must be accompanied by a complete halt to the offending actions. A thief who steals again cannot be forgiven, whether he follows the process or not. The next step is restitution. The sinner must compensate the injured party. Assuming the sinner completes this process, the injured party is morally obligated to grant forgiveness, not necessarily on the first request, but no later than the third.
Why Murder Cannot Be Forgiven
The Jewish standard for forgiveness is simple. Only the person who has been sinned against can grant forgiveness. For example, the husband of a woman who has suffered a rape is forbidden from forgiving the rapist. Not even God can forgive a person who injures another, unless the injured party forgives first. That assumes that the injured party is alive to do the forgiving. When a person kills another person, obviously, the victim is no longer alive. Therefore, in Judaism, the only way to be forgiven for murder is not to commit it in the first place.
Can Jews Forgive the Holocaust?
Oprah Winfrey once asked renowned author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel if he could forgive Nazis who murdered Jewish children. Wiesel said that he had no right to forgive them. It would be “arrogant” to do so, because only those children could forgive their killers. Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal told a story of a deeply remorseful Nazi who was on his deathbed and only wanted forgiveness before he died for the suffering he inflicted. Wiesenthal refused. He reasoned that he had no choice. Under Jewish law, forgiveness was not Wiesenthal’s to give. That right belonged only to the people who actually suffered because of this man’s evil actions.
- JWeekly.com: For Jews, Forgiveness Was Never Meant to Be Easy
- Jewish Virtual Library: Judaism's Rejection of Original Sin
- Jewish Virtual Library: Repentance
- Chabad.org: Should We Forgive the Nazis?
- Gather the Jews: When Forgiveness Is Optional or Forbidden
- My Jewish Learning: The Jewish View of Sin
- Christian Answers: How Can I Be and Feel Forgiven?
- Oprah.com: Oprah Talks to Elie Wiesel
- Jewish Virtual Library: Forgiveness
- The Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University: Repentance and Forgiveness
- National Archives/Getty Images News/Getty Images