We are all familiar with the tragic details of the mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof murdered nine people at a Bible-study class in what was clearly a racially-motivated attack. Within 48 hours, family members of the victims had expressed forgiveness for their killer.
I was very disturbed by the news of this shooting, as I would hope that people of all races and faiths would be. Any murder is tragic but racist motivations make the act all the more heinous. Furthermore, as Jews, we should be especially sensitive to attacks in houses of worship, which are meant to be safe havens. And then I was asked to comment – not on the act itself but on the families’ forgiveness of the perpetrator.
“I can do it,” I said, “but you might not like it.”
“Because I don’t agree with it.”
Let me make this clear: If the families want to forgive the murderer, that’s their prerogative. If they consider this a religious obligation or a tenet of their faith, that’s fine. But I don’t believe it’s one of ours.
First, the requisite background:
Did you know that the idea of “turning the other cheek” comes from us? Sure, it’s famous from the New Testament book of Matthew, but it originates in Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. Chapter 3, verse 30 says, “Let him offer his cheek to the one who strikes him; let him be filled with reproach.” The context, however, is not forgiveness. It refers to humbly accepting our punishments while we wait for God’s salvation.
The Torah is full of forgiveness and many of our commandments require treating our enemies with kindness, but it’s not carte blanche. There are some parameters. For example, Exodus 23:5 tells us, “If you see your enemy’s donkey struggling under its load…help him, even many times.” In this mitzvah, the Torah commands us to take the high road, in order to improve ourselves. In fact, the Talmud says that if we have the opportunity to assist either a friend or an enemy with a struggling animal, we must assist the enemy first in order to overcome our natural inclinations (Baba Metzia 32b). From context, however, the “enemy” is an unrepentant sinner, not the murderer of a family member, and the mitzvah is largely so that the animal should not suffer because of our animosity.
To explain these mitzvot, Rashi cites the Talmud (Yoma 23a). What’s revenge? Joe asks Bob to borrow a hoe and Bob refuses. The next day, Bob asks Joe to borrow an axe. Joe says, “You wouldn’t lend me your hoe, so I won’t lend you my axe.” What’s a grudge? The same scenario except Joe lends Bob the axe, saying, “See? I’m a bigger man than you.”
You’ll note that the classical examples of taking revenge and bearing a grudge involve people who neglected to perform favors, not those who actively harmed us. Contrast this with the case of manslaughter, in which the victim’s family has the right to exact revenge (Numbers, Chapter 35). If (in Biblical times) one could take revenge on a person who killed with criminal negligence, it goes without saying that we don’t have to lend our axes to one who kills with malice aforethought.
The relatives of the victims in the South Carolina church were likely motivated by the creed of “The Lord’s Prayer,” versions of which appear in both Matthew and Luke. This prayer includes the phrase, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That’s actually a sentiment with which we agree. Each year, around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are encouraged to ask forgiveness from those we have wronged and to grant it to those who have wronged us. By doing so, we hope that God will grant us the same kind of mercy and compassion that we have shown to others.
You’ll note that it’s inherent in the forgiveness process that the guilty party regrets his actions, apologizes, and resolves to act differently in the future. Forgiveness should be granted but it must also be deserved.
There was another item in this past week’s news, far less tragic than the South Carolina killings. A young man from Chabad put tefillin on Baci Weiler, a student from the University of Chicago whose buzzcut and baggy T-shirt concealed her gender. After photos went viral, Baci was initially hailed as a hero of egalitarianism. Things quickly reversed as she was criticized for allowing this young man to do something that he wouldn’t have done had he possessed the facts. Then Baci did an amazing thing: she apologized. It wasn’t her intention to trick this young man, and it certainly wasn’t her intention to make him an object of derision. (All the articles I have seen only focus on Baci, who posted the photos. I have no idea what kind of reaction this young man faced in his community but we can be sure that he was embarrassed. There were certainly unkind comments online from those who perceived Baci’s actions as a victory over religious “right-wingers.”)
Normally, when I comment on such minor news stories, I omit the names because I find it unseemly to sling mud. I mention Baci’s name because my intention is to praise her. She goofed. She hurt someone unintentionally. She then did the right thing – she stepped up and publicly apologized. In the same situation, she will likely decline the tefillin or, at the very least, inform the one offering them that she’s a woman. I hope that the Chabad shaliach will grant forgiveness because a sincere attempt to earn it has been made.
What Dylann Roof did is so many degrees of magnitude worse that comparing him to Baci is laughable. She accepted tefillin that were offered to her under a mistaken assumption; he killed nine people studying Bible in their own church. She had to work for her forgiveness; should he have it handed to him on a silver platter?
In Judaism, we belief in teshuvah (repentance). We believe that redemption is possible. We believe that forgiveness should be granted—but it must first be earned. Dylann Roof has done nothing to demonstrate that he is remorseful or repentant; he has only shown himself to be a racist, heartless monster. I admire the families of the victims for their incredible ability to forgive this killer. Where I come from, however, forgiveness is a prize to be hard-earned, not a gift to passively receive.
Tune-in on Tuesday, June 30 at 9am to the Nachum Segal Network to hear Rabbi Jack Abramowitz discuss the above essay on “The OU Presents the Jewish Reaction.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.