If Catholics and other Christians wish to repent and ask
forgiveness for persecuting Jews, they should first understand
what, in Judaism, the process entails.
RABBI DAVID R. BLUMENTHAL is Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor
of Judaic Studies at Emory University, Atlanta. He is the author
of Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest
(Westminster/John Knox), God at the Center (Jason
Aronson), and The Banality of Good and Evil: A Social,
Psychological, and Ethical Reflection (Georgetown University
During the spring of 1996, with the support of the American
Jewish Committee, I was privileged to be in Rome to teach Jewish
Studies at the Gregorian Pontifical University (See "Letter from
Rome," Cross Currents, Fall 1996). This paper is part of a
continuing conversation with colleagues and friends in Rome as well
as elsewhere in the Catholic world.
In the spirit of ongoing Catholic-Jewish dialogue, I offer the
following reflections on the Jewish teaching on repentance and
forgiveness, which is an old tradition, reaching back thousands of
years and drawing on the wisdom of untold numbers of sages. As a
further part of the dialogue, I include here the Hebrew terms,
accented for proper pronunciation, together with a short
What Judaism Does Not Teach
The spiritual task of interfaith dialogue requires each party to
understand what the other teaches and what the other does not teach
because, in reaching out to the other, we tend to assimilate what we
hear to what we already know. It seems, therefore, prudent to note
those conceptualities which Judaism does not embrace in the
hope that Catholics will, then, better be able to set aside ideas
already familiar and reach out to encompass ideas that are not
Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a
religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance.
There is no designated authority to whom one can confess sins; sins
are confessed privately, in prayer, before God. Nor does Judaism
recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin
and repentance. Although the practice of penances did exist in
Jewish life for part of the middle ages, largely under Christian
influence, this was never formalized into classic rabbinic theology
and practice. Further, there is no rabbinic authority who can
prescribe penances, either of a therapeutic or a ritual kind;
rather, spiritual discipline in the presence of sin is undertaken
voluntarily, by individuals so inclined, sometimes after
consultation with a rabbi.
Judaism does not recognize absolution as part of the
process of sin and repentance. There is no designated authority who
can dispense forgiveness of sins after confession and penance;
rather, sins between persons require the asking and granting of
forgiveness by the parties concerned while sins between persons and
God require the asking of forgiveness by the penitent and the
granting of forgiveness only by God. Finally, Judaism does not
recognize reconciliation (the whole-hearted yielding of all
inner negative feeling) as a necessary part of the process of sin
and repentance. Although reconciliation is known and even desirable,
rabbinic Judaism realizes that there are other modes of
rapprochement that are fully adequate and, perhaps, more realistic.
Teshuvá is the key concept in the rabbinic view of sin,
repentance, and forgiveness. The tradition is not of one mind on the
steps one must take to repent of one's sins. However, almost all
agree that repentance requires five elements: recognition of one's
sins as sins (hakarát ha-chét'), remorse (charatá),
desisting from sin (azivát ha-chét'), restitution where
possible (peira'ón), and confession (vidúi).
"Recognition of one's sins as sins" is an act of one's
intelligence and moral conscience. It involves knowing that certain
actions are sinful, recognizing such actions in oneself as more than
just lapses of praxis, and analyzing one's motives for sin as deeply
as one can. For example, stealing from someone must be seen not only
as a crime but also as a sin against another human and a violation
of God's demands of us within the covenant. It also involves
realizing that such acts are part of deeper patterns of relatedness
and that they are motivated by some of the most profound and darkest
elements in our being.
"Remorse" is a feeling. It is composed of feelings of regret, of
failure to maintain one's moral standards. It may also encompass
feelings of being lost or trapped, of anguish, and perhaps of
despair at our own sinfulness, as well as a feeling of being
alienated from God and from our own deepest spiritual roots, of
having abandoned our own inner selves.
"Desisting from sin" is neither a moral-intellectual analysis nor
a feeling; it is an action. It is a ceasing from sin, a desisting
from the patterns of sinful action to which we have become addicted.
Desisting from sin involves actually stopping the sinful action,
consciously repressing thoughts and fantasies about the sinful
activity, and making a firm commitment never to commit the sinful
"Restitution" is the act of making good, as best one can, for any
damage done. If one has stolen, one must return the object or pay
compensation. If one has damaged another's reputation, one must
attempt to correct the injury to the offended party.
"Confession" has two forms: ritual and personal. Ritual
confession requires recitation of the liturgies of confession at
their proper moments in the prayer life of the community. Personal
confession requires individual confession before God as needed or
inserting one's personal confession into the liturgy at designated
moments. The more specific the personal confession, the better. One
who follows these steps to teshuva is called a "penitent" (chozér
The tradition is quite clear, however, that recognition of sin,
remorse, restitution, and confession, if they are done without
desisting from sin, do not constitute teshuva. Without ceasing one's
sinful activity, one has only arrived at the "preliminaries to
teshuva" (hirhuréi teshuvá). Actual desisting from sin is
what counts. Thus, if one desists from sinful action because one has
been frightened into it, that is still teshuva and the person is
considered a penitent. For example, if a person ceases to gamble
compulsively because someone threatens to beat him severely the next
time he does it, such a person is considered a penitent. Or, if a
person ceases to steal because he has been told he will be sent to
jail the next time it happens, such a person is considered a
penitent. Furthermore, if a person becomes convinced that he or she
will be punished in the life-after-death and ceases sinful action on
that account, this person too is considered a penitent, though this
motivation for desisting is higher than the previous ones because it
is a function of a larger religious worldview which considers the
wrongdoing as actual sin.
Teshuva which is rooted in fear of humans or God is called
"repentance rooted in fear" (teshuvá mi-yir'á) and, while not
the highest form of teshuva, it is the core thereof. Reform of one's
character through analysis of sin, remorse, restitution, and
confession, when combined with the ceasing of sinful action, is
called "repentance rooted in love" (teshuvá mei-ahavá).
"Repentance rooted in love" is desirable but, without cessation of
sin, reform of one's character is useless. Maimonides, the foremost
halakhic (legal) and philosophic authority of rabbinic Judaism,
lists desisting from sin as the very first step to teshuva.
Rabbinic tradition teaches that all the steps to teshuva are
necessary. Their interrelationship is best described as a spiral
which touches each of the five points, yet advances with each turn.
Thus, one may begin at any point -- with action, analysis, remorse,
restitution, or confession. However, as one repeats the steps of
teshuva again and again, one's analysis and remorse deepen, one's
restitution and commitment-to-desist become firmer, and one's
confession becomes more profound. As one cycles through the five
phases of teshuva again and again, one's teshuva becomes more
earnest, more serious. At its height, one achieves "full teshuva" (teshuvá
gemurá) which would require full consciousness and action such
that, given the same situation, one would refrain from the sin for
which one had repented. Sinfulness is a very deep dimension of human
existence and dealing with it calls upon all our spiritual,
intellectual, emotional, and moral resources -- even when we
recognize that ceasing to sin is the base line of repentance.
Sin disrupts our lives on the human level; it distorts our
relationships with other persons, social institutions, and our
selves. Sin also disrupts our spiritual lives; it distorts our
relationship with God and our deepest inner spiritual being. Because
sin alienates us from humanity and from God, there is more than one
kind of forgiveness.
In a civil contract, one party incurs a debt to, or obligation
toward, or claim against another. In such a situation, the creditor
can forgo the debt, waive the obligation, or relinquish the claim.
The creditor can do this for no reason at all, although the creditor
usually has some grounds for being willing to forgo the debt.
Similarly in the matter of sin. When one sins against another, one
incurs an obligation to right the wrong one has committed. This is a
debt toward the offended party borne by the offender. The more
serious the wrong, the more serious the obligation to set it
straight. In rabbinic thought, only the offending party can set
the wrong aright and only the offended party can forgo the debt of
the sin. This means that, if I offend someone, it is my
responsibility to do whatever it takes to set matters aright and,
conversely, if someone has offended me, it is my responsibility to
allow the offender to do teshuva, that is, to correct the wrong done
to me. Teshuva is part of the structure of God's creation; hence,
the sinner is obligated to do teshuva and the offended person is
obligated to permit teshuva by the offender.
The most basic kind of forgiveness is "forgoing the other's
indebtedness" (mechilá). If the offender has done teshuva,
and is sincere in his or her repentance, the offended person should
offer mechila; that is, the offended person should forgo the debt of
the offender, relinquish his or her claim against the offender. This
is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it
is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes
me anything for whatever it was that he or she did. Mechila is like
a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state. The crime
remains; only the debt is forgiven.
The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended
person is not obliged to offer mechila if the offender is not
sincere in his or her repentance and has not taken concrete steps to
correct the wrong done. Maimonides is decisive on this subject:
"The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not offering
mechila, for this is not the way of the seed of Israel. Rather, if
the offender has [resolved all material claims and has] asked and
begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person
knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse
for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner
mechila" (Mishne Torah, "Hilchot Chovel u-Mazzik," 5:10).
Mechila is, thus, an expectation of the offended person but only if
the sinner is actually repentant. For example, a woman who has been
battered by her husband, or abused by her father, is not obliged to
grant such a person mechila unless he has, first, desisted from all
abusive activity; second, reformed his character through analysis of
sin, remorse, restitution, and confession; and third, actually asked
for forgiveness several times. Only then, after ascertaining that he
is sincere in his repentance, would a woman in such a situation be
morally bound, though not legally obligated, to offer the offender
The principle that mechila ought to be granted only if deserved
is the great Jewish "No" to easy forgiveness. It is core to the
Jewish view of forgiveness, just as desisting from sin is core to
the Jewish view of repentance. Without good grounds, the offended
person should not forgo the indebtedness of the sinner; otherwise,
the sinner may never truly repent and evil will be perpetuated. And,
conversely, if there are good grounds to waive the debt or
relinquish the claim, the offended person is morally bound to do so.
This is the great Jewish "Yes" to the possibility of repentance for
The second kind of forgiveness is "forgiveness" (selichá).
It is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of
the sinner. It is achieving an empathy for the troubledness of the
other. Selicha, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the
offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender,
too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an
act of mercy than to an act of grace. A woman abused by a man may
never reach this level of forgiveness; she is not obliged, nor is it
morally necessary for her, to do so.
The third kind of forgiveness is "atonement" (kappará) or
"purification" (tahorá). This is a total wiping away of all
sinfulness. It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate
form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God. No human can
"atone" the sin of another; no human can "purify" the spiritual
pollution of another.
Sin and Forgiveness: Jews and the Catholic Church in Dialogue
Given the Jewish teaching on repentance and forgiveness, it is
clear that Jews are under a moral and halakhic expectation to hold
open the possibility of mechila, of forgoing the heavy indebtedness
of the Catholic Church and Catholic community to the Jewish people
for the sins of murder, persecution, injurious teaching, and
indifference. Forgiveness, in the sense of relinquishing the
obligation that sin creates (mechila), is part of the structure of
creation. It is a confident expectation from God, and it should be
There are, however, two difficulties. First, Jewish teaching also
makes clear that there is no spiritual or halakhic mechanism in
Judaism by which Jews can formally "forgive" the Catholic Church, or
the community of Catholics, for the centuries of injurious teaching
and persecution of Jews culminating in the Shoah. Corporate
forgiveness between communities, either in the form of mechila or in
the form of selicha, has no theological ground in rabbinic Judaism.
Further, there is no designated halakhic, or political, authority
which could assume such a task. In theological terms, forgoing of
debt (mechila) and forgiveness rooted in empathy (selicha) are
possible, though there is no formal mechanism which could authorize
this; atonement, purification, or ultimate reconciliation (kappara)
can come only from God.
Second, as noted, even mechila cannot be granted unless the
offended party has sure grounds to think that the offending party
has done teshuva. In the context of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, this
would mean, first, desisting from the sin of persecuting Jews,
including desisting from teaching doctrines and supporting popular
attitudes that encourage, or even tolerate, the persecution of Jews;
second, making appropriate restitution where there are material
claims that can be compensated; and, third, the reform of character
through intellectual-moral analysis, remorse, and confession. Reform
of character without desisting from sin, however, is not repentance,
and all the words, documents, and genuine expressions of contrition
will avail naught without concrete actions -- as would be the case
between two Jews in a situation of prolonged sinful conflict. The
way the Church deals with terrorist incidents, antisemitism, Church
files on the period of the Shoah, Judaica deposited with various
Church entities and not returned, Catholic education about Jews and
Judaism, the nature of Catholic mission, relations with the State of
Israel, relations with local Jewish communities everywhere, etc.
are, thus, the action-yardsticks by which Catholic teshuva is
measured. Given forthright action and enough time -- Catholic
conflict with the Jews and Judaism is centuries old, not a product
only of this century -- a growing sense of mechila among Jews is
possible, indeed a legitimate moral expectation. Selicha, in the
sense of forgiveness of the heart rooted in empathy, however, would
seem to be very premature.
Further, it seems clear that, although the Jewish people does not
have a central authority to speak for it, publicly acknowledged
entities such as the State of Israel or other world-wide Jewish
bodies may enter understandings and negotiations with other
political and religious entities on behalf of the Jewish people to
determine what actions are to be taken to begin the process of
righting long-standing wrongs, even though the decisions of these
bodies would not bind their constituents and vice versa. A public
engagement in this process by legitimate authorities, if pursued in
good faith and productive of appropriate acts, would generate a
moral and social consensus rooted in desisting from sin,
restitution, and reform of character. This moral and social
consensus would, given the Jewish teaching on repentance and
forgiveness, lead to a consensus of mechila, perhaps of
selicha which, in turn, would find some appropriate public
M. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Hilkhos Teshuva,"
trans. and comm., E. Touger (New York and Jerusalem, Moznaim
Publishing: 1987). The text of Maimonides' "Laws of Repentance"
needs to be read with a commentary.
J. Soloveitchik, On Repentance, ed. P. Peli (New
York: Paulist Press, 1984).
A. Steinsaltz, Teshuva (New York: Free Press, 1987).
Y. Abramowitz, Hechal ha-Teshuva (Hebrew), (Bnai Brak:
Netsah Press, 5721).
Encyclopedia Judaica and Jewish Encyclopedia,
D. Blumenthal, review of S. Wiesenthal, The Sunflower,
Jewish Social Studies 40, nos. 3-4 (1978): 330-32.