It's so difficult to be understanding & forgiving in the face of man-made tragedy, like the recent story about the mother who killed her two young sons. As Jews, how are we taught to go about doing this? Are criminals worthy of our forgiveness? Some more than others? How can we reconcile this with our grief for the victims?
Responding to crime and tragedy is always difficult, and the first step is empathy for those who have suffered most, the victims. That, however, is independent of how we deal with the criminal. There, the first question is the mental status of the criminal-- certainly not all evildoers are insane, but some are, and we should be careful not to ignore that possiblity. In Jewish law, the insane have a different status than the sane, and are less culpable for their actions. That does not mean insanity is a free pass, but it changes the nature of the incident-- if a crazy man shoots up a mall, we have the same sadness for the victims, but would view it differently than if an evil person did the same thing to make a political point.
In the case where we conclude the criminal was, in fact, sane enough to be liable for his/her actions, our first responsibility as a society is to respond to the evil in ways that make clear our rejection of such actions. The Torah several times speaks of being meva-er, eradicating, either evil or spilled blood, from our midst. We, as a society, must make clear that such acts are completely unacceptable and that we will combat them-- and try to prevent them-- to the best of our abilities.
That said, we have concern and compassion for the criminal as well. Even if the person is not technically insane, it is likely that there are many psychological components to this person's evil, and that will affect how we react to it. There is also the question of remorse-- the Talmud notes that once an evildoer (of a lower level than murder) receives punishment, s/he returns to being our full brethren. The assumption is that crime, with punishment, restores the person to his/her ordinary state. So, too, I would differentiate between those who have remorse and those who don't. It is not a question of forgiveness-- which is up to God, not us-- it is a question of at what point we feel comfortable restoring this person to ordinary citizenhood. For some crimes, the answer might be never (such as murder, etc., for which the Torah assumes the death penalty and we in America might assume life in prison).
So the question with criminals isn't whether we forgive them; it's when we accept them back into society, restore them to ordinary citizenship, and that is a case by case question.
This is a tremendously important and challenging question. It strikes at the heart and soul and may be more of a spiritually oriented issue than a matter of ethics and values.
For this I humbly offer a comment, preceded by a story retold by Dov Peretz Elkins (Moments of Transcendence vol. 2): Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, visiting in Germany in the 1950s, was asked the question, when would the Jews forgive the Nazis? Rabbi Heschel told the following story: “There once was a rabbi traveling on a train through Russia. He was shabbily dressed and small in stature and was sitting in a railroad car studying the Mishnah. Two Poles began to make fun of him and deride him. They cursed him, and the rabbi did not reply to them, continuing to study the Mishnah. They then took his suitcase and threw it on the floor. The rabbi maintained his composure, did not rebuke them, gathered all of his belongings, and put them back in the suitcase. They continued to revile him.
“When they reached the town where the rabbi was going, a large crowd was waiting for some important dignitary. The two Poles discovered to their amazement that the little old Jew whom they were taunting was an esteemed and revered rabbi. They later asked him to forgive them for their taunts and jeers. The rabbi said, ‘You are asking the rabbi to forgive you, not the little old Jew who was in the railroad car. You have to ask him to forgive you. He is the one you injured by your insults and your jeers.’”
That was Dr. Heschel’s answer to the Germans that day. Only the victims can forgive. We do not have the proxy to forgive in their stead.
The Jewish tradition calls upon us to forgive one another as God forgives us. Forgiveness allows us to be present and freed from resentment, hate, and fear, all of which only lead to more pain and suffering. And sometimes, in such difficult cases, when the crimes of others are so heinous and incomprehensible, the only one who we need to forgive is God.
You have raised two issues. As far as reconciling our forgiveness with grief, there is no problem. The two responses are separate and distinct. No matter how we feel about the offender, we can still care for the victim.
As for forgiveness, remember, "It is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow yourself to be appeased. On the contrary, one should be easily pacified and find it difficult to become angry. When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit. . . forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel." (Mishneh Torah,Teshuvah2:10) Nevertheless, note that the offender must seek forgiveness.
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