Do we forgive a murderer if he pleads mercy?
Do we apply the law of crime and punishment, or do we show compassion?
[Ed. note: It is assumed that the "we" in this question refers to Jews, and that the writer is assuming that mercy/compassion equates to no or some reduced punishment. Further, it is assumed that this is based on Jewish law and practice, without regard to any other legal system or standards.In this light, this can touch on Tochechah, Tikkun Olam, and Teshuvah.]
There appear to be a couple of different ideas floating around. Let’s lay them out and address them one by one:
Unforgivable sins: There is a question whether or not Judaism accepts the idea that one can do something so horrible that you cannot repent for it. The Rambam (Maimonides) in his Code of Jewish Law (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Deot) enumerates categories of sins and what someone has to do to atone for them, and there are transgressions that in fact so bad that one is “not given the power to atone”. Either this means that they cannot atone for it, or that simply G-d will not assist in the process. This all speaks from G-d’s perspective though, which moves to the second point.
Whose place is it to forgive: this question seems to focus not on G-d’s forgiveness, but us as Jews. There’s a major issue, which the Rambam highlights. Sins against G-d are forgiven right away, but sins against another human being cannot be forgiven by G-d until the wronged individual is made whole. This is because it’s not someone’s place to accept forgiveness on behalf on someone else. Only the wronged party has the power to forgive, and in the case of a murder the victim can’t forgive the crime, so the murdered has to be put to death in Biblical law. This may sound harsh, but compare this to the Hammurabi Code that states that a family may accept money to pay for the loss. The ancient Babylonians viewed people as slaves to the gods whereas the Jewish perspective is that people were created in the Divine Image (tzelem Elokim) and therefore the only thing that can atone for a life is another life.
What do we mean to forgive: There are actually two aspects of forgiveness. One aspect is exonerating someone from their wrongdoing. The other is personally moving on from the hurt someone has caused. The second attribute is very much encouraged by Judaism under most circumstances. In the nighttime reading of the Shema prayer, we say an additional prayer where we state that we forgive anyone who has wronged us that day. That isn’t meant to let people off the hook. It’s simply telling ourselves to move on. The first is not so simple. Therefore…
Is forgiveness always the right thing: The answer to this is simply no. Judaism absolutely takes the position that forgiveness is not automatic, and has to involve contrition, confession, and restitution for wrongdoing (which are three steps of tshuvah). Furthermore, there are certain things that just can’t be forgiven if society is going to function normally. Tikkun Olam is wrongly used as a substitute word for social justice. It means a refinement in the world to bring G-d’s presence into it. Some acts just repel G-d’s presence, and to have a perfected world we need to actively work to marginalize these activities. Judaism emphasizes hating the sin and not the sinner, but that does not mean tolerating mayhem. Society's rules should be dictated by the law abiding, not the law breaking.
And quite frankly, it’s not good for the transgressor either. We have to square our accounts with G-d at some point or another, and it’s better to do it here before we go to the Olam HaEmet (the afterworld). Judaism believes in eternal life and eternal reward, but a person has to pay their debts to G-d before enjoying them.
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