The Politics Of Repentance
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The Politics Of Repentance

Two theological underpinnings of the approaching High Holy Days season have become more topical this year: apology and forgiveness. Classical Jewish thought, formulated by scholars like Maimonides centuries ago, consider those twin acts as preludes to the Ten Days of Repentance, direct apologies for the previous year’s slights a prerequisite for Divine forgiveness. In “No Enemy to Conquer: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World,” British journalist Michael Henderson argues that apologizing and forgiving have a value on both a personal and political plane. The Jewish Week spoke last week to Henderson about the issue.

Q: Jewish tradition has taught for a millennia or two that apologizing for personal slights — and forgiving the offender — is a prerequisite for an individual’s prayers being accepted at the High Holy Days. Now apology and forgiveness have taken on a political dimension.

A: Forgiveness is one of the few concepts that, like love, are respected and encouraged by all the world’s religions. When Isaiah had the vision of the Almighty, he said, ‘Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips’. He then has an experience of being purified personally and called to a mission to the wider community. Isn’t this politics at its best, when each individual feels responsible for the integrity of the nation, not just his or her own soul?

Has forgiveness taken on a secular dimension, or is it still primarily a religious concern?

Sometimes it is both. The example of Nelson Mandela has shown that forgiveness is far more than something personal or religious. It is something that affects the life of nations.

What are the most impressive examples you have found of an individual’s or a nation’s apologies changing history?

Willi Brandt kneeling before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto … Egyptian President Anwar Sadat going to Jerusalem in a quest for peace … President Truman in making a gesture of healing at Mexico’s Chapultepec Castle when he laid a wreath on the tomb of the ‘Boy Heroes’ from the country’s war with the United States … The U.S. government apologizing to the Nisei citizens for their internment in World War II … the Virginia Legislature apologizing for slavery … Prime Minister Tony Blair expressing regret to the Irish for Britain’s role in the famine 150 years earlier … the apology by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for what had been done to the Aborigines by white Australians.

Is hatred ever so imbedded — among the Israelis and Palestinians, for instance — that apologizing and forgiving won’t work?

There are countless examples of Israelis and Palestinians reaching out to each other in ways that lay the lines for a wider reconciliation, often prompted by the death of children — like the hundreds of former combatants (Combatants for Peace) and the hundreds of families on both sides (Parents Circle –Families Forum). Or the Palestinian father who donated the organs of his 12-year-old son for use in Israel.

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