Forgiveness: Why Judaism Fails to Understand God
by Rich Deem


The Holocaust

Eva Kor created an international controversy when she forgave Dr. Josef Mengele and the Nazis of killing her family and using her as a human guinea pig at the Auschwitz death camp. When Eva Kor gave a talk at Cedars-Sinai recently, she sparked a huge discussion throughout the medical center. How could she dare forgive the Nazis!

Rich Deem

Forgiveness is a difficult topic for the vast majority of people on planet earth. In general, our first reaction to being wronged is to seek payback. After World War II, a Jewish group, led by Abba Kovner, plotted to poison the water supply of the German people in an attempt to kill 6 million Germans to seek revenge for the Holocaust killing of 6 million Jews. They ended up settling for the poisoning of several thousand SS officers at a prisoner-of-war camp near Leningrad.1 For the vast majority of Jews, the Holocaust was an unforgivable crime. When Holocaust survivor Eva Kor forgave the Nazis of their crimes against her and her family, the majority of other Holocaust survivors were outraged. What gave her the right to forgive the Nazis?

Christianity and forgiveness

Although Eva Kor is not a Christian (in fact, she describes herself as a non-religious Jew), she expresses a Christian viewpoint on forgiveness. However, her reason for offering forgiveness is purely personal (to give her peace), as opposed to improving her relationship with God. Since the Christian is completely forgiven through faith in Jesus, he is expected to forgive others.2 In fact, a person who does not forgive others will not be forgiven by God (Matthew 6:14-15, Mark 11:25). When Peter asked if he should forgive a person 7 times, Jesus told him 7 times 70 (Matthew 18:21-22). Although the answer was a finite number (490 times), the principle implied that forgiveness should be offered indefinitely. In another instance, Jesus said one should forgive another, even if he comes to you seven times in the same day (Luke 17:3-4). Again, the implication was to always forgive the other person.

Judaism and forgiveness

Contrary to the Christian imperative of offering forgiveness to others, there is no such command under Judaism. Although the Jews were constantly asking God to forgive them of their sin against Him,3 such forgiveness was seldom, if ever, offered from the victim to the perpetrator. For the Christian, this would be unthinkable. Jesus told a parable that described the relationship between God's forgiveness of our sin compared to our forgiveness of the sin of others toward us. If you haven't heard the parable, or don't remember it, now is a good time for a refresher:

"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, 'Pay back what you owe.' So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you.' But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, 'You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 'Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?' And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:23-35)

In the parable, the lord represents God and the slaves represent His people. The first slave owed the lord 10,000 talents, which would represent over $10,000,000. Obviously, in terms of first century money, this was a debt that could never be repaid. The vast amount of money represents the sins for which we are accountable to God. In the parable, God forgave all the debt (hence, all the sin). However, the slave turned around to his fellow slave and demanded he pay the $20 debt he owed. Since the slave didn't have the money, he threw him into prison. In other words, the debt of sin we "owe" against others is much less than the amount we owe to God. Even though God forgives us, when we refuse to forgive others, we are acting unrighteously. It is the ultimate chutzpah to expect God to forgive us of all our sins, when we refuse to forgive those who have sinned against us. We think that we deserve mercy, whereas those who sin against us should get justice. However, even the Old Testament says that we are to offer mercy and compassion to others:

What is forgiveness?

The Holocaust survivors who were outraged at Eve Kor seemed to lack a basic understanding of what forgiveness is. It is probably best to describe what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness does not mean that the perpetrator is allowed to escape justice. Those who commit crimes against others must pay for those crimes through the judicial system. In addition, forgiveness does not mean that we forget what happened or say it doesn't matter. The Holocaust happened because the vast majority of "good" people did nothing to oppose evil. Although the words "never again" are a nice slogan, neither the Jews nor the Gentiles learned anything from the Jewish Holocaust, since numerous other holocausts have occurred since that time, while the world sat idly by. It seems that as long as evil isn't happening to us, we don't really care. Indifference to the suffering of others is evil.

Forgiveness is giving up our "right" to personal vengeance. The Bible indicates that God will repay evildoers.4 Those who seek personal vengeance do not really believe that God will act justly, which represents a grievous mistrust of God. The Christian is encouraged to do good to others at all times, even for our enemies:

Conclusion Top of page

People have a great deal of difficulty forgiving others who hurt them. The example given in this article are Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis during the Jewish Holocaust. Most survivors of the Holocaust are still suffering from experiences that happened over 65 years ago, because they refuse to forgive their tormentors. However, unforgiveness is not unique to the Jews. For the Christian, forgiveness is not optional, since God has forgiven us much more than we would ever have to forgive other people. Demanding that God judge others while offering us mercy is the ultimate in hubris and a complete mistrust of God's faithfulness. Do good at all times, even to those who hate us.

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God. (3 John 1:11)

References Top of page

  1. Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust: Attempts a Revenge.
  2. The Christian is to forgive others:
    • "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions." (Matthew 6:14-15)
    • Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus *said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)
    • "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. (Mark 11:25)
    • 'And forgive us our sins, For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.'" (Luke 11:4)
    • "Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him." (Luke 17:3-4)
    • But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree--in order not to say too much--to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. (2 Corinthians 2:5-7)
    • But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, (2 Corinthians 2:10)
  3. The Jews were constantly asking for forgiveness of sin by God:
    • "But now, if You will, forgive their sin--and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!" (Exodus 32:32)
    • Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations." (Exodus 34:6-7)
    • 'He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:20)
    • 'All its fat he shall offer up in smoke on the altar as in the case of the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:26)
    • 'Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat was removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:31)
    • 'Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offerings, and the priest shall offer them up in smoke on the altar, on the offerings by fire to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:35)
    • 'The second he shall then prepare as a burnt offering according to the ordinance. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed, and it will be forgiven him. (Leviticus 5:10)
    • 'So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin which he has committed from one of these, and it will be forgiven him; then the rest shall become the priest's, like the grain offering.'" (Leviticus 5:13)
    • "He shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him. (Leviticus 5:16)
    • "He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his error in which he sinned unintentionally and did not know it, and it will be forgiven him. (Leviticus 5:18)
    • and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt." (Leviticus 6:7)
    • 'The priest shall also make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed will be forgiven him. (Leviticus 19:22)
    • "Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now." (Numbers 14:19)
    • 'Then the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and they will be forgiven; for it was an error, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their error. (Numbers 15:25)
    • 'So all the congregation of the sons of Israel will be forgiven, with the alien who sojourns among them, for it happened to all the people through error. (Numbers 15:26)
    • 'The priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven. (Numbers 15:28)
    • "But if her father should forbid her on the day he hears of it, none of her vows or her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her because her father had forbidden her. (Numbers 30:5)
    • "But if on the day her husband hears of it, he forbids her, then he shall annul her vow which she is under and the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself; and the LORD will forgive her. (Numbers 30:8)
    • "But if her husband indeed annuls them on the day he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning the obligation of herself shall not stand; her husband has annulled them, and the LORD will forgive her. (Numbers 30:12)
    • 'Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, O LORD, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.' And the bloodguiltiness shall be forgiven them. (Deuteronomy 21:8)
    • "The LORD shall never be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and His jealousy will burn against that man, and every curse which is written in this book will rest on him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. (Deuteronomy 29:20)
    • "Please forgive the transgression of your maidservant; for the LORD will certainly make for my lord an enduring house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD, and evil will not be found in you all your days. (1 Samuel 25:28)
    • "Listen to the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place; hear in heaven Your dwelling place; hear and forgive. (1 Kings 8:30)
    • then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your people Israel, and bring them back to the land which You gave to their fathers. (1 Kings 8:34)
    • then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and of Your people Israel, indeed, teach them the good way in which they should walk. And send rain on Your land, which You have given Your people for an inheritance. (1 Kings 8:36)
    • then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive and act and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know, for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men, (1 Kings 8:39)
    • and forgive Your people who have sinned against You and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You, and make them objects of compassion before those who have taken them captive, that they may have compassion on them (1 Kings 8:50)
    • "Listen to the supplications of Your servant and of Your people Israel when they pray toward this place; hear from Your dwelling place, from heaven; hear and forgive. (2 Chronicles 6:21)
    • then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of Your people Israel, and bring them back to the land which You have given to them and to their fathers. (2 Chronicles 6:25)
    • then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and Your people Israel, indeed, teach them the good way in which they should walk. And send rain on Your land which You have given to Your people for an inheritance. (2 Chronicles 6:27)
    • then hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know for You alone know the hearts of the sons of men, (2 Chronicles 6:30)
    • then hear from heaven, from Your dwelling place, their prayer and supplications, and maintain their cause and forgive Your people who have sinned against You. (2 Chronicles 6:39)
    • and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
    • "They refused to listen, And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, Gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; And You did not forsake them. (Nehemiah 9:17)
    • Look upon my affliction and my trouble, And forgive all my sins. (Psalms 25:18)
    • A Psalm of David. A Maskil. How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! (Psalms 32:1)
    • Iniquities prevail against me; As for our transgressions, You forgive them. (Psalms 65:3)
    • Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; And deliver us and forgive our sins for Your name's sake. (Psalms 79:9)
    • For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You. (Psalms 86:5)
    • But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. (Psalms 130:4)
    • He touched my mouth with it and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven." (Isaiah 6:7)
    • Therefore through this Jacob's iniquity will be forgiven; And this will be the full price of the pardoning of his sin: When he makes all the altar stones like pulverized chalk stones; When Asherim and incense altars will not stand. (Isaiah 27:9)
    • And no resident will say, "I am sick"; The people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity. (Isaiah 33:24)
    • "They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." (Jeremiah 31:34)
    • "Perhaps the house of Judah will hear all the calamity which I plan to bring on them, in order that every man will turn from his evil way; then I will forgive their iniquity and their sin." (Jeremiah 36:3)
    • so that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I have forgiven you for all that you have done," the Lord GOD declares. (Ezekiel 16:63)
    • "To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him; (Daniel 9:9)
    • "O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Your own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name." (Daniel 9:19)
    • Then she conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. And the LORD said to him, "Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel, that I would ever forgive them. (Hosea 1:6)
  4. Vengeance belongs to God:
    • 'Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, In due time their foot will slip; For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.' (Deuteronomy 32:35)
    • Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
    • For we know Him who said, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY." And again, "THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE." (Hebrews 10:30)
  5. And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, "Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven." (Matthew 9:2)
    And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." (Mark 2:5)
    Seeing their faith, He said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." (Luke 5:20)
    and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9)
    'But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.' (Acts 26:16-18)
    even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; (Romans 3:22)
    nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
    But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (Galatians 3:22)
  6. And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)

We are what we think.

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Last Modified November 23, 2011


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