Every year before the High Holidays, I get in the mood for the days to come by reading or listening to thoughts about the ritual of atonement and forgiveness both asked and given.
On Akadem, a French Digital campus, I found an inspiring talk by French philosopher Catherine Chalier, author of “Mémoire et Pardon” published in 2018. In this talk, Catherine Chalier begins by reminding us all that obtaining God’s forgiveness is easier than gaining forgiveness from fellow humans. Asking for forgiveness from someone requires us to recognize our wrongdoings humbly but fully, and to honestly measure and comprehend what we have done. Wrongdoings have direct consequences, but they also cause collateral damage, what she calls the residual damages.
Those are often unknown to the offender but may very well expand and overflow, thus producing suffering for other people.
C. Chalier adds that if the victim is obliged to forgive upon request, and if everything should be forgiven, the responsibility and the initiative could then shift to the victim. She declares that this often creates a specious equivalence between victims and perpetrators that makes any analysis very difficult, even impossible. Yet that symmetry is often presented as reasonable because both sides may now seem to bear some responsibility. We all can easily perceive the danger of such a faux symmetry, and yet we know that it is often commonplace.
What is the remedy? She invokes the well-known Jewish term “tikkun” to heal or to repair.
But how do we achieve that? Healing can be attained through the art of admonition and reprimand, in Hebrew “tohahah”. In order not to have feelings of animosity or hatred towards the other, one must be able to voice and to accept reproaches. When both parties are convinced that they possess the absolute truth, they are locked into a tragic situation that brings about endless suffering to both sides and that feeds the existing mutual aversion. Yet it is not easy to admit that one may not be entirely right.
Here Catherine Chalier suggests a method that she derives from the Bible: “You shall not despise the Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land” (Deuteronomy 23.7). The Hebrews are admonished not to hate the Egyptians but rather to remember that at first they were welcomed in that land.
One must remember the good that existed in the past and stay connected to that good even if that memory is tenuous.
More than my personal relationships, what comes to my mind when I think of this process of reconciliation is Israel and the current existential battle for its soul and for its future between opponents and supporters of the judicial reforms.
The conflict and the divisions are immense. The collateral damage is incommensurable in many areas: security, economy, equal rights for all minorities, the standing of this young nation, its relationship with the Jewish diaspora, and the future of Jewish existence in Israel and in the world. That divide deepens by the day as the judicial reform advances, as opposition to it swells, and as violence towards many segments of society gains traction, strengthened by the unspeakable words of hatred spoken by some politicians.
Will Israeli society find ways to come together again? There is no symmetry between the two opposing camps in this case, but nothing will be achieved by remaining adamantly convinced that one detains the absolute truth and the other is completely in the wrong.
One can only hope that families, neighbors, people from all strands of Israeli society will remember that they still share values and belong to the same people and the same nation. This sense of belonging should be stronger than what rips them and us apart.
The violent discourse of detestation has swelled, and gratuitous hatred is very present in many aspects of society. This is demonstrated daily by such incidents as forcing women to the back of the bus, spitting on Christians and desecrating their holy sites, and the odious abuse and extreme brutality of some settlers towards Palestinians to name a number of growing episodes of maltreatment in no particular order.
One can only hope that the High Holidays, their powerful liturgies and rituals of introspection and atonement will bring people to their senses.
For us who are committed to dialogue between Christians and Jews, these are particularly difficult times. Jewish communities and their leaders are torn between their traditional perception of Israel, the narratives they hold true about the ethics and the moral standing of their religion, and the disturbing reality that now confronts us. For many it is difficult to relinquish these traditional perspectives and support the fight for democracy alongside the myriads of Israelis who stand up to their government.
Yet that fight for democracy needs all the support it can get.
Christians have generally remained remarkably silent. Perhaps they see the current situation as an internal political Israeli affair in which they have no say.
The national member organizations of the ICCJ have a role to play here: it is one of informing the public conversation in their region about what is at stake while also explaining that by its nature democracy is as vital as it is vulnerable. Israel is one among many countries where populism and authoritarianism are rising and where the balance between the independent judicial system and political or executive power is at risk. I believe we must inform ourselves and others and not remain on the fence in this widespread existential struggle.
Obviously, the views expressed here are my personal ones, but I am strongly committed to them.
May the High Holidays be celebrated to the full extent of their humanistic potential and to the depths of their profound meaning so that they may renew our hope and bring us new energy to build a better future.
With every good wish,