I am on a personal journey, a journey of forgiveness. Of course I know that when I can’t forgive someone, I am really hurting myself and not them. I am intellectually aware of that, but emotionally, isn’t it so hard to let go? And let me just be explicit here – this is usually the point where I would bring an example to make this real to all of you listening here. But I can’t do that. It’s too personal, too raw, too painful. And I imagine it’s probably the same with all of you. When we think about forgiveness, about the pain caused to us by the people who we love – it’s really, really hard to even voice that pain out loud.
But I want to “solve” it, so to speak. I want to feel okay. So, on this journey, I’ve been reading and listening to everything I can on the topic of forgiveness.
I came across three different buckets for forgiveness and maybe you can relate to this:
The first is, forgiveness of myself. Sometimes, I don’t find myself living up to expectations. Sometimes I make poor choices, poor moral choices – and I can’t get over that.
The second is, forgiveness of the other: A spouse is not faithful, a friend who falsely accuses you of something, a family member who rejected you, exactly when you needed their support.
And the third is forgiveness between God and humankind: Often, we think about God forgiving us, or hoping God forgives us. But, the reverse is also prominent: People who went through horrible ordeals, like a sickly child, or someone who suffered through cancer, or went through the Holocaust. This person can resent God.
Like many of you, I think about this stuff all day long. It keeps me up at night sometimes. But swirling these things around in my head isn’t enough. I needed to talk this out. And with that, let me tell you about Moshe Halbertal, and why he was the perfect person to speak about this with.
Moshe Halbertal is a special man. He’s an Israeli philosopher, one of the top Israeli philosophers, who is also a professor at both Hebrew University and the law school at NYU. I took a one-week seminar with him years ago, and it was one of the more transformative weeks of my life – I know, I know, I really know how to have a good time.
Moshe Halbertal is known for many things, and I think honestly, I lied before. If I’m being real, yes, he’s the perfect person to speak about forgiveness, but I could have literally have spoken to him about anything under the sun, and I would be happy. I was so grateful to pick his brain about something so important. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I bring you, Moshe Halbertal.
Noam: Dr. Halbertal, or as you told me to call you before the show, Moshe. Welcome to The Power Of. Thank you so much for joining the show.
Moshe: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Noam: I must say, when you taught me in 2014 at The Tikvah Fund, I still remember that as perhaps the greatest week of learning that I’ve done in my life. And I turned back to the ideas that we learned together that entire week, eight years later, seven and a half years later. So I want to start by saying thank you so much for teaching me so much without even you necessarily even knowing it.
Moshe: Thank you. Thank you. That’s wonderful.
Noam: So when we sent out 10 different topics for you to potentially speak about with us, you chose forgiveness. Why did you choose this topic to be the topic that you wanted to speak with me about?
Moshe: I think because it’s humanly so crucial. Both on a personal level and on a collective level. The possibility to forgive… creating conditions in which forgiveness is possible. And also it’s philosophically and religiously puzzling, or, I would say, it needs exploration. It needs understanding. What is it? How is it possible? And I think that combination drew me into the subject.
Noam: The combination is really something else, There’s so many different lenses by which we could understand forgiveness. So from a theoretical standpoint, what would you say you would articulate as your theory of forgiveness. What are a couple models we could look at?
Moshe: Well, forgiveness is not one and the same thing, right, it could be different things. On the minimal level is letting go of the past. So I have a claim against someone for harm that someone did to me or to another person. And I decide not to claim it. I decide to let go of the past. I decide not to be imprisoned in my need for retribution, revenge, compensation. I want to let go. Among other things, what I want to do is free myself of the grip of the person who’s harmed me.
Now this is not oriented towards that person. It doesn’t need either that person’s repentance, change of heart, etc. It’s not about meeting that person or reconciling that with that person. It’s about actually not wanting to have anything to do with him anymore, including demanding what I deserve from him. So that’s one level. Let’s call it forgiveness as autarchy… autarchy in the sense of becoming free, becoming not possessed by the past, not possessed by the power of the other.
Now I want to talk about forgiveness as empowerment, which is a completely different model, and very interesting. And you see it in… if we take for example, the South African experience of the committee of Truth and Reconciliation, where victims of the apartheid confronted their criminals or criminals of the apartheid… the ones who harmed them. And there was a process there, which is fascinating. When you think about that, what happened there? The first thing is that the harming party comes to the harmed party and said, look, I’ve harmed you. I would call it sharing in description and in evaluation, because part of the pain of being harmed sometimes is being isolated in your harm through an ongoing environment of denial.
Let’s take the Armenian genocide where it’s ongoingly denied by the present Turkish official narrative. So the first thing is kind of sharing in description and evaluation. It’s, you might say, redeeming the harmed party from the isolation and in some ways the madness of being denied and being alone with the pain.
Noam: I just want to pause you on that. Can you explain that one a little bit more, because that one really resonates, what you just described, this notion of the denial of one’s pain. Could you explain a little bit more what that has to do with forgiveness? Because the Armenian genocide… What you’re saying is there are two offenses have been generated against the Armenians. One is the genocide and the second is the denial of the genocide.
Moshe: Right, this is an enormous humanitarian pain, but even on a personal level, right, someone harms you and that someone has never acknowledged the harm that he did to you. And you feel absolutely, isolated almost to a level of madness, because that harm has no echo in the world. And in particular, no echo in the world of the harming person. And that moment in which the harming party comes and says, I’ve done so and so. I’ve harmed you. It’s affirming. And you might say redeeming the harmed party from the madness of denial, the pain of denial, the pain in which nothing resonates out there as if I’m alone with it.
And then there is something fascinating that happens, which is, reversal of power relationship. Where the harming party comes to the person who is harmed and says, my fate is in your hands. this is why I call this model of forgiveness, not autarchy, but empowerment. Because in some ways, in many harms, there is a sense of humiliation, domination.
The third element is let’s call it forgiveness as reconciliation, which is, and I think it happens many times, it’s about bringing a relationship back to what they were. And it goes through different ways. One of them is, I’ve lied to you, but I’m not a liar. And by repenting and asking forgiveness, I show that that doesn’t constitute my identity. You can relate to me not through that action. We can come back to be with one another in friendship or other forms of intimacy or different forms and kinds of relationship, because the action I’ve done to you, doesn’t define who I am. And that’s a very powerful moment, right, when forgiveness means distancing the action for the agent.
There is also another thing you might say in forgiveness and reconciliation, where you realize sometimes you are able to forgive and you find yourself sharing in the weakness and the temptation of the other person who’s harmed you, as if you share the world. It’s a kind of a mature understanding. You say, well, I can see how that can happen to people, right. I can see how such error, how such failure can happen, right? There is a way in which I can understand the given in my own world, that helps me forgive.
Now I would say one interesting thing is that we always have to think about the unforgivable. And the unforgivable is a moment in which I cannot distinguish between the one who acted and the action. You cannot say where that person murdered, in cold blood, someone, but he’s not a murderer. That person raped someone, but is not a rapist. Because the action is so horrible that if there would’ve been any distance between the agent and the action, it wouldn’t have been performed. That’s I would say what we call the condition of the monster, of the monstrosity.
Noam: I have a question on that, because that statement feels quite subjective as to what that condition of the monstrosity, of what the monster looks like. Let’s say, a university student who plagiarizes, would you not say that the plagiarizer plagiarized, the murderer murdered, the spouse who committed adultery is an adulterer, how do you distinguish between what is the monstrosity? What is the monster?
Moshe: That’s a very good question. I would say the gravity of the offense is such that if it doesn’t define who the agent is, it wouldn’t have happened. If there would’ve been a distance between the action and the actor and the agent, the gravity of the action would be such that the action wouldn’t have occurred. I mean, clearly we’ll have border cases we’re going to debate or reflect or think about, etc. But in these cases, what you need is not that the person will show that, well, what happened didn’t define him, but that there is a sense that he’s a new self… that he has gone for real conversion. So what we are talking about here is what I would call, let’s say, forgiveness as reconciliation. And then that brings about the question of the unforgivable.
Fourth element, which is in some ways, particularly strong in Christian conceptions of forgiveness, but religious as well, which is forgiveness as grace, where forgiveness is not conditioned on repentance, but it actually is the thing that causes repentance. By forgiving you ahead of time out of grace, I, in some ways, undermine your proclivity, your tendency to fight back. I’ve shown you another mode of existence. It’s the fantasy of the martyr, is the conversion of the execution. So, through that act of genuine humanness of forgiveness, I transform the person rather than condition my forgiveness on the transformation of that person.
Noam: So that one is not dependent on someone doing teshuvah, someone doing repentance. That one is totally independent of the person saying I want to improve my behavior in one way or the other. It’s irrelevant.
Moshe: Right, but, unlike the first idea, it aims at the other, the first category of autarchy, of letting go of the cost. Doesn’t aim at transforming the other. This one aims at transforming the other, but as a result of the act of forgiveness, as an outcome of forgiveness. So what we have, if we come back to the initial question, what we see is that how forgiveness as a human mode of relationship as an experiential legal conceptual category has different coloring to it. And by the way, it also will mean something different in terms of our relationship after forgiveness, prior to forgiveness, why forgiving, and the way in which we structure forgiveness. And the way it’s done.
Noam: So let’s go to the Bible, let’s go to the Torah itself. The story that is the archetype of forgiveness potentially is one in which, or the way I see it, is one in which the protagonists may not have even forgiven in the first place. And that’s the story of Joseph and his brothers and your description of the monstrosity of the monster of a sin. This brother was taken by the other brothers, thrown into the pit. Depending on different commentaries who sold him, whether it is the Midianites who sold him, whether or not it was the brothers who sold him, whatever it is, they sell him to Egypt. They want to kill him or sell him to Egypt.
And at the end of the day, we tell this story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. So, two questions that I have for you here is one, is, would this not fit into the category of unforgivable crime of the monstrosity of it? And the second question that I have for you is did Joseph forgive his brothers in the first place? Or did he not?
Moshe: It’s interesting because it’s such a, clearly a powerful narrative and a powerful question. So if we look at Joseph, the way Joseph engages with his brothers, they come to Egypt and he doesn’t reveal himself to them. And he begins to blame them for spying, for this. And he orchestrates the events in such a way that they will have to bring his brother, Benjamin, back with them, though, Jacob was immensely pained by that. He said, I’ve lost already one. And then Judah vouches for him and says, I’ll guarantee.
Noam: Put it on me. I got this.
Moshe: And then Joseph basically puts them in the same situation with Benjamin, as with him. Being Rachel’s son, being the beloved mothers’ son, being a potential source of jealousy and competition. And he realized that they fight for Benjamin. Vayigash eilav Yehuda-
Noam: That Judah approached him.
Moshe: And that’s where he realized these are different brothers and that’s where reconciliation happens. It’s not like… if they would’ve said, look, we are really sorry, we have done that to you. But that’s not who we are. It happened… let’s go back. It’s not going to be accepted in a genuine way. The cleverness of the plot is that… it’s interesting. I think Joseph wants to reconcile with them in a serious way.
Noam: He wants it.
Moshe: Yeah. He wants it. He misses them in some way… he also, I think, searches for a way to come back to the father, but he cleverly puts them in some place similar to where he was with them, through Benjamin, and only then he can reveal himself to them and reconcile with them. It’s actually a very powerful story of the possibility of forgiveness predicated upon real transformation of the agents of harm.
Noam: It’s a separation of the agent from the action like you were speaking about earlier with forgiveness, because now they’re demonstrating-
Moshe: I would say even stronger that they have changed dramatically of who they are. They say, we’re guilty.
Noam: We’re guilty. We own it.
Moshe: Yeah. We own it. We are different. We were horrible at the time. So the most powerful Biblical narratives ever written, just in terms of the depth of the drama.
Noam: Yeah. It really speaks to me. Have you heard of Lucy Allais? She is a philosopher and she speaks a lot about forgiveness and this is one of the things that she has spoken about is that there is a really important distinction between forgiveness and excusing or justifying or accepting.
Moshe: Yeah. It’s a beautiful formulation. Yeah.
Noam: How do you get there? How do you do that? Who’s able to do that?
Moshe: So I would say, one thing is you realize that that resentment is actually poisoning you. There is a way in which resentment destroys you from within.
Noam: How so? What does it do?
Moshe: Because it gives immense power, ongoing power, to the one who harmed you. It defines you. And in the kind of autarchic tradition, you want to free yourself from the hold of resentment. Resentment is a poison. It doesn’t allow you future looking perspective. That’s one way. The other way is in some deep ways, it’s possible, again, if we’re talking about actions of the other person, when the other person, first of all, affirms, sincerely affirms the harm that was done to you by him, and places his fate in your hands. And in that moment, you are capable to transcend through this interaction to transcend that resentment.
Noam: But does forgiveness depend on the other person? I understand the four different categories, but do you, Moshe Halbertal, think that forgiveness depends on the other person, either changing their behavior, groveling and saying I’m so sorry. Or is it independent of that? Or are you going to say it depends on the situation?
Moshe: I would say it depends on what type of forgiveness we’re talking about. If I would say the following, if it’s about restoring relationship to what they were before, it depends on another person’s-
Noam: It depends on the other person’s response. Okay. Fine. Let’s say you want to forgive someone, but you don’t want to necessarily get back into a relationship with that person.
Moshe: Yeah. You just want to let go. You say, look, I’m so not wanting to pursue this. I don’t want to see that person in court either. So I would say the following, if the structure of forgiveness is about restoring relationship to what they were, or I would say seeking from the other, a relief… a genuine relief of your burden of guilt. Amending in a genuine way, what you have done. And that means also compensation, change.
Noam: You have to see those things.
Moshe: You have to see those things.
Noam: Why is it so hard for people to apologize? Are you good at apologizing? Are you good at apologizing?
Moshe: Look, I think… I wish. I wish. Everything we talk to ourselves in many ways and it’s not confessional, but if it’s genuine, it is about ourselves. Why is it hard to apologize? Many times there’s so much self deception.
Noam: Say more about that. What is the self-deception? Why is there so much self-deception?
Moshe: Because it’s so hard to admit that you’ve done wrong.
Noam: Why is it so hard to admit that we’ve done wrong? If we all agree that we’re imperfect beings, why it so hard to admit-
Moshe: Because see, first of all, our self image, but also the capacity to confront in ourselves, the fact that we are a source of pain to another person.
Noam: Ah, yeah. That’s difficult.
Moshe: It’s very difficult. So that’s one thing… to overcome that self denial, self deception that… just this act, this powerful act of saying Ashamti.
Noam: Yeah. I messed up.
Moshe: Not in general, not I am imperfect. That’s an easy thing in some ways to say. But the other thing I think is very difficult with an apology is really the fear of the other person’s response. So the reluctance of the other person’s response.
Noam: The rejection, perhaps of the apology. I agree. I think about a moment in my own life. I used to be the principal of a high school, and admission season was very difficult, because you had a number of students coming from across the city and you have to choose who’s going to be in the class and who’s not. And there was one student, there was an issue with the parents, and I did not deal with it well. I look back at that and I say, chatati, I made a mistake. The way I dealt the situation, the way I spoke to the parents was not good.
A year plus later I reached out and I met with one of the parents and I said, I feel terribly about the way I treated you in the interview process. There were things I said that I should not have said. And I feel pretty gross about that. So the parent who I was speaking to, looked at me and said I deeply appreciate this. It means a lot to me. And I forgive you. And then I said, can I speak to your spouse about it? And the person said, I will speak to my spouse, but let’s not get your hopes up. The spouse then reached out to me and said, I don’t want to speak to you about it and I… that was a difficult moment for me because there is a pain that when I come to say, I’m sorry, and the person says, no, that’s really difficult.
And I would even ask the question from a Jewish perspective about whether or not we have the obligation to forgive. I mean, Maimonides writes, in his Hilchot Teshuva, Laws of Repentance, that it’s forbidden for a person to be ill natured and unforgiving. He must easily be appeased and hard to anger. That’s from the idea of kashe lichos and noach lrtzot, difficult to anger and easy to appease, we want to be imitating God. And when someone asks for pardon, we should grant them wholeheartedly and soulfully. But the reason we don’t want to apologize often is because I think we all have the fear of rejection.
I spoke to my wife before this podcast. I said, listen, I’m doing a podcast with Professor Halbertal on forgiveness. She said, what are you going to speak about? I said, us? I don’t know. And she pointed out, I said, why do you think it’s hard to say sorry? What’s your take on that? And she said, because when I’m doing an action, I’m conscious of the action that I’m doing, and I’m not doing it accidentally, I’m making an active decision to engage in a behavior that I’m now going to retroactively say, I’m sorry for it, but that’s confusing because I willfully did that. So saying, sorry, becomes very difficult.
Moshe: Here’s maybe another line, which is very interesting. It comes from your wife’s comment, which is that for certain people it’s difficult to ask forgiveness because it seems like asking forgiveness is too easy.
Noam: Wait. Say more. Say, why is it too easy? Because you’re just merely saying words?
Moshe: Yeah. It’s just forgiveness. Forgive me. I’m sorry. What does that mean? And in order to be genuine, there should be a commitment behind it. For example, not to repeat the action, to compensate for the deed you have done, to take full responsibility of the results of what you have done. And many times some people are reluctant because of reasons of authenticity to apologize because they know the emptiness of the act. They know deep there when they do full self scrutiny, either that they’re not clear that they’re not going to repeat it in similar circumstances, but also they’re not fully owning what they’ve done. And it’s even becoming more difficult when you know that there is a normative system that puts the expectation on the other to forgive, which is a very powerful idea.
Noam: That’s again, the power moment.
Moshe: Right. But I would say, if we take the discussion to somewhere else completely and-
Noam: Let’s go there.
Moshe: And I’m thinking a lot about atonement… kapara, slicha, in the criminal system. When you put someone to jail, when you punish him, there’s a huge ritual of putting him in jail. He goes through trial, he goes through this, through that. Exit, there’s no ritual. Usually you see in the movies, he comes up with a certain type of a small bag.
Noam: I’m thinking of Shawshank Redemption right now. Have you seen Shawshank Redemption?
Noam: So that’s what I’m thinking of when he gets out of the prison and just like now what?
Moshe: And I thought if we were a genuinely good society, the criminal should have been brought to the court. And the court said to him, achinu atah, you are a brother. You atoned. And there is a beautiful mishna that says, your brother would’ve been beaten or smitten before you, and the language of brother since he’s punished, is your brother. And also, there is a very powerful idea. And here I want to… we talk about another element of the importance of forgiveness. There is a prohibition in reminding a repentant person of his past. You’re not allowed to say to a ba’al tshuva, to someone who repented, remember what you have done.
Noam: Remember what you used to do. Exactly. Remember who you were.
Moshe: As if to protect him from his past inclinations, right? That’s important. But what I really… what you really want to do is to lock him and not to enable change. And when we think about repentance and forgiveness, what we really think about is that we are not in prisons, imprisoned by our past. That the future is not defined by the past. It’s a powerful idea.
Noam: Super powerful.
Moshe: And I think in terms of the idea of criminal registration, that your past crime is kind of registered, as if you are branded. And there you are, that’s it. No way in every job application everywhere, it will be there.
Noam: Forever. It follows you.
Moshe: You never start from a clean slate. That’s a world of punishment that doesn’t have the concept of atonement. Doesn’t have any concept of closure.
Noam: That’s awesome. I love the societal idea, but can you take that societal idea and make it true individually as well? Meaning in our own personal relationships, we do that exact same thing. Don’t we essentially brand, once we do something terrible, aren’t we branded?
Noam: But, you would agree or maybe you wouldn’t agree, but I assume you would agree that… let’s take the most, from a Jewish perspective, the most severe of crimes. Nazism. I’m sure I could find a quote from Ellie Weisel about I can’t possibly forgive that. I can’t… I’m asked occasionally, do you forgive? Who am I forgive? No, I cannot forgive with regard to the Shoa, with regard to the genocide against the Jews and other people. Do we talk about the meanness of the victim in that instance?
Moshe: Sure. No, we talking clearly this system within the category of the unforgiven-
Noam: That’s unforgivable. Okay.
Moshe: Who we are to forgive because we are not the… the victims are no more there because we talk in the name of the victims and the perpetrators. But if we talk about human relationships-
Noam: Just generally friend to friend.
Moshe: Friend to friend… the stubbornness of the unforgiving. That’s the idea to be… why is it that we have to be kasheh lichos v’noach l’rtzot, what’s the importance of that? If we reflect on that.
Noam: Yeah. What is it?
Moshe: And there are many things. One is that you allow the other person to change. And the other thing is you allow yourself to change.
Noam: By not giving someone reason to change, we are perpetuating their lack of change.
Moshe: Right. And I think when you see it in the criminal justice system, you have punished the person, but there’s no closure. And that’s why I would say, bring the criminal back to the court.
Noam: Why don’t we do that? Is that is the reason we don’t do that, I mean, for financial reasons, because we don’t have moral philosophers leading the system?
Moshe: I would say, it’s a lack of human generosity. It’s a lack of human understanding. And it’s the transactional idea of punishment. But punishment is deeply relational as well.
Noam: Well, Professor Dr. Moshe Halbertal, thank you so much for joining the show and for really giving us an incredible amount to think about. I’m going to be thinking about this for a long, long time. Took a ton of notes as you were speaking. Thank you so much.
Moshe: Thank you very much, Noam. It was a pleasure.
There is nothing, I mean nothing, like talking to Moshe Halbertal. The man is incredible. Even relistening to this, I had to keep stopping the audio to scribble notes to myself, about how to be a better person, how to create a better society, how to have better relationships. Incredible.
And I want to share this reflection about my conversation with Moshe. It’s so so easy for us to think about how I can forgive others for their behavior towards me. But you know what’s a million times harder? Thinking about how I am that perpetrator, just as often as I am the victim. There are times where I have rejected the people I love the most. I have betrayed people who needed me.
I want to end with the thoughts of an incredible person, psychologist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger, the author of The Choice: Embrace the Possible. Read that book! If there’s anyone who would be justified in never forgiving, it would be her. But this is what she said: “I don’t have any godly powers to forgive anyone for anything. I have the power to choose, to acknowledge that revenge is a very temporary feeling… The way I see forgiveness [is that]…I can assign the shame and guilt to the perpetrator and to begin to forgive myself that I survived. So forgiveness is truly a gift that I give to myself that I don’t carry the Nazis with me, that I don’t live in the past.”
Dr. Eger forgave the Nazis, not for their sake, but for hers. So that’s what I’ll walk away with here.
Let’s forgive others. Not necessarily because they deserve it, but because we deserve it.