Christians and Jews: Faith and forgiveness
By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF
Many bible scholars, both Jewish and Christian, make the obvious point that Christianity stresses forgiveness while Judaism gives it a glance, says it’s a nice thing, but then bounces back to justice, which may include punishment for evil doers, not forgiveness. Yom Kippur brings this difference to the forefront. After all, Jesus brought atonement for mankind’s original sin. Christianity’s ore is the sacrifice of Jesus. Even at the crucifixion time we hear this anthem.
A criminal on the crucifix next to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingly power”. The reply? “Truly I say to you today you will be with me in paradise”. Why? Because he acknowledged Jesus’s transcendental power. This is not justice, but mercy – the reward of faith – akin to the “turn your cheek” philosophy. Faith is the key to the portals of mercy.
Jesus asks not for the brigand’s repentance. The criminal’s acknowledgement of his divinity is sufficient – a ticket to Heaven. A perfect example of the reward of faith. The hub of Christianity.
Judaism, it must be said, is made of sterner stuff. Yes, we have Yom Kippur, featuring forgiveness, but it’s a single event. Dozens of events in our Tanach speak of punishment. It must be said that our G-d is a tougher judge. Faith be damned. Your misdeeds will be examined. And you are rewarded or punished based on that accounting. But he tells us in words as clear as the moon on a cloudless night that there is a judgment regardless of your faith.
Even a soul full of faithful observance doesn’t absolve you if you cheated your neighbor. Your only hope is repentance and repair of your sin. Maybe. And how strange is it that we who accent justice – not mercy – speak rarely, if ever, of Hell as the punishment. Odd. You would think the harsher stance of Judaism toward the sinner would accent specifically the horrors of Hell and his punishment. But not so.
But that’s not to say there’s no forgiveness in Judaism. The Rabbis tell us that among other uses, the Bible teaches by example. And our Tanach does contain many examples of forgiveness. Consider Jacob, who with the connivance of Rebecca cheats Esau out of his inheritance – the Bernie Madoff of his time. And the rabbinic commentary ties itself in knots to absolve him. But there’s no word except fraud to characterize his behavior. In a way, Jacob is punished by his conscience.
The deed must weigh heavily on him considering his lifelong fear of his crude, simple-minded brother. But when they meet at Peniel, Jacob, fearing the vengeance of the brother that he cheated, bows seven times. “But Easu ran to meet him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept.” Esau, it turns out, is a real mensch. He even initially refuses the gifts that Jacob offered to appease him. A vivid picture of forgiveness. But still Esau, in biblical commentary, gets a bad press. Wonder why? Probably because he married the daughter of Ishmael and became the progenitor of the Edomites, a tribe that fought the Israelites as they settled in Canaan.
And consider the sons of Jacob – an unruly bunch who sell their brother like he’s a used car. Years later when they reconnect, Joseph overflows with forgiveness. There is no malice, no hatred in him. After a little mischief he welcomes them to his bosom. Then there’s David, whom we have made a hero because he was a successful empire builder, but who as a man was not a golden character. Naturally, he was a politician, but when it comes to the issue of sexual, political activities he is drastically flawed. Yet G-d tells us in the Tanach he is beloved. How strange.
It seems that even G-d, himself, has his favorites, transcending behavior – unrelated to goodness. My point is that we – Jews, the ex Israelites – show the same favoritism. After all, the Lord blessed David even though his sins were many. David, wife stealer – the murderer of Uriah – a passage we all know. All for a “Mrs. Israel” named Bathsheba.
His final act before dying is to whisper to Solomon; don’t forget to knock off Shemei, “who cursed me with a grievous curse”. David goes on to say, I swore to God no harm would come to him while I lived. But when I die “you shall bring his head down with blood down to the grave”. David is not a lovable character. This is not the total catalogue of David’s bloody blunders. Yet G-d loves him – as is obvious in many parshas.
I recite these examples to show that pardon, reconciliation play a role in our Tanach, but are far from the seminal theme they play in the New Testament. It is a major difference in the two testaments. Our G-d is a G-d of justice, not only mercy. But we pray for His mercy on the High Holidays.