In part three of our Elul learning series, I’ll share Prof. Nussbaum’s critique of the usual styles, as I’ll call them, of forgiveness.

Nussbaum describes these as utilizing “transactional-forgiveness.” And she rejects them for what she sees as their moral shortcomings.

What Is Transactional Forgiveness?

First, she describes what the transactional model of forgiveness looks like, as set out by Charles Griswold in Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (Anger And Forgiveness, 57). The injured party moderates her anger and stops looking for revenge. This comes in response to the guilty party’s fulfillment of six conditions:

  1. He acknowledges that he was responsible for the wrong.
  2. He acknowledges that his deeds were wrong and he was wrong in doing them. In other words, he repudiates both.
  3. He expresses regret to the person he hurt for having hurt her through this particular action.
  4. He commits to change: to becoming a person who doesn’t do this anymore. He shows this commitment in both words and deeds.
  5. He demonstrates an understanding, from her perspective, of the damage that he did.
  6. He offers a narrative account of how he came to do this particular wrong, how that action doesn’t represent all of who he is, and how he is becoming a better person.

This transactional model echoes strongly elements of t’shuva as described in the Talmud and later Jewish codes, e.g., that of Maimonides. As a transactional model, this type of forgiveness is conditional – it depends on the fulfillment of these six conditions (or others) in order for the wrongdoer to earn forgiveness from the aggrieved. Nussbaum – who converted from Christianity to Judaism as an adult (see this link for an interesting account) – writes that such a model is also the dominant one in Church life today.

Jewish T’shuva & Transactional Forgiveness

In Jewish tradition, as set out in the Talmud and by Maimonides, among others, the focus is on t’shuva – what is usually translated as repentance – and not on forgiveness. But the aim of t’shuva is to earn forgiveness, either from God or from the person(s) we’ve injured or both.

Many of the elements identified by the Talmud and Maimonides are similar to, or the same as, the list above. Nussbaum also notes other elements. She writes that “extremely helpful in this process is a general attitude of mind that is ‘submissive, humble, and meek.’” (62) She observes, too, that since every sin against a person is also a sin against God, God is involved in every act of t’shuva. Nussbaum describes this dimension not only as humility but as self-abasement and self-injury.

Nussbaum highlights that Maimonides calls not only for appropriate compensation or restitution, but for a direct approach to the person injured, a public confession of fault, and an expression of regret and a commitment not to repeat this sort of thing. i.e., to change the course of one’s life in the area. Once this is done, Jewish tradition requires the injured party to forgive the person who has harmed her.

Her exploration of the Jewish sense of forgiveness also extends much further than I can consider in this context – into the larger picture of obedience to a system of commandments which provides the frame, or need, for t’shuva in the first place.

So What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Where does this type of transactional forgiveness fall short?

Nussbaum identifies different problems; I’ll identify two here. First, the kind of worry, self-abasement and self-humbling that ought occur on the part of the wrongdoer violates Nussbaum’s sense of what human dignity ought to be required to withstand. In other words, even someone who has done wrong is deserving of human dignity. Therefore, any system established to propitiate forgiveness ought to maintain the wrongdoer’s dignity despite the fact that he has done wrong and harm to another person.

Another shortcoming is that since there is a clearly articulated means for reaching reconciliation between the two people, and since this is within the larger framework of a carefully articulated system of behavior, “there is also no room for generosity or spontaneity: forgiveness is a requirement of religious law and should not be freely given.” (65) Put differently, her forgiveness might be less than authentically given – given with less than full integrity – because she is required to do so and not because her heart has so prompted her.

Reconciliation & Human Dignity

What Nussbaum wants to see, then, in a method of reconciliation between offender and victim is one that preserves – if not enhances – the dignity of the victim while also preserving – if not enhancing – the dignity of the offender.

I must admit that when I read her description and critique of t’shuva, it seems almost a caricature. Put differently, while I can imagine some people behaving in the extreme ways that she describes – and you’d have to read more of the chapter to understand this better – I can more easily imagine the process working in such a way that the dignity of the wrongdoer is better preserved and that a reconciliation based on mutual respect is achieved.

At the same time, I believe that Prof. Nussbaum also has something of great value to offer us in thinking about how we, when we are hurt or wronged, might offer forgiveness. More about that . . . in next week’s post.

An Additional Note: We’ll discuss this comparison between the Jewish transactional method and Prof. Nussbaum’s ideal of “unconditional forgiveness” when we look at them side-by-side this Saturday evening at our Dessert-Havdalah-Selichot gathering. I hope you’ll be there both to learn and to share your wisdom with others. Don’t forget to sign up now.