With this post our Elul learning comes to a close. In this last post I’ll share Prof. Nussbaum’s constructive ideas. Having demonstrated the problems inherent in anger and transactional forgiveness, she offers two better alternatives. The first is Unconditional Forgiveness; the second is Unconditional Love.

For this last post, it’s helpful to keep in mind a few things about Prof. Nussbaum’s commitments and aims.

Nussbaum’s Goals

First, that Prof. Nussbaum’s primary goals in her thinking about anger and forgiveness are moral: that we choose methods of forgiveness that will preserve and enhance our own dignity, to be sure, but also the dignity of the person who has harmed us, be it partner or child, friend or colleague, thief or murderer; that we be forward-looking – looking towards a better future rather than dwelling on the past; and that the result of our choice be a better human community, measured, in part, by the dignity which it affords each and all of its members.

Second, Prof. Nussbaum’s working assumption is that reason should triumph over emotion, rational choice over irrational response. That is an especially important idea today, in a culture in which emotions are prized over ideas, right and wrong are described as relative to the individual, and anger fills our airwaves and our conversations.

Unconditional Forgiveness

Nussbuam’s first constructive contribution is the notion of Unconditional Forgiveness – that our acceptance and forgiveness of someone who has wronged us is given by us unconditionally, i.e., without apology, restitution, or any of the other things that typically constitute our understanding of repentance and  forgiveness. While both mainstreams – Church and Judaism, as she describes them – are primarily predicated on a conditional, or transactional forgiveness, both also possess traditions of unconditional forgiveness. In describing the Hebrew Bible, then, she writes that {it} “already contains some instances of unconditional forgiveness, forgiveness that rains down on a penitent, without requiring an antecedent confession and act of contrition.” (75)

We all, I think, have more-or-less frequent experience with this. Between spouses or partners, parents and children, friends or colleagues, hurtful things are not infrequent and mistakes are made frequently. How many times do we require the person who hurt us to render a full apology, with all of the steps described earlier? Or, to the contrary, how often do we just say to ourselves, “Ah, it really wasn’t that important. I’m not even going to tell her. I’ll just forgive her”?

Nussbaum then delineates several weaknesses with Unconditional Forgiveness (UF).

  • If UF is the waiving of anger towards the person, perhaps we shouldn’t have been angry in the first place. Perhaps we need to reduce the frequency and intensity of our angry responses.
  • UF also “remains backward-looking and not Transitional. It says nothing about constructing a productive future.” (76)
  • UF can, unfortunately, channel our desire for payback/revenge. It might provide us “the moral high ground in a superior and condescending way” (76-7) or we might use it to inflict moral humiliation on the person we purportedly are forgiving. In other words, our “magnanimous” forgiveness is used to reaffirm our “betterness” than the other person – our moral superiority – and as revenge: “Look at how much better a person I am than you.”

Sometimes, however, Unconditional Forgiveness rises near the level of ideal. The example she cites concerns the surviving members of the Charleston, SC, black church attacked by Dylann Roof. He confessed and was unrepentant.  However, the survivors “did not express any vindictiveness or payback wish. Nor did they express anger . . . But universally, while expressing profound grief, they offered Roof forgiveness, wished for God’s mercy, and insisted that love is stronger than hate.” (77-8)

Which leads us, finally, to Nussbaum’s moral ideal: Unconditional Love.

Unconditional Love

Those of us who have had good fortune know Unconditional Love from our parents, or from having given it to our children or lovers. It is a love that remains, despite all failings and challenges and the difficulties in navigating them.

The difference between Unconditional Love and Unconditional Forgiveness? Anger at the other person is not overcome by forgiving that person; it is simply replaced by love, without even an active decision having been made.

She describes this idea as found in Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony.”

“How, though, is anger overcome? It is like the father in the story (Prodigal Son, Luke 15, Christian Bible): the anger simply disappears, and love surges up. The “persona” whom Mahler depicts as the “hero” of the symphony doesn’t ask for apology, and he also doesn’t decide to forgive without apology. He simply goes on living as a loving and creative person . . . and overwhelming love simply drowns out resentment. Asking ‘Shall I forgive my enemies?’ would have implied that anger is still speaking, demanding to be heard. Instead, creativity and love have silenced it.” (84)

Unconditional Love, then, slays the dragon of anger such that it breathes fire no longer and all – victim and perpetrator, parent and child, lover and partner, friend or colleague – are able to reunite, reconcile, and move forward into a world made better for the absence of anger.

Unconditional Love and Human Dignity

Unconditional Love, then – and in my opinion, not necessarily said by Nussbaum – recognizes not only the dignity of the person who harmed me but preserves my own dignity by virtue of not having descended to the level of revenge and payback. And even more: in the most troubling of cases – e.g., murder – it recognizes the depths to which the perpetrator has fallen and disgraced his own dignity and feels, yes, sympathy for that person having to be that person.

If you have trouble appreciating or accepting this, try a little “thought experiment.” Turn the tables and ask: what do I want for myself? When I have made a mistep or I have fallen far and hard, do I want harsh punishment and the potential humiliation of penitence? Or would I prefer to be the recipient of a gracious love, while I continue to make myself into the person that I ought, and want, to be?

In Conclusion

This ends our Elul learning for this year – although I encourage you, of course, to continue your introspection by using these ideas – and other resources, most notably our High Holiday mahzorim/prayer books themselves – in preparation for Rosh Hashana and through the end of Yom Kippur.

I wish for you the courage it takes all of us to confront the lesser parts of ourselves, acknowledge them, make up for them and move towards the moral betterment of our selves. I hope that, if you ask forgiveness, it be given easily and with love. And I hope that, if asked for forgiveness, you will do the same.

Or, perhaps, your misdeed will be met with an unconditional love that surrenders anger. And, perhaps, you will be able to offer the same.

L’shana tova tikatevu
may you be inscribed for good
and a good year in the Book of Life,