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On 9/11 and Forgiving Too Quickly

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For Jews, 9/11 and forgiveness go together. Why? Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar ("a Sabbath of Sabbaths," Leviticus 16:31), occurs just weeks after Sept. 11 each year. And Yom Kippur means "Day of Forgiveness." How might Jewish teachings about forgiveness add to Americans' remembrance of 9/11 10 years later?

One of Judaism's greatest scholars, Maimonides, writes how we "mustn't be stubborn ... quite the contrary, one should be easily pacified. ... When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit" (Laws of Repentance 2:12). On the other hand, he writes about how even God's forgiveness will not excuse human cruelty:

[R]epentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between human beings and God (i.e. eating a forbidden food) ... But sins between human beings (i.e. injuring or stealing from a colleague) ... will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him. It must be emphasized that even if a person restores the money that he owes the person he wronged, he must appease him and ask him to forgive him (Laws of Repentance 2:10).

God's forgiveness does not extend to sins committed by us against other people unless they've made things right. Neither should ours.

Ten years later, some may be tempted to say "it's time to forgive and forget." I disagree. More than 3,000 Americans were murdered by a terrorist organization, al Qaeda. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, is dead. Good. But the battle is not over, and may not be for a long time. Resolve, and memory, is needed.

In his book "The Sunflower," Simon Wisenthal tells how he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp when an SS officer summoned him to his bedside and asked for forgiveness. Wiesenthal said nothing and walked away. Years later, he asked 53 distinguished thinkers: "What would you do?" In her response, Jewish author, Cyntia Ozick, wrote, "Forgiveness is pitiless. It forgets the victim."

Forgiveness, Ozick reminds us, is not free: it comes at the expense of those who have been hurt. Urging America to forgive al Qaeda makes victims of 9/11 victims again. Such "forgiveness" is not a compassionate call for healing; it is cruel erasure of those who should be remembered.

Please don't misunderstand me. Crass political discourse about 9/11 too often fans hatred against Muslim Americans. Such hatred grants victory to al Qaeda and besmirches the memory of those who died. I am not speaking about Muslims or Islam, but about al Qaeda, whish, as far as I've heard, has not asked forgiveness for murdering innocent men, women and children in the fields of Pennsylvania, at the Pentagon and at Ground Zero in New York. Until then, al Qeda remains unworthy of our forgiveness, and forgiveness unworthy of us.

Better we remember Donald Adams and Elayne Greenberg. Claribel, Eduardo and Nuberto Hernandez. Anthony Portillo and the rest of the victims of that horrible day 10 years ago. Better we remember children and parents, brothers and sisters, friends, our fellow citizens, heroes all. Ten years later, not forgiveness. Memory. And may their memory be a blessing for us all.

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