KEYNOTE PANEL: Workshop on The Im/Possibility of Forgiveness in Modern Jewish Thought

When and Where

Monday, November 15, 2021 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm


Michael Rosenthal (Moderator)
Ori Werdiger (Speaker)
Ynon Wygoda (Speaker)


The concept of forgiveness is central to Jewish life.  It has inspired much philosophical reflection and still provokes many questions.  How can we forgive someone who has wronged us?  Are we obligated to do so?  Does forgiveness require repentance?  Are there actions that are unforgiveable?  Any question about forgiveness is related to other important ones concerning atonement, mercy, and justice.  These questions have also been considered by other philosophical and religious traditions, which in turn have influenced Judaism.  Inspired by a conference of French-Jewish intellectuals in the early 1960s, who gathered to consider the possibility of forgiveness after the Holocaust, we are revisiting these questions in this workshop.  Conference participants will consider different answers to these questions from a variety of philosophical perspectives within modern Jewish thought.  Some papers will examine and reevaluate the debates among French-Jewish thinkers in the 1960s, others will look at earlier and current discussions.  We hope that you will join us.

The keynote panel of this workshop will take place on Monday, Novemver 15th at 4:00pm via Zoom. The keynote panel features:

Ori Werdiger (University of Toronto)

"Léon Askenazi on forgiving God, perpetrators, and victims”

In this paper, I discuss the central arguments regarding forgiveness and culpability introduced by Léon Askenazi during the colloque of 1963, and revisited by him in later years. In the first part of the paper, I will reconstruct Askenazi’s attempts to think about forgiveness, culpability, and their distribution among God, perpetrators (primarily non-Jewish), and victims (primarily Jewish), within the context of traditional sources and the contemporary postwar and post-Shoah conditions. In the second part, I will consider Askenazi’s reflections on the same topics at a later lecture and in another publication, in 1972 and 1983 respectively. Pointing to differences in Askenazi’s later take on God, the Shoah, and culpability, I will seek to account for the development of his views, on the background of his shifting social and exegetical concerns following his immigration to Israel.

Ynon Wygoda (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

"Can Forgiveness Oscillate?  Jankélévitch Revisited"

In my paper, I’d like to attempt to offer a new solution to the famed tension that seems to exist in Jankélévitch’s writings from the early 1960s between the descriptions of the limitless power of forgiveness and the notion of the unforgivable, in which his 1963 contribution to the colloque is of particular importance. In the long and influential Nachleben of these writings, one can find those who chose to adopt only one of his two positions and disregard the other (as was the case in the choice made by Yad Vashem to translate his polemical "Pardonner?" without mention of any complexity on the author's part, which incidentally still remains as his only piece ever translated into Hebrew), or else offer the dichotomy between his philosophical and personal approaches, as Paul Ricoeur and in certain later writings, Jankélévitch himself suggested. I will argue that a more coherent understanding of Jankélévitch’s position rests on the analysis of what he termed in his "Introduction to the thematic of Forgiveness" from '63 our "constant oscillation between forgiveness and rancor." I will show that the back and forth between hatred and forgiveness is not to be understood as the emotional vacillation on the part of the victims towards the perpetrators, but as complementary moral stances that are both necessary for the "inauguration of the new era" that true forgiveness encapsulates and promises, on the condition that it creates an interpersonal space between the two parties and wards off political and legal pseudo-reconciliatory measures that threaten to come in its stead. To defend my interpretation I will lean on Jankélévitch’s analysis of the relationship between justice and forgiveness and his insistence that the two must be separated so as to avoid the detrimental effect of the political on the interpersonal sphere which grew urgent as the political possibility of prescription grew real in the mid-60s. I will further claim that the historical moment in which these writings appeared is to be read upon the background of the rising interest in the early 1960s in France and beyond its borders in depicting hatred as a moral virtue and therefore reconsidering the relationship between hatred and forgiveness within the realm of moral virtues. Finally, I will argue that despite the particularities of the crimes committed by the Nazis, as Jankélévitch described them, his analyses of the concept of forgiveness did not exclude them, as certain readings of "Pardonner? " suggested, but was rather aimed at them all along, which is the reason why he opens both his paper in the colloque and his larger treatise on Forgiveness with the subject being "our problem." Such an explanation, I believe, will not only enrich our understanding of Jankélévitch’s approach to the thematic of forgiveness but will help explain why his writings on the topic should be considered seminal to the analysis of the concept of forgiveness itself and particularly to its understanding within the French-Jewish tradition in the latter half of the 20th century. What is more, in thinking through the consequences of his position I believe we can better formulate the differences between first, second, and third generations of victims and perpetrators and the relationship between them.

Moderator: Michael Rosenthal (University of Toronto)

It is free to attend and there is no registration required. To attend the session at 4:00pm on Monday, November 15th, CLICK THIS LINK.


The Grafstein Professorship in Jewish Philosophy