Workshop: The Im/Possibility of Forgiveness in Modern Jewish Thought - DAY ONE

When and Where

Sunday, November 14, 2021 11:00 am to 4:30 pm


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.

This is a virtual event that will take place on Zoom. It is free to attend and there is no registration required. To attend the sessions on Sunday, November 14th, CLICK THIS LINK.


Workshop Schedule:

Sunday, November 14

Session 1, 11am-12:30pm

Moderator:  Bob Gibbs (University of Toronto)

Benjamin Pollock (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): "Shame, Confession, and the Forgiveness of the Self in Rosenzweig's Account of Revelation.'

Session 2, 1-2:30pm

Moderator:  Reinier Munk (VU University of Amsterdam)

Sol Goldberg (University of Toronto): "Antisemitism and Forgiveness"

Whether forgiveness is an apt or even possible response to antisemitism is a question typically prompted by a consideration of Nazism and the Holocaust. But attention to the most fantastic and violent historical forms of antisemitism, on the one hand, and the most challenging cases for a theory of forgiveness, on the other, can too often eclipse the practical and theoretical interest that the question has when asked in reference to the ambiguous and contested sort of antisemitism common on university campuses. Some Jews who experience this sort of antisemitism will react to it with attitudes like indignation and resentment, attitudes that might intensify (though they might alternately dissipate) when, as now often happens, their targets deny any antisemitism and so any basis for indignation and resentment. Confronted with this kind of situation, i.e., one in which a person justifiably, albeit subjectively, takes another’s behavior as offensive and in which that other person shows no inclination to acknowledge any offense, is forgiveness an apt response at all? And, if it is, then under what conditions might it be a better or worse response than any of the other managerial strategies a person could adopt in this kind of situation? My paper explores these questions with the aim of explaining the confusion in the contemporary understanding of antisemitism, the value of forgiveness as a way of managing interpersonal relationships with those who might reasonably be counted antisemitic, and the strain that the legacy of the Holocaust can place on both of these. 

Michael Morgan (Indiana University): “Levinas and the Interpersonal Context for Forgiveness”

There is a recent spate of philosophical work on the nature of forgiveness and its roles in personal and public contexts.  Several accounts treat unconditional or “elective” forgiveness as primary or paradigmatic.  In a number of papers since 2008 Lucy Allais has argued that forgiveness paradigmatically involves a radical change of heart or “wiping the slate clean” and that this extreme shift of emotional attitude can best be seen in cases of unconditional forgiveness.  In this talk I want to ask what factors underlie Allais’s account and accounts like hers and then to examine how — and with what implications — Emmanuel Levinas’s comments on forgiveness disclose a different orientation toward wrongdoing and forgiveness, one in which interpersonal responsibility plays a more central role.

Session 3, 3-4:30

Moderator:  Leora Batnitzky (Princeton University)

Dylan Shaul (University of Toront): “Derrida on Forgiving the Unforgivable: Forgiveness Terminable and Interminable”

This paper explores Derrida’s views on the aporia of the forgivable and the unforgivable in light of the following related aporetic pairs: possible/impossible, conditional/unconditional, decidable/undecidable, and terminable/interminable. For Derrida, philosophy itself must be re-thought as an interminable work of forgiveness. Accordingly, I argue that philosophy can have a future only by making an undecidable decision to commit to the impossible and interminable task of forgiving the unforgivable. Indeed, only by making this decision can the future itself still have a future. 

Alexandra Zirkle (University of Buffalo): “Forgiveness, Atonement, and Apotheosis: Crafting Modern Jewish Thought through the Language of Sacrifice”

Many outstanding nineteenth-century German Jewish thinkers proffered detailed accounts of how the ancient sacrificial service, so prominent in the texts of biblical and rabbinic Judaism, had nothing to do with the renascence of Judaism in a modern key. Unsure how to strip the sacrificial service of its nationalist overtones and embarrassed by its overtly ritualistic nature, thinkers including Abraham Geiger adopted a Maimonidean stance and relegated sacrifice to the closed annals of ages past. Less well known are the prominent German Jewish intellectuals for whom the sacrificial service functioned as a generative category essential to their systematic philosophical accounts of modern Judaism. Ludwig Philippson’s The Israelite Bible (1839-1854) draws on a Hegelian hermeneutic to read sacrifice as the symbolic and sacramental site mediating atonement and, ultimately, union with the Divine. Hermann Cohen, in his Religion of Reason (1919) and other essays, turns to sacrifice as the category through which the I-individual emerges. This paper traces the philosophical creations Philippson and Cohen bring forth out of the concepts, symbols, and practices of the sacrificial service. As per the theme of this conference, I attend to the orientation of forgiveness in their accounts of the sacrificial service, specifically tracing the how forgiveness may or may not be implicated in human-self, human-human, and human-Divine relationality. As part of this undertaking, this paper is also attuned to the polemical undertones of Philippson’s and Cohen’s interpretations, taking particular note of how their arguments are pointed responses to how Hegel, Vatke, Bruno Bauer, and Wellhausen interpret the sacrificial cult, including the latter’s views on how sacrifice predicates the possibility—or impossibility—of forgiveness and its attendant moral and religious horizons. 


The Grafstein Professorship in Jewish Philosophy