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

When and Where

Monday, November 15, 2021 2:00 pm to 3:30 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 session at 2:00pm on Monday, November 15th, CLICK THIS LINK.


Workshop Schedule:

Moday, November 15th, 2:00-3:30pm

Moderator: Meirav Jones (McMaster University)

Judah Isseroff (Princeton University): “Arendt’s Jewish Jesus: Forgiveness in the Gospels, the Mishnah, and The Human Condition”

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt famously credits Jesus with having discovered the role of forgiveness in human affairs. The paper will situate Arendt’s account of forgiveness as an antidote to the chaos of action between Mishanic and New Testament sources on forgiveness. In a grace/law dichotomy crudely conceived, modern conceptions of forgiveness seem evidently more Christian than Jewish. However, if one follows Arendt in seeing forgiveness as a most basic rather supererogatory ethical behavior for the purposes of living together, then the result is a view of forgiveness that is much closer to early Jewish legal sources than Christian understandings of divine and human grace.

Michael Rosenthal (University of Toronto): “Agency, Sin, and the Spinozistic Paradox of Forgiveness”

At the Colloque d’intellectuels juifs de langue française in 1963 on the theme of “pardon” [forgiveness] Spinoza posed a double problem. First, was he an appropriate interlocutor in the debate over the Jewish response to the question of whether the time had come to forgive the Germans for their crimes during the Holocaust? After all, Spinoza was banned from the Jewish community for his behavior and beliefs. Was this heretic really the appropriate person to teach the Jews about forgiveness? Second, did he have anything philosophically valuable to teach about forgiveness? Spinoza was notorious for his critique of both the providential God of Deism and what he called the superstitious teachings of Rabbinic Judaism. Of course, these two questions are interrelated. It was arguably because his philosophical views were wrong and inimical to Judaism, that he was excommunicated. Sylvain Zac in his presentation at the Colloque tried to defend Spinoza’s philosophical aptness to the discussion. He argued that Spinoza distinguishes between three kinds of sin: against the state, the state against itself, and the sin of an individual human against his own nature—and three corresponding kinds of forgiveness. Although Zac remained agnostic, at least rhetorically, regarding the question whether Spinoza’s views are more Jewish than Greek, he does implicitly defend the relevance of Spinoza to the issue at hand for the community. In the surrounding discussion—Vladimir Jankélévitch’s preceding presentation and the joint question and answer session that followed—several related philosophical objections to Spinoza’s view arise: first, the problematic nature of freedom in Spinoza’s system; second, whether his account of evil is adequate to the task of understanding let alone responding to the Holocaust, and finally, third, whether Spinoza’s account of forgiveness (pardon) is really an account of forgiveness at all. I shall consider the responses to these questions provided by Zac and then expand on them. I argue that Spinoza’s response to these objections leads to a profound critique and reappraisal of forgiveness itself and its role in the Jewish tradition.


The Grafstein Professorship in Jewish Philosophy