Monday, December 14, 2009

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

Recently I had the experience of hearing a Catholic deacon give a talk regarding the issue of forgiveness. His overall message was a good one--one that I hope the principal audience will hear--but his discussion was marred by a mistaken statement of Jewish understanding of forgiveness that led in turn to an implied sense of superiority of Christianity over Judaism. I know from my years in Jewish-Catholic dialogue how often and uncounsciously such statements and the ensuing triumphalist implications occur as well-intentioned Christians say things about Judaism that make Jews wince.

For example, I have had more than one well-meaning Christian tell me that "Jews worship a god of laws and judgment" but that Christians "worship a god of love." In response, my gut wants me to respond by saying something like: "Huh? It was Christianity that invented the concept of hell and a god that condemns people to eternal torment and punishment. Doesn't sound particularly loving to me." But I don't say it. I wince and remind myself that the self-proclaimed Christian expert on Judaism has probably never been to a Jewish worship service and thus has never heard Jews pray "Ahavah rabba ahavtanu . . .With great love have You loved us, Eternal our G-d . . ."

When such statements are made as part of a sermon, I wince particularly hard because I am unable to respond to or correct the speaker. This is the experience that I had with respect to the deacon and his mistaken understanding that led in turn to a mistaken interpretation that led ultimately to the "wince factor."

In this case, the deacon was discussing the question of how many times one must forgive another, and he related it back to a story in the Christian scriptures. The relevant bit is this:
"Now the Jewish requirement is to forgive up to three times, isn't it? So the man decided to take the three and add four more to make seven. But Jesus said, 'Seventy times seven.'"
At the point where he said "isn't it?", he looked directly at the Engineering Geek and me, seated at the center aisle side of pew 3. We both shook our heads. But the good deacon ignored us, going on instead to a smug conclusion about the superiority of Christian forgiveness over the apparently antiquated practices of the Jews.

His mistake? There is no numerical limit to how often a Jew should forgive someone. That is entirely up to the judgment of the individual who can consider the offense and the circumstances that are unique to the situation. The deacon transposed the limit of three from the offender to the offended against. The actual question that this number is in answer to is this: "How many times must a person ask forgiveness of another and be refused?" The answer is three times.

Suppose that one person has wronged another person. Jewish tradition has it that one cannot request forgiveness from G-d* for a wrong against another person. Rather we are required to make good with the person we have wronged. To do so, a person must acknowledge the wrong, resolve not to do it again, and then go to person and ask pardon by stating those acknowlegments. But how should a person carry guilt if the wronged party refuses to forgive? The answer is that a person must ask forgiveness three times spread out over a period of time. If after the third attempt, no forgiveness is forthcoming, then provided that repentence is sincere, a person can go on with her life knowing that the problem now belongs to the other person. In this way, one person cannot forever withhold forgiveness from another out of spite and thus perpetuate the hurt and the harm.

*For this reason, murder essentially becomes unforgivable. The victim is dead and cannot forgive or withold forgiveness, and therefore a murderer must carry his crime to the grave with him.

So the deacon got the basic fact wrong, and from there completely misunderstood what the man in the story's answer meant. The man said that one should forgive seven times. In Jewish numerology the number seven symbolizes completeness. One must forgive completely. (This might sound difficult but if you think about it, forgiving a little bit is like being a little bit pregnant. Forgiveness, if it is forgiveness, is all or nothing. Either you forgive or you don't).

In any case, it does not appear that Christianity is superior to Judaism on the question of how often one must forgive another. In any case, the proof--as they say--is in the pudding. And it appears to me that forgiveness is a difficulty that people of all faiths and none at all have with each other.

"A little learning is a dangerous thing," wrote Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism. It can certainly create the wince factor in someone who has drunk more deeply of the Pirean Spring with regard to a particular subject or tradition.

Of course, this is not a danger limited to givers of sermons. Indeed, it applies to all humanity--including bloggers.


Melora said...

Very interesting!

ChristineMM said...

Yes it is the case that a little learning can be bad. The same thing goes on with the practice of medicine in Amercia for example.

In my own life I try to not mess things up based on my little knowledge of something when I think I know enough or more than enough.

John Holt died of Cancer after a tumor on his leg that he tried to treat himself rather than seeking the full traditional medical care. The way I heard the story told was that his strong belief in 'do it yourself' from positive interactions with homeschooling 'unschooling' and a doubt in 'the experts' over the years led him to make that choice that proved fatal in the end. What a tragedy.

I have many examples of these poor decisions based on a small amount of information in practice with my friends and family and acquaintences that do not involve religion but just interpersonal relations, choices they make in their lives, and even things like why they think Cub Scouts is not a worth program for kids (based on one story heard from another town) or why they feel not seeking medical care for their small child is necessary when per the CDC the child should be taken for urgent care immediately for H1N1 symptoms with high risk factors involved. It goes on and on.