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Rabbi Jack Moline on 9/11 Forgiveness

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, commemorations are taking place everywhere. People are discussing how life would be different today had 9/11 never occurred. We are all reflecting on where we were that day and how it changed us. Memorials to honor the dead will take place all over the world.

However, there is one theme that I haven’t heard discussed very much as we mark the tenth anniversary since that dreadful day. Has it been long enough to forgive the terrorists? There are differences in belief among different faith groups when it comes to forgiveness; especially after such heinous crimes. My colleague and teacher Rabbi Jack Moline published his thoughts on this topic in the Washington Jewish Week. I found his words to be fascinating and have decided to post his op-ed in its entirety below.

Rediscovering trust in a future
by Rabbi Jack Moline

On Sept. 14, 2001, I was interviewed on the PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Another panelist, Dr. Thomas Long of Emory University, suggested that the process of forgiveness needed to begin immediately for us. My reaction was visceral, and I suggested that he had illustrated the bright line between Jewish theology and Christian theology: to speak of forgiveness without contrition, I said, was obscene.

I have had 10 years to think about that exchange, as has anyone who remembers it. I still believe it to be true. What made for provocative television then ought rightly make for serious conversation today. Interfaith conversation, and not only between Jews and Christians, has never been more important in this country (and even globally) than it is today. The reason, I believe, is because of what was created, or perhaps accelerated, by the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

You might argue that Americans were naive about the world before that fateful day. What fell away was a sense of trust in our own future. The crises we had faced before were met with steely resolve and a sense of purpose. For reasons sociologists and anthropologists can debate, Americans retreated into two camps. There were those who believed we had not been effective enough in promoting the American values of tolerance and equality, and we needed to redouble our efforts. And there were those who concluded that some segment of humanity was permanently resistant to our truths and needed to be punished or isolated. The loudest voices are not always the wisest, but the extremists on both sides managed to muffle the middle.

What is true of Americans in general is true of American Jews in particular. The frantic way many Jews pursued reconciliation with Muslims in particular was virtually without discrimination. (I attended an iftar dinner at a local mosque that November where I was greeted by the imam, Anwar al-Aliki.) And the sudden rise of people obsessed with the notion that we were repeating the run-up to the Shoah, with Muslims playing the Nazis, played into anger and fear. While our community has always had its extremists, over the past 10 years those people have attempted to define the middle. And absent a coherent alternative, just like in American politics, an ideological tug-of-war has replaced insight.

Israel has become the surrogate for this culture clash among American Jews. It is safe to say that most of the combatants have no intention of making aliyah, thereby making the consequences of their certainty someone else’s problem. Instead of insisting that the Jewish national homeland is a value which we all honor, it has become an issue defining whether you are (depending on your stance) a humanitarian or a bigot, a realist or a victim-in-waiting.

In the process, we have generated a heated rhetoric about Christians, Muslims and others that rely on stereotypes, which, if applied to us, would increase the membership in every one of our defense organizations. Meanwhile, as both extremes point fingers at the other, we contribute to a divisiveness in American society in general that holds us back from addressing the very genuine challenges of our changed world.

It all sounds so political, but in fact it is the essence of spiritual concern. Any approach that dehumanizes our opponents, within or without the Jewish community, violates the intentions of our Creator. Any approach that reduces the state of Israel to a litmus test compromises its real and metaphoric roles as the destination of the in-gathering. Any silence that allows extremism an uncontested platform abandons the pursuit of justice, which is never without dissent.

The 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 occurs in the very heart of Elul, the month of introspection and outreach. The former is a profoundly personal and solitary endeavor. The latter cannot be accomplished alone. They both lead, of necessity, to a place between extremes – of collective engagement, personal honesty and acknowledgment of differences. They both lead to the bright lines between our theologies and the bright light we all yearn to shine. They both lead to a rediscovery of trust in the future and of the role each of us plays in promoting a better world that the one we know.

Rabbi Jack Moline is the spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria.

Do you think we are ready to forgive? Please leave your opinion in the comments section below.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Perfection is Hard to Come By

While I often write about sports on this blog, I have always done so through a Jewish perspective. In fact, everything I write on this blog I write through a Jewish perspective.

So, why am I writing about last night’s Detroit Tigers baseball game in which pitcher Armando Galarraga had a perfect game until the 9th inning with two outs when 1st base umpire Jim Joyce blew an obvious call? Galarraga isn’t Jewish and neither is Jim Joyce. And yet, last night in my hometown of Detroit, as I watched Galarraga’s perfect game ended by a human error and all the emotional reactions to it, I found the entire episode to be full of Jewish lessons.

Perfect games in baseball are a rarity. (It is unusual that Galarraga’s would have been the third perfect game this season and we’re only a few days into June.) In Judaism, we understand that perfection is hard to come by. We’re taught that God created an imperfect world. The concept of Tikkun Olam urges us to be active participants in helping make the world perfect for future generations. But since no human is completely perfect, mistakes are made that constantly keep the world from being in perfect harmony. Umpire Jim Joyce made a mistake last night. His error had significant implications for another human being (Galarraga), but it also demonstrates that in our pursuit of perfection there will always be actions beyond our control that will keep us from attaining our goal.

The fact that Jim Joyce was so quick to admit his error and then apologize directly to Galarraga should not go unnoticed. Like every other Tigers fan, and indeed like any baseball fan, I was torn apart watching Jim Joyce ruin Galarraga’s perfect game last night. However, the umpire acted like a mensch in his contrition and apology. The Jewish concept of teshuvah (repentance) was brought to mind as Joyce’s admission was played repeatedly on ESPN Sportcenter. He admitted that he blew the call without any qualification (something umpires and referees rarely do) and then he admitted that he “just cost that kid a perfect game.”

There has already been much discussion and debate about whether baseball commissioner Bud Selig should reverse the call and give Galarraga the perfect game that he deserves, and there will be much more on this topic in the days to come. This will also serve as a platform for those who wish to see instant reply brought into Major League Baseball.

But what I wish to focus on is what transpired immediately after the umpire’s error. Galarraga kept his composure. He didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t lose his temper and push the umpire. He maintained his cool. After the game, he just shook his head and explained that he’d eventually tell his kids that he threw a perfect game on that night even if the record books didn’t record it that way. In an era in which we see professional athletes lie and cheat (see: the Steroid Scandal), get in opponents’ faces and taunt them, and hurl profanities at umpires and referees, it was refreshing to see Galarraga take the umpire’s mistake like a man — or better yet, as a mensch.

And the fact that Umpire Jim Joyce wasted no time after the game in asking to see Galarraga to offer his deepest apologies also serves as a good example for our children. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it and offer your genuine forgiveness (mechila in Hebrew) no matter how severe the offense.

Whether Bud Selig does the right thing and reverses the bad call or not, this episode in one of the American Pastime’s greatest games will go down in history as an example of how human error makes perfection hard to come by… and why owning up to our mistakes and asking for forgiveness is such a noble deed.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |