Time to forgive the Tsarnaev brothers? Not so fast.

Throughout the religious world there are questions and tentative pleas for people in their heart to forgive Tamerlan and Dzhokhar … Continued

Throughout the religious world there are questions and tentative pleas for people in their heart to forgive Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who are suspected of committing these heinous acts.

Forgiveness is a beautiful and essential virtue. At this moment, in this case, to all but the direct victims, it is either irrelevant or immoral.

Forgiveness is immoral if it in any way mitigates the punishment due to the brother who remains, and any who may have helped him. The rabbis point out that the biblical statement “eye for an eye” was never intended to be taken literally; it was always assumed to mean condign punishment. To appropriately reward goodness and requite evil is both an individual and a social imperative. Such punishment is not only morally just, but it satisfies the legitimate needs of people to see evildoers reap what they have sown, and serves as a warning to those who would contemplate evil in the future.

Forgiveness is irrelevant if it is only words. “I forgive him in my heart” means little. To watch something unfold on TV and then declare your forgiveness for the perpetrator is a cheap and empty declaration. But if it truly means a clean slate in any significant sense, if it is more than bloated verbiage, then it slides back into immorality. The brothers did not render me incapable of walking. They did not murder my relative or loved one. They did not even shut down my city, forestalling my family celebration or funeral or visit to an aged mother. How dare I presume the power to forgive when I have not undergone the pain of being hurt?

The alchemy of God’s forgiveness is mysterious beyond knowing. Anyone who tells you they know exactly how ultimacy operates is exalting their powers beyond reason, or they are naive, or they are cunningly peddling spiritual snake oil. Reckonings of ultimate justice and ultimate grace are beyond our poor power to understand. We may have faith traditions that advise us this way or that, but the multiplicity of traditions reminds us that there is no settled certainty about how God operates in this world or in any other.

While we are here, however, it it is our sacred obligation to understand what we might, and balance scales as we can. For those who were not involved to speak in a facile way of forgiveness is to betray the unimaginable pain of this event, which will trail people throughout their lives and the lives of their children. If people who were hurt can themselves forgive, it can be a beautiful, individual leap that can help unknot their hearts and may prove healing. Such examples have the capacity to inspire and move us very deeply. But none may forgive for another’s anguish.

To the perpetrators all we can say is that their task is to spend whatever time they have left in this world to work toward a forgiveness they can never earn and will never deserve. That is the honor we pay to pain and the dignified response we offer to evil. Seek to understand; help those who are wounded to heal; but do not cheapen the horror with easy words of forgiveness. The beginning of sanity is the recognition that some acts are unforgivable.

Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author, most recently, of “Why Faith Matters.”


  • PhilCardarella

    One should not confuse forgiveness with exoneration.

    Nor with empathy. What these young men did was horrific, but not beyond understanding. Not from a nation that sent its sons to incinerate the cities of Japan — cities that had no actual military significance, but were full of innocent women and children. For that, we are able to forgive ourselves — and the Japanese have most generously forgiven us. They understand that our actions were out of anger, ignorance and fear.

    Perhaps we shall be able to understand –not sympathize with — the demons that drove these seemingly normal American (in every meaningful way) men to take such insane, vicious actions. Actions that were effectively suicidal — one is dead, the other will die in prison sooner or later. Look at the eyes of the younger kid: At school, a normal kid. The day of the bombings? The windows to his soul were blank. What made that happen? It really IS important that we understand that.

  • vicks44270

    If we all received the forgiveness we deserve, then none of us would have it; furthermore, we gets to decide what acts are unforgivable?

  • Emily C.

    Have you read “The Shack”?

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