Balancing Justice and Mercy

Reflections on Forgiveness in Judaism


  • Louis E. Newman

Louis E. Newman, Carleton College, 1 N. College St., Northfield, MN 55057,


The concept of forgiveness is analyzed as a moral gesture toward the offender designed to help restore that individual's moral standing. Jewish sources on the conditions under which forgiveness is obligatory are explored and two contrasting positions are presented: one in which the obligation to forgive is conditional on the repentance of the offender and another in which people are required to forgive unconditionally. These two positions are shown to represent different ways of framing the offending behavior that rest, in turn, on different ways of balancing the need for justice and for mercy respectively. In the final analysis, Judaism's two contrasting attitudes toward forgiveness are rooted in different theological assumptions and different ways of construing the very goals of the moral life. The author points out the merits and shortcomings of both positions and concludes with the suggestion that the two complement each other in important ways.