Jewish Justice: Guyger, Forgiveness, and Christian Love

Michael J. Broyde

Lady of Justice Statue Under Blue Sky by Mohannad Marashdeh (Pexels cc)

This article is part of our “Religious Reflections on Forgiveness in Law” series.
If you’d like to check out other articles in this series, click here.

Nathan S. Chapman asks the right question: “How can justice and forgiveness co-exist?” This problem is one to which the Jewish tradition has offered at least three different answers. None of these responses, however, focus on the deeply Christian idea of God’s love for us. 

On Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement, when according to rabbinic teachings Jews literally pray for their lives as God sits in judgment on their actions—the liturgy declares to God that we want to be the kind of people in whom “truth and peace” both reside in harmony and together. This is one approach. A perfect person is one who can balance the conflicting needs of justice—which in the Jewish tradition are frequently called “truth”—with the needs of peace—which are frequently called “forgiveness. In the context of Yom Kippur, we want to be the best that we can be, and that “best,” the tradition avers, is the person who can be both truthful and merciful at the same time. Mercy without truth is hardly a virtue in the Jewish Tradition.

A second approach maintains that these two values exist in hierarchy. Law—truth—is the baseline value of civilized society, and one cannot really function in one’s community without law. Without law, in the words of the Mishnah “a person would swallow his neighbor alive.”1 Mishnah, Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:2. In relation to law, truth, and justice, forgiveness—and its close cousin, compromise—are viewed as higher ethical virtues that courts cannot compel people to uphold, but which can and should be encouraged. Thus, the code of Jewish law affirms that while rabbinic courts should encourage litigants to agree to resolve disputes through negotiated settlements rooted in an ethic of equity and forgiveness, parties are always free to insist on their legal rights.2See Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 12:2. People need to be taught to be kind and forgiving; they need to be shown that to give up rights and forfeit payments is the way that ethical people ought to behave. Forgiveness is the ethically superior virtue; society, however, rightly shows a reliance on law and justice.

The third view is nearly the opposite. Rabbi Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University noted almost fifty years ago that there is a virtue in never forgiving the serious wrongs done to one and to continue to hate one’s oppressors. As Lamm puts it, “monsters who seek sadistically to wipe out whole populations—such people remain deserving, on purely moral grounds, of actual contempt and hatred.” In this model forgiveness is for those people who have earned it by their deep penitence and honest self-reflection and not to be given casually by every victim to any wrong doer. Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichick similarly argues that “Judaism…demand[s] love for our fellow human beings, but only to an extent.” While “Moses commanded us ‘not to hate our brother in our hearts,’ a man’s immoral actions can serve to sever the bonds of brotherhood between himself and humanity.” When it comes to relating to such deeply wicked people, “the Talmud clearly states: mitzvah lisnoso—one is obligated to hate him.”

Mercy without truth is hardly a virtue in the Jewish tradition.

So the Jewish tradition is not impressed with the Christian model of love. As Dennis Prager writes “the greatest—and even more important—difference between Judaism and Christianity, or perhaps only between most Christians and Jews, is their different understanding of “forgiveness.” It is a truth worth repeating again and again. Nothing in classical Jewish law or philosophy indicates an almighty Creator who loves and forgives all no matter what they do and no matter whether they are deserving of such. Indeed, while the Jewish tradition has a robust repentance doctrine, repentance is determined by worthiness for such. One must genuinely be repentant to earn such. Furthermore, repentance for interpersonal sins—wrongful actions that harm other people—remains impossible until the wrongdoer has fully compensated and appeased their victims. Jewish law precludes God from forgiving a person for their interpersonal sins without them first fixing the harms their sins have caused.

None of this is even important in the case of criminal activity, where punishment is needed. Indeed, in the case of death, the Torah is clear that the last thing in the world the Jewish tradition really wants is payment. The text is clear:

If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death. And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest. You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. (Numbers 35:30-33)

Justice is at play and private compromise—particularly when it undermines the duty of society to seek justice—is not called for. And it is worth highlighting another point that is latent in this biblical passage: By precluding a payment to compensate for murder, the law also precludes the close cousin of payment—forgiveness—since any payment that can be demanded, can be forgiven.

Applying these principles to the Guyger case is not so hard, once the facts are agreed to. Police Officer Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean, an unarmed man, relaxing in his home as she recklessly mistook his home for her own home. Guyger was convicted of murder and sentenced to ten years in prison. After the trial, as Nathan Chapman tells us:

Yet something curious happened after the trial came to an end. The victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, publicly offered his forgiveness to Guyger. More stunningly, after imposing the sentence, and in response to Guyger’s expression of hopelessness, Judge Tammy Kemp, who presided over the trial, offered Guyger a Bible, a hug, and a prayer. Judge Kemp’s conduct in no way affected Guyger’s sentence. 

To the Jewish tradition, nothing unusual happened here and there was nothing to write home about.

A person killed another human being due to carelessness and recklessness. The law in such cases—particularly for a police officer armed by the State—is clear that punishment is proper. A reasonable punishment was meted out. The Judge—who in the Jewish tradition sits in the place of God in punishing in criminal cases—seeing the hopelessness in the face of the convicted defendant, expressed the idea that after punishment and repentance, everyone starts over again and gets another chance. I am not completely sure that I would have given Guyger a Bible—maybe Maimonides’ book on repentance would be more fitting—but in any case. The judge’s forgiveness neither increased nor decreased the sentence. So too, it seems to me that the forgiveness advanced by the victim’s family is neither monumental nor important. It did not impact Guyger’s punishment or restitution obligations, and was merely a pastoral expression of kindness offered to a human being who had done serious wrong to another. 

Serious Christian love—the kind that allows wrongdoing to go unpunished—was hardly professed here. Rather, what we encountered here is a fine application of “Jewish Justice”—a crime and a proper punishment. This was followed by another deeply Jewish idea: when a person sins—even a deeply harmful sin that hurts others profoundly—they should not fall into despair and hopelessness, but should instead seek to continue to repent and learn from the experience. 

I have always thought that the observation of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on suffering reflects the basic Jewish view of repentance and forgiveness as well. Rabbi Soloveitchik stated in a letter to a student:

Suffering, in the opinion of Judaism, must not be purposeless, wasted. Out of suffering must emerge the ethical norm, the call for repentance, for self-elevation. Judaism wants to convert the passional frustrating experience into an integrating, cleansing, and redeeming factor.

The purpose of forgiveness is to make us better people. Sometimes it is the one who forgives who becomes the better person. Sometimes it is the one forgiven who uses the forgiveness process to elevate themselves above their sinful past after their punishment. Sometimes it is both. But, God’s love for us is hardly a factor.

Michael J. Broyde is professor of law at Emory University School of Law, a senior fellow and projects director at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. He is a professor at Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies, and was last year a Fullbright Scholar at Hebrew University and visiting professor at Stanford Law School. His primary areas of interest are law and religion, Jewish law and ethics, family law, and comparative religious law.

Recommended Citation

Broyde, Michael J. “Jewish Justice: Guyger, Forgiveness, and Christian Love.” Canopy Forum, February 5, 2020.