Virginia Thomas and the question of true forgiveness

Virginia Thomas and Anita Hill are at it. This is quite a story.

Justice Thomas’ wife calls professor Anita Hill at her Brandeis University office and leaves a voice mail that apparently says, according to The New York Times:

“Good morning Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. OK, have a good day.”

The call apparently was left on the phone machine at Hill’s office at 7:30 a.m.

Hill reacted by contacting the Campus Department of Public Safety, which in turn passed along the message to the FBI.

Our congregation recently emerged from the High Holy Days season, a season of forgiveness. During the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we learned — directly, in the text of the Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) — the laws of seeking forgiveness. We considered times when circumstances point to seeking forgiveness directly from God (as when we have transgressed in terms of ritual observance), and situations when they point instead, first, to asking forgiveness from the person wronged (as when we have wronged another person). There were, through many of the classes and sermons, piercing and intelligent questions: “What if we don’t ask forgiveness — will God forgive us anyway?” “What if we are asked to forgive, but the wrong perpetrated against us makes it too painful to forgive?” We had deep discussions on the parameters of forgiveness, even the very tricky and awkward question of how, or even whether, to ask forgiveness if the wronged person does not even know what we did hurtfully behind his back. Sometimes, perhaps in the context of unawareness, it may be best to let sleeping dogs lie.

Here we see much of that teaching and those questions playing out in a non-Torah context between two ostensibly accomplished and intelligent women. For our pedagogic purposes, let us assume that The New York Times report is correct — even though we know, from experience, that The New York Times can report incorrectly, too. But let us assume accuracy here.

Is Ginni Thomas forging a bond, seeking to move forward from the past? Is she “reaching out” to Hill, as she has told the news media she is doing? Well, yes, she is reaching out — but …  in friendship? Or with unresolved anger? Has Ms. Thomas let go of the anger, the resentment of 20 years ago? What is she hoping to accomplish with her phone call?

On the one hand, we can say that she essentially meant well, hoping finally to bury the hatchet, or she would not have left such a message on a voice machine. On the other hand, Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin also have recently left messages on voice machines. If they were looking to bury the hatchet, they still — as Garth Brooks once put it — were leaving the handle sticking out.

And what of Hill? If you had received such a message, from a person whose identity you clearly know, someone you know will not conceivably represent a harm to you — even if you never liked her and still cannot stand her — would you respond to it, particularly if the call were once in a decade (rather than part of a campaign of harassing, midnight phone calls)? Would you, if you found such a message inappropriate, merely delete it? Or would you call the police, and initiate a process reaching an FBI that, we would hope, is otherwise busy monitoring voice messages from al-Qaeda and from local crime mobs?

The story is sad but profoundly instructive. It is imperative for each of us, little by little, to “let go” of the hurt. We Jews believe, in one of our core 13 beliefs gathered by Rambam as the essence of Jewish faith, that God punishes those who have perpetrated a wrong, and He rewards those who have acted justly. There is no guarantee that He strikes immediately. Rather, He acts in His own good time, whether dropping a surprise cash award on someone’s doorstep or miraculously healing someone who is ill . . . or otherwise acting. Sometimes he acts a year later, sometimes two, sometimes 10 or 20 years later. But He balances all, consonant with the teaching of Rabbi Hillel recorded in Pirke Avot, who said when seeing a skull floating on the water: “Because you drowned others, you were drowned — and those who drowned you will themselves ultimately be drowned.”

So it is incumbent on us to let go of the hurt. It may take time. No one, but no one, has the moral right to tell someone else in the heat of her hurt exactly when to let go of it, but it must be let go. Certainly, the hurt and evil may be remembered. Sometimes, it must never be forgotten. Thus, it may even be taught to others, as we recount every Yom Kippur what the Romans did to our rabbinic martyrs, and as a new generation builds Holocaust museums to teach what happened in the 1940s. We may hold the memory, refuse to forget, and teach it to others with a determination that, maybe it will happen again, but never again with such abject Jewish silence the world over . . . and, maybe, just maybe, if we resist the tendency toward apathy and silence, then it will not happen again so easily either.

But, even then, we must let go. We mourn the sorrow of a parent’s death for a year because, sometimes, the pain is so intense that it takes a year to let go. But then we move on. We ultimately have to let go.

If we fail to let go, we emerge with an embarrassing dogfight or catfight between people who have attained prominent positions of achievement in our society. If we fail to let go, we cannot reach the zenith of our potential. We cannot perfect our souls to their apex. Warm and loving people around us will shy away, while we attract bitter and vengeful friends who listen patiently to our bitterness in exchange for enjoying our audience to hear them rant about theirs. No one enjoys the stereotypical curmudgeonly man or bitter woman. By contrast, as we let go — yes, remembering and knowing what was done to us and who did it, but moving on with love, warmth and humor — we attract the kinds of people we would most cherish as friends: people whose victories and joys we celebrate, even as they rejoice in our achievements and great moments. And we leave it to God Almighty to reckon accounts with a Perfect Justice that only He can mete.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at