Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium Sponsors Community Discussion on “The Limits of Forgiveness”

%28From+left+to+right%29%3A+Professor+Andrew+Payne+of+St.+Joseph%27s+University+Philosophy+Department%3B+Dr.+Frank+Hoffman%2C+professor+of+philosophy+with+a+focus+on+Eastern+Philosophy+and+Religion%2C+West+Chester+University%3B++Rabbi+Richard+Libowitz%2C+Ph.D%2C+theology+professor+at+St.+Joseph%E2%80%99s+University%3B+Father+Philip+Johnson%2C+Priest-in-charge+of+St.+Thomas+More+Church%3B+Dr.+Morton+Winston%2C+professor+of+Philosophy+and+Chairman+of+the+Department+of+Philosophy%2C+Religion+and+Classical+studies+at+the+College+of+New+Jersey

(From left to right): Professor Andrew Payne of St. Joseph's University Philosophy Department; Dr. Frank Hoffman, professor of philosophy with a focus on Eastern Philosophy and Religion, West Chester University; Rabbi Richard Libowitz, Ph.D, theology professor at St. Joseph’s University; Father Philip Johnson, Priest-in-charge of St. Thomas More Church; Dr. Morton Winston, professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Classical studies at the College of New Jersey

Gilana Levavi (’14)/ Eastside Opinions Editor

Photo: (From left to right): Professor Andrew Payne of St. Joseph’s University Philosophy Department; Dr. Frank Hoffman, professor of philosophy with a focus on Eastern Philosophy and Religion, West Chester University;  Rabbi Richard Libowitz, Ph.D, theology professor at St. Joseph’s University; Father Philip Johnson, Priest-in-charge of St. Thomas More Church; Dr. Morton Winston, professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Classical studies at the College of New Jersey

Twenty community members gathered in East’s Little Theatre to participate in an interactive panel discussion entitled “The Limits of Forgiveness” on Thursday, February 7. The event was sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium, a non-profit that seeks to promote philosophical inquiry. The book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal was the starting point for the discussion.

First, Vice-Principal Ms. Marsha Pecker welcomed everyone to East and introduced the event. Professor Andrew Payne of St. Joseph’s University’s Philosophy Department then introduced Dr. Morton Winston, the principal speaker.

Winston, professor of philosophy and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Classical studies at the College of New Jersey, opened the discussion by giving an overview of The Sunflower. In the book, Wiesenthal recounts that while in a concentration camp, a dying Nazi soldier asked him for forgiveness. Wiesenthal left the soldier without speaking to him. Wiesenthal questions whether he did the right thing, and challenges his readers to ponder what they would do if placed in that situation.

After summarizing The Sunflower, Winston then posed several essential questions to guide the discussion, such as “when is it possible to forgive,” “who can forgive,” and “when can we offer forgiveness?” He also gave an explanation of the Jewish tradition’s approach toward forgiveness, explaining that Judaism believes that forgiveness is required in some cases, optional in some cases, and forbidden in others.

“In these cases of radical evil, the forgiveness paradigm does not apply,” said Winston, referring to cases of genocide.

Next, the three panelists, each approaching these questions from a different religious background, offered their commentary on Winston’s thoughts.

First, Rabbi Richard Libowitz, Ph.D, who teaches theology courses at St. Joseph’s University, including a course on Jewish and Christian Responses to the Holocaust, gave a Jewish perspective. He argued that Karl, the Nazi soldier, did not want forgiveness from Simon Wiesenthal specifically, but from any Jew. He argued that Wiesenthal was not in a position to forgive Karl because he had not been personally wronged by Karl, and the Jewish tradition says that one cannot forgive a perpetrator on behalf of a victim; forgiveness must come from the victim him/herself.

Then, Father Philip Johnson, Priest-in-Charge of St. Thomas More Church, gave a Catholic perspective. He pointed out that it is possible to forgive someone yet still feel that the perpetrator should be held responsible for his/her actions.  He admitted that “radical evil” is a very difficult concept, but said that according to the Christian tradition, the only sins that cannot be forgiven are those committed against the Holy Spirit.

Next, Dr. Frank Hoffman, of West Chester University, a professor of philosophy with a focus on Eastern Philosophy and Religion, gave a Buddhist perspective. He explained that the first precept of Buddhism is that of non-violence, and related this to the idea of forgiveness. He also brought up the idea of deep listening, saying that he believes that there is much value in the fact that Wiesenthal listened carefully to Karl’s story.

Payne then opened up the discussion to questions and comments from audience members, and a lively, insightful discussion between the audience members and panelists ensued. The event lasted about two hours.