International panel explores how to forgive and forget

It's tough enough for family members to offer one another repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Are such results possible between Jews and Germans? Israelis and Palestinians? Tibetans and Chinese?

How does the process start? Who goes first?

These were some of the issues addressed at "Theologies of Forgiveness and the Politics of Reconciliation: An International Colloquium."

The two-day conference, held Saturday and Sunday at U.C. Berkeley, drew religious leaders, theologians, anthropologists, lawyers, journalists and human rights activists from as far away as South Africa and Israel.

On Sunday night, almost 100 attendees tore themselves away from television's Super Bowl recap to hear Rabbi David Hartman, Bishop Krister Stendahl and Buddhist priest Maylie Scott speak about theological confrontations.

The discussion proved to be a textbook study in the differences between the religious disciplines.

Alluding to Deuteronomy, Hartman said that on one hand, the Bible tells us not to forgive and not to forget. But on the other hand, the talmudic interpretation neutralizes the "don't forgive, don't forget" policy.

And to complicate matters even further, Judaism has a model for repentance, t'shuvah.

"The Gates of Repentance are never closed," said Hartman, who is an author, professor and founder of Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute. "If the Gates of Repentance are never closed, then one is never beyond reconciliation or repairing their relationships."

He said that only one who has suffered can forgive.

The Jewish model of repentance or renewal first requires admitting or confessing the specific wrongful act. Following that is a sense of regret or shame at the pain and suffering the act has caused.

Finally comes, the sense of a contrast between the old and new selves, and a decision to create a new future so that the act will not be repeated.

Maylie Scott of the Berkeley Zen Center had a contrasting view. "One cannot forgive someone else," she said. "Compassion is knowing we can't hold back. Suffering is empty. When there is conflict, the Buddhist steps back and goes into himself."

Scott told of a Tibetan priest imprisoned under horrible conditions for 18 years by the Chinese government. When he left prison, he was asked what his greatest fear had been.

"Losing compassion for the Chinese," the priest replied.

Stendahl, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School and Brandeis University, focused on repentance as an opening for a new relationship.

"There are two kinds of justice, restorative and retributive," said Stendahl, referring to the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu. "Restorative forgiveness is a door to a new and healed relationship."

He went on to describe forgiveness as an act of will and forgetting as a act of time. Ritually, forgiveness is represented in the Christian tradition with the Eucharist or Communion.

The panelists agreed that in any situation, reconciliation requires more than political acts. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, they said, the fundamental issues of trust and security will not be addressed or healed through political action.

"There have to be ways where Israelis and Palestinians can trust each other," said Hartman. "We need to liberate the powers of love that they have. The potential for decency and reconciliation is there."

But the ongoing conflict has traumatized both sides. Hartman described the Israelis as "fiddlers on the roof with F-15s" and suggested that it would be liberating if the Palestinians could help heal the trauma in the Israelis. That would give them strength.

"It's very hard to ask the Palestinians to help us with our trauma," said Stendahl. "That's asking too much.

"The initiative lies on the side of power," Stendahl said.

Scott disagreed.

"The responsibility for moving forward is equally shared," said the Buddhist priest.

Bringing the whole issue closer to home, audience member Rabbi Samuel Broude asked the panel to assume that the recent allegations against President Clinton are true. "What if Clinton publicly acknowledges what he did and asks forgiveness?" the rabbi asked.

Hartman pointed to King David, who was linked with much more serious offenses. Yet, the rabbi noted, David is still hailed as the "sweet singer of Israel and paradigm of the messianic king."

The two-day colloquim, sponsored by the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley and Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, was funded by a grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.