Last week I wrote a post called "Why God is Better Than Cops", where I explained that according to Jewish thought, if a person truly regrets a wrong action that he committed AND changes himself for the better as a result of what he's done, his misdeed is considered like it never happened in the eyes of God. I received several messages from readers, who were very disturbed by this idea.
One reader wrote: "If you commit murder, but truly repent, should it be like you never killed? If you cheat on another person, then truly repent, should it be like you never cheated? Nice in theory, but actions could have permanent consequences that will never be erased, just as killing or hurting another person…should that person who committed the crime be viewed as if they never did anything wrong?"
This is an excellent point, and although I completely stand by everything I said in the original post, I also completely agree with the reader! Judaism can be all complicated like that in a very cool way. Here's how: When one person wrongs another (especially in a permanent way like murder) there are many issues that must be taken into account. On one hand, we want justice for the victim and his loved ones. On the other hand, if a perpetrator not only immensely regrets his actions, but also profoundly changes himself due to the crime, should there be no possibility of forgiveness? Judaism has a brilliant solution to ease this tension.
In terms of the victim getting justice, no matter how many times a perpetrator apologizes, no matter how deeply he changes himself, if he has purposely committed a heinous crime, he has no way of getting out of the legal punishment that awaits him. Jewish law metes out various types of punishments, depending on the severity of the infraction, but the basic idea is: if you do the crime you pay the time. For the worst crimes, there is even the possibility of capital punishment. (Although, it should be noted, that the Jewish court was so careful not to execute someone who was wrongly accused, very strict conditions needed to be met for this sentence. In practice, the death penalty rarely occurred, but the possibility of capital punishment was still there to show how severe the infraction was.)
We see from this that Jewish law is very serious about punishing a person who has wronged another, but is there any hope for a person who has made a mistake? The process of teshuvah (repentence) that I touched upon in the first post, should not be taken lightly. A person cannot just flippantly declare he's sorry and suddenly be in the clear. There needs to be true remorse, he needs to ask for forgiveness from the one he has wronged (if it's possible), and he needs to literally be a changed person from this experience.
God could be cold and harsh like a strict judge and refuse to forgive no matter how much the person has grown from his crime, but the cold harsh approach is already accounted for in the legal reality. This allows God, within the spiritual reality, to treat the sinner like a parent would treat a child. For example, if a mother had a family heirloom with real sentimental value attached to it and her child smashed it to the ground, the mother would have a very good reason to never forgive her child. The heirloom would be gone forever and nothing would bring it back. But what if the child looked at his actions and realized how wrong they were and came to his mother expressing deep regret, showing her his immense change? Although nothing could undo the permanent damage, a mother could still find it in her heart to forgive her child, because that's how parent-child relationships work. Parents have more mercy on their children than their children might even deserve because the love is that deep. (In Hebrew the word for "mercy" and "womb" are actually derived from the same root, indicating that the compassion that parents feel for their children is an inherent part of being a parent.)
Taking both the legal reality and the spiritual reality into account, we now see that a murderer could be executed for his crime, but if he has properly done teshuvah beforehand, although his actions have caused him to forfeit his life in this world, he is still able to maintain a "life" and a connection with God in the world to come. I don't think you could call this a win win situation (because it's terribly tragic), but I do believe a system like this recognizes the importance of punishment while leaving open the possibility of growth.