Repentance and forgiveness: the undoing of time



Mass death resulting from war, starvation, and disease as well as the vicissitudes of extreme poverty and enforced sexual servitude are recognizably pandemic ills of the contemporary world. In light of their magnitude, are repentance, regret for the harms inflicted upon others or oneself, and forgiveness, proferring the erasure of the guilt of those who have inflicted these harms, rendered nugatory? Jacques Derrida claims that forgiveness is intrinsically rather than circumstantially or historically impossible. Forgiveness, trapped in a paradox, is possible only if there is such a thing as the unforgivable. “Thus, forgiveness, if there is such a thing,” can only exist as exempt from the law of the possible. Does this claim not open the way for hopelessness and despair? More troubling for Derrida is his concession that forgiveness may be necessary in the realm of the political and juridical. If so, is not the purity of the impossibility of forgiveness so crucial for him, contaminated? In pointing to some of the difficulties in Derrida’s position, I shall appeal to Vladimir Jankelevitch’s distinction between the unforgivable and the inexcusable. I shall also consider the significance of repentance in the theological ethics of Emmanuel Levinas and Max Scheler. Forgiveness, I conclude, is vacuous without expiation, a position that can be helpfully understood in the context of Judaism’s analysis of purification and acquittal in the Day of Atonement liturgy. I argue that what disappears is Derrida’s assurance of the impossibility of forgiveness, a disappearance that allows for hope.


Repentance Fault Acquittal Forgiveness Confession Defilement Trace Purity 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New York

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