IF WE NOW FOCUS not on the repenter or the confessing person, but on the past that is made into my past, that I respond for, we can also see that repentance has an unusual effect upon the past. It does not merely produce new attributions of responsibility (what was her deed becoming mine). Rather, the past itself is changed as past. It is also not merely the re-presentation of the past, making the past event now become part of the present. No, the past is changed as Resh Lakish indicated in the Talmudic text in Chapter 14. This susceptibility of the past to my resignification is a startling but important aspect of this ethics. As we explore it in this chapter, we will see first that repentance is capable of opening the past for reinterpretation. But that repair of past signs will then ultimately depend on the other person's forgiving me.
The chapter begins with an extensive reflection by Soloveitchik on Resh Lakish's two statements. In Pretext 1 (which requires re-citation of the Talmudic texts from Chapter 14) Soloveitchik argues that the highest repentance is from love, where sins are elevated and not blotted out. The tension between forgiving and forgetting offers insight into the kind of repentance that can repair the past. Section B (Historiography) raises the question whether an historian must treat the past as similarly open. We consider an exchange of letters between Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin, in response to the latter's efforts to produce a new methodology for studying history—with the intention of redeeming the past (or at least holding it open for our responsibility). Horkheimer's letter (Pretext 3) defends a commonsense moral judgment on the past, but Benjamin's interpretation of that letter and his own response (Pretext 2) resonates closely with Resh Lakish, and also articulates the responsibility to think theologically about history (without doing dogmatic theology).
Levinas, however, proposes his characteristic transformation in Section C (Being Forgiven): the other changes my past in forgiving me. Repentance might prepare me and my past for this action, but I can do no more than hold open my past. The other will have to change it, to mend it. In the diachrony of assignment for the other person my power to represent the past is limited (Pretext 4). What I must respond to is never present; it occurs in a past that was never present. Levinas cites the Song of Songs (Pretext 5) to evoke the missed encounter. An other's forgiveness can mend time, restoring my past by repeating it (Pretext 6). While there is some tension between these
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Publication information: Book title: Why Ethics?Signs of Responsibilities. Contributors: Robert Gibbs - Author. Publisher: Princeton University Press. Place of publication: Princeton, NJ. Publication year: 2000. Page number: 338.
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