Yes­ter­day, Har­ry Brod wrote about why he always has a valid pass­port. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

It’s bet­ter to light a can­dle than to curse the dark­ness.” I first real­ized I didn’t agree with this say­ing when I spoke at a com­mem­o­ra­tion of Kristall­nacht at Keny­on Col­lege where I was teach­ing in 1988. The Night of Bro­ken Glass,” as it’s known in Eng­lish, is often cit­ed as the begin­ning of the Holo­caust, so by that reck­on­ing Novem­ber 9, 1988 was the 50th anniver­sary of the start of the Holo­caust. I was asked to speak as both a philoso­pher and a child of Holo­caust sur­vivors. The evening’s cer­e­mo­ny includ­ed a brief march in which peo­ple car­ried lit can­dles.

The sym­bol­ism of the can­dles was on my mind because I’ve also got my own, more per­son­al asso­ci­a­tions with can­dles on that date. Novem­ber 9, but in 1965, was the date of the East Coast black­out, where much of the north­east US went dark, includ­ing New York City where we lived. We had a lot of can­dles at home because Novem­ber 9 was also my father’s birth­day. Liv­ing in Poland then, he had turned 16 the day of Kristall­nacht. Maybe one of these days I’ll write some­thing more about my con­nec­tions to Novem­ber 9, because that date in 1989 was when the wall came down in Berlin, the city of my birth, the city where my par­ents met and mar­ried.

As we all looked at the lit can­dles in the dark dur­ing that col­lege cer­e­mo­ny, I said that this say­ing pre­sent­ed a false choice. The Holo­caust is a case where we need to do both, light the can­dles as well as curse the dark­ness. Illu­mi­nat­ing the events by under­stand­ing them, as we were try­ing to do in our edu­ca­tion­al envi­ron­ment, does­n’t mean we should­n’t nonethe­less curse that dark­ness. Intel­lec­tu­al under­stand­ing does­n’t replace moral con­dem­na­tion or emo­tion­al release.

Which brings me to the sec­ond say­ing with which I dis­agree. It’s best known in the French form in which Tol­stoy used it in War and Peace: Tout com­pren­dre c’est tout par­don­ner.” To under­stand every­thing is to for­give every­thing.” Sor­ry, not as far as I’m con­cerned. The say­ing inhab­its too mech­a­nis­tic a uni­verse. We can under­stand what dri­ves a per­son to do some­thing, but there’s always at least one moment of choice. Call it my exis­ten­tial­ist side trump­ing my deter­min­ist side. I want to uphold the prin­ci­pal that what one per­son can do, anoth­er can under­stand. Oth­er­wise, what are we doing in the uni­ver­si­ty any­way; if we can’t in prin­ci­ple come to under­stand each oth­er we may as well all just go home. Nihil humani a me alienum puto,” wrote the young Karl Marx in answer to a ques­tion about his favorite max­im, quot­ing Ter­ence. Noth­ing human is alien to me.” But we still may – indeed, some­times we must – deem actions unpar­don­able even if we under­stand them. Again, it’s the Holo­caust that comes to my mind here.

Am I too quick to con­demn and too slow to for­give, too unwill­ing to tem­per jus­tice with mer­cy? Per­haps. But I think we rarely get the bal­ance between the two exact­ly right, and I find I’d rather err on this side than the other.

Har­ry Brod is a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and human­i­ties at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North­ern Iowa and the author of Super­man is Jew­ish?: How Com­ic Book Super­heroes Came to Serve Truth, Jus­tice, and the Jew­ish-Amer­i­can Way (Free Press; Novem­ber 2012).