One 50-minute class period

Judgment and Traditional Jewish Texts: The Sunflower

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore the purposes of judgment and forgiveness both in the context of "choiceless choices" and in the role each plays in affecting society.
  • Discuss the connection between such key terms and concepts as, judgment, justice, forgiveness, atonement, "second chances", condoning evil, and forgetting past grievances.
  • Study sources from the Jewish tradition, and see how they shed light on certain moral dilemmas.


This lesson explores issues of judgment and forgiveness through the study of Simon Wiesenthal's book The Sunflower and traditional Jewish texts. The Sunflower raises questions of the limits and possibilities of forgiveness. The use of Jewish texts in this lesson is designed to place moral dilemmas in the context of a 3,000-year-old tradition.


Before the war, Simon Wiesenthal was a skilled architect in Lvov, Poland. During World War II, he was a prisoner in several ghettos and concentration camps. In The Sunflower, Wiesenthal is called away from his work detail to visit the bedside of a dying member of the SS. This young soldier confesses to Weisenthal the atrocities to which he was an accomplice in hopes that Wiesenthal will absolve him of his sins. It is this question of forgiveness that becomes the central theme of the book.

After the war Wiesenthal began gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the United States Army. Wiesenthal has dedicated his life hunting for war criminals. Visit The Simon Wisenthal Center website for a more complete biography of Wiesenthal.



  1. Begin this activity by having students write in their journals responses to these questions: What are the different purposes for judgment? What are different purposes for forgiveness? Discuss in a large group why do we bother to judge people's actions, and why we might forgive wrongdoings.

  2. Provide students with some background on Simon Wiesenthal and the dilemma of The Sunflower. If you have access to the film Murderers Among Us, show the six-minute film clip describing the circumstances and dilemma of the story. If you show the film, make sure you are able to give the background from the book in order to fill in some of the details.

  3. As the students think about how they would respond in the same circumstances, divide the class into pairs or small groups, and give each group one of the texts below, all taken from Biblical and Rabbinic literature. Rabbinic Literature consists primarily of the Babylonian Talmud (codified in the 600's CE), and texts known as midrashim, which begin as expositions on the Biblical text, but often go in many directions. Rabbinic literature is a mix of law and stories, and is traditionally studied in pairs or small groups. As each group looks at one text, they should think about these questions: What does the text say? How do you react to it? How does it help in informing our judgment about Simon's actions?

    NOTE: You do not need to use all of these quotes. We have found that using three to five quotes, with each group examining one quote, seems to work well. You can use however many quotes are appropriate for your particular class size and grade level. 

    • But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; in his righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? says the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezek. 18:21-23)
    • Rabban Shimon, the son of Gamliel, said, "The world stand on three things: on truth, on judgment, and on peace; as it is stated [in Scripture]: ‘Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.'" [Zech. 8:16] (Avot 1:18)
    • This may be compared to a king who had some empty glasses. He said, "If I pour hot water into them, they will burst from the heat; if cold, they will snap." What did he do? He mixed hot and cold water together and poured it into them, and so they remained. Even so, God said, "If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of justice alone, the world cannot exist. Therefore, I will create it with a combination of mercy and justice, and may it then stand." (Bereshit Rabbah 12:15)
    • Matters between you and the One who is everywhere may be forgiven you. Matters between you and another person will not be forgiven until you conciliate him. (Sifre on Leviticus)
    • The Master said: In connection with Horeb [penitence and] forgiveness is stated. Whence do we know that? Because it was taught : R. Eleazar said: It is impossible to say. ‘He will not clear the guilt' [Ex. 34:7], since it says: ‘He will clear the guilt'; nor is it possible to say: ‘He will not clear the guilt' since it is said: ‘He will clear the guilt'; how is that to be explained? ‘He clears the guilt' of those who repent, and does not ‘clear the guilt' of those who do not repent. (Yoma 86a)
    • If a person is penitent, one must not say, "Remember your former deeds." (Baba Metzia 58b)
  4. Come back together as a whole class, and have each small group summarize their discussion. What was their text saying? What were the implications? How do they connect to the dilemma that Wiesenthal faced?
  5. If there is time, hand out copies of responses from the symposium at the end of the book. You may want to have a cross-section of responses and responses from people with varying religious and ethnic backgrounds.
  6. Based on the story, the texts, the symposium responses and the class discussion, ask the students, "What would you have done in Simon's situation? Why?"
  7. Finish the discussion by repeating the original questions: what are the different goals of judgment? What are the different goals of forgiveness?



While there may be various ways to formally assess comprehension of the issues raised in this activity, simply listening to students articulate their position regarding Wiesenthal's dilemma, and the connection to Jewish text can be invaluable as a method for gauging the level of understanding


Compare Wiesenthal's actions, and the responses from the symposium, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. How are they coming to terms with their past? How do they see the purposes of judgment and forgiveness? Do they find that forgiveness is leading to a more licentious society, or a stronger, more moral society?

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