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An eye for an eye?

Is Judaism a religion of revenge?

Words from a Torah passage. Source: Cottonbro studio/Pexels.
Words from a Torah passage. Source: Cottonbro studio/Pexels.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

I once heard a story about two Jews back in Russia who got into a terrible argument. Their blood pressure was rising fast. One fellow got so incensed that he shouted, “I am so angry at what you’ve done to me that I… uh… I uh… I know: I won’t go to your funeral!”

Whereupon the other guy very calmly replied: “I don’t take revenge. I will go to your funeral.”

While other cultures sanction and may even encourage revenge, in Judaism revenge is explicitly forbidden (Leviticus 19:18).

Some Muslim countries still practice amputation as a punishment for stealing. It seems anathema to the modern mind. Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find that famous line: “An eye for an eye … a hand for a hand … a wound for a wound.”

Why?

The Talmud in Bava Kama explains that never in Jewish history was “an eye for an eye” understood literally. It was understood as the value of an eye for an eye; a monetary compensation, rather than an act of pure vengeance with no positive purpose. The Talmud offers several logical proofs as to why this is so.

Besides, taking out the culprit’s eye will not bring back the victim’s eye. It does nothing for him. But financial compensation can help. It brings some relief to the victim and an element of atonement for the perpetrator.

In Judaism, there is no such thing as punishment that is purely punitive. A generation of teachers punished their ill-behaved students by making them stand in the corner, wear a dunce cap or write 500 times, “I will not throw spitballs at the teacher.” What rehabilitative effect did that have? Probably, it only made the students angrier and they behaved worse than they had before.

The concept of imprisonment does not exist in Judaism. We find it only in a handful of circumstances in which the penalty for the crime was not yet known and the guilty party was temporarily put in a holding cell.

In the Torah, besides monetary compensation, there are mainly two types of punishment: Lashes, which would no doubt serve as a very serious deterrent to repeating the crime, and capital punishment for extreme crimes like murder. Though rarely enforced, the death penalty was on the statute books. There are times when a person’s sin is so grave that their only atonement can be giving up their own life. But prison as a punishment didn’t feature at all.

How successful is our prison system today? In the U.S., they have been calling prisons “correctional centers” for many years now. But the number of rehabilitated prisoners whose way of life has been “corrected” is, sadly, very low. Most of those released become repeat offenders and end up right back where they came from.

The very same verse in Leviticus that forbids revenge also prohibits even bearing a grudge. But while Jews are not meant to practice revenge, Jewish law would hand down penalties that required the offender to atone for his offense. This was not punitive, but spiritually rehabilitative. Someone guilty of manslaughter, for example, would be exiled to a city of refuge. He did it accidentally, it wasn’t premeditated murder, but by going into exile the wrongdoer would atone for taking another’s life, albeit inadvertently. 

“Sweet revenge” is sanctioned all too often in society today. On radio talk shows people are invited to share their stories of how they retaliated against someone who wronged them. We are even subjected to the shocking and shameful phenomenon of “revenge porn”  and many people consider it appropriate or, worse still, funny. 

I remember that while I was growing up in my parents’ home in Brooklyn, I once overheard them discussing how to react to someone who had wronged them quite badly. In the end, they decided not to respond in kind, as they were not prepared to stoop to the level of the person who hurt them.

Indeed, it is the mark of a true mensch to do the right thing, even when others around you are not. As the legendary Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot, “Where there are no men, strive to be a man.” A “real man,” a true mensch, always does the right thing, whether it is popular or not.

Or, as a witty gentleman once put it, “Be nice to your enemies. It’ll drive them crazy!”

I think of Israel today. The IDF is not on any revenge mission in Gaza. It is conducting a campaign to prevent future massacres by unrepentant terrorists who promise to do it again and again unless they are stopped. This is not revenge. This is saving innocent lives. God bless them.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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