Friday, May 4, 2012

Revenge, Torah and Christianity

Anger, By Shubhojoy Mitra, creative commons license

The movie Ajami is an Israeli-Palestinian co-production that for me is about the heartbreaking cost of revenge. Much of the plot is driven by two Arabic teenagers, one a gentle sweet faced boy of around 14 who is a bit of an artist, and their family being pursued by a Bedouin crime family bent on avenging the death of one of theirs, unless they receive a financially crippling payment of blood money. An Israeli character also has his own vengeance to attend to after his soldier-brother is found dead near a Palestinian village. I empathised with both the Israeli and Arabic characters, portrayed as every day human beings who deeply love their families. Apart from humanising protagonists from both sides, my overwhelming impression was of the horrible needless suffering directly flowing from the perceived for some kind of vengeance.

I wonder if my low tolerance for revenge is the result of Christian influences on me, particularly from a young devout Christian peace builder I greatly admire named Jarrod McKenna. I remember when I first started work as a Rabbi 15 years ago, I was teaching a young adult about divine retribution as one of the themes the Friday night prayers. At the time, I thought this idea of divine justice was quite beautiful, righting the wrongs of the world. My student challenged me, would it not be better if at the end of days no one suffered? I remember reflecting on how different my perspective had been to that of my student who was raised with more exposure to Christian and secular influences.

These influences have been blocked out to some extent in the Hasidic community in Crown Heights that I was raised in. One on level it is fair enough for communities to stay true to their own teachings, the question is how to do that while fostering respectful interfaith relationships. The International Council of Christians and Jews’ called on Jewish communities to include basic and accurate background information about Christianity in the Curricula of Jewish schools[i]. In my very orthodox Chasidic community this is simply not going to happen.  I will not argue about the core objection to learning about other faiths generally, except to share what I was told by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks[ii] that schools could teach about other faiths in the same way as one learns about other cultures.

This post looks at Torah sources about revenge and considers the Jewish- Christian relationship in that light.  

Prohibition of revenge and promotion of forgiveness
The verse “an eye for an eye[iii]” is not about revenge but monetary compensation[iv]. Revenge and even holding a grudge is forbidden in the text of the Torah[v]. One way to overcome the urge for revenge is by considering a case of a person cutting meat that accidentally cuts his arm, would he then take revenge and cut the hand that was holding the knife[vi]?! Faith can help a person see the hand of God in the offence, and this can help him not bear a grudge against the person who ‘acts as God’s tool’[vii].  This is dramatically played out in the story of Joseph when he insists on not holding a grudge against his brothers who sold him into slavery because he sees it all as fulfilment of God’s plan so that he could save many lives during the famine in Egypt[viii]. In the prayers before going to sleep, we proclaim forgiveness for anyone who sinned against me… in this life or another life…no one should be punished on my account[ix]

Permission and even encouragement of revenge
The teachings against revenge need to be considered alongside other guidance such as the clear instructions to take revenge against Midiyan[x] and never to forget the evil deeds of Amalek who attacked you us when we were vulnerable[xi]. This apparent contradiction is probably the reason the Talmud gives a very mundane example to illustrate this principle, a case of two people who want to borrow tools from each other. Refusal to lend a tool should not be reciprocated or even mentioned[xii]. The definition is narrowed to exclude cases of in which there is a monetary obligation[xiii], or in offenses against one’s body where there has been no apology[xiv], or murder in which case the relative would be encouraged to “redeem the blood” of his relative by killing his relatives killer with permission of the court[xv]. Scholars are encouraged to stand up against people who disrespect them, one sage going so far as to state that any sage that does not take revenge and hold a grudge like a snake is no scholar[xvi].  This has been explained as being about disrespect of the Torah the stage studied. Even God himself is portrayed (in addition to compassionate etc) as a God of vengeance[xvii]. One explanation of this is that God conquers anger while in a person who takes revenge the anger will conquer him[xviii].

Another consideration is that the prohibition of revenge refers explicitly to “the sons of your nation” and is understood to apply only between Jews[xix]. One argument by an East European commentator of the 16th early 17th century is that “disputes between Jews will typically be about unimportant offenses relating to money or body that don’t merit revenge but when revenge is permitted against someone from another nation because typically he wants to cause you to transgress the commandments of God and to lead you astray from God[xx].  In his context that was probably true, yet it is ridiculous and highly offensive not to recognise the change of heart and efforts of Christians in the 2nd half of the 20th century toward reconciliation with the Jews.

A bold idea, embracing enemies
My Christian friend Jarrod is into radical peace building. He is not a saint and felt plenty of anger when a man he knew was murdered. Yet he believes that he is called to love his enemies. The Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa seems to be an example of the value of that kind of approach. While not the same, parallel teaching can be found in Judaism. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi famously warned his followers about his opponents known as Mitnagdim who framed him and caused him to be imprisoned in Czarist Russia. He called on his followers not to “jeer nor whistle derisively at them, heaven forfend… (instead to respond to their opponents)… with “a soft answer [that] turns away anger[xxi],” and with a restrained spirit. And through all that, perhaps God will put [a conciliatory and loving response] into the heart of their brethren[xxii] God tells the offended party, “let your love for me overcome the hatred you have with him and through this peace will come between you[xxiii] and in another version,” let your love with him” presumably the one who hurt you, overcome the hatred…so that peace will come to the world[xxiv]”.

As a Jew, I still see some merit in the arguments that retribution has its place. There is a reason for the presence of this device in so many cultures. There are flawed human beings who will only restrain their unsavoury impulses out of fear of punishment[xxv]. While my tradition provides a mix of ideas about how to respond to grievances, I think in many cases it is worth emphasising the more generous teachings and applying them to people regardless of race or religion. Yet, there is something to be admired in the bold, positive, “game changing” approach of Christians to their enemies that can be supported by teachings within my own tradition.

[i] A time for recommitment, the twelve points of Berlin: A call to Christian and Jewish communities worldwide
[ii] Conversation I had with the Chief Rabbi at a private visit in his home March 2011
[iii] Exodus 21:24
[iv] Mechilta on Exodus and the Talmud in Ketuvot 32b and Bava Kamma 83b
[v] Leviticus 19:17
[vi] Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4
[vii] Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 247, Tanya: Igeret HaKodesh - Epistle 25
[viii] Genesis 50:20
[ix] Siddur Tehilat Hashem p.141
[x] Number 31:2
[xi] Deuteronomy 25:17-19
[xii] Talmud Yoma 23a
[xiii] Ramban
[xiv] Hizkuni 19:17
[xv] Ramban
[xvi] Talmud Yoma 23a, commentary then softens it to say that the sage holds a grudge but does not fight back, he simply keeps it in his heart and then if someone else takes revenge on his behalf the sage is silent
[xvii] Psalms 94:1
[xviii] Hizkuni on
[xix] Kohelet Rabba 88:8
[xx] Klei Yakar, by Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 –1619)
[xxi] Proverbs 15:1
[xxii] Tanya Igeret Hakodesh 2, translation from
[xxiii] Bchor shor
[xxiv] Hizkuni
[xxv] Pirkey Avot 3:2


  1. Along with that is "forgiveness." In Islaam, although there is the concept of blood money for certain crimes, we are encouraged to forgive others, because Allaah says (paraphrased), "Forgive because you wouldn't want Me to not forgive you." The Prophet (saw) also said that anger is destructive. He said a person gets all red in the face, etc., when angry because anger is the manifestation of the Fire. The Prophet (saw) was definitely a man who "turned the other cheek." In one particular story in the Qur'aan, the Prophet (saw) and one of his companions went to a certain place to invite the people to Islaam. The people weren't having any of it, and they set the children of the town upon him and his companion. They drove them out of the town. The hadith describes blood running down into the Prophet's (saw) sandals. The Angel appeared to him and said (paraphrased), "Do you want me to turn this mountains over on these people for how they did you," and the Prophet (saw) declined. There is no ahadith on record where he took retribution or revenge on people.

    1. Thank you Safiyyah, I never heard that particular story before. The teachings about anger and forgiveness are most appreciated. Especially the point about there being no Ahadith about revenge.