Two journalists were recently murdered by a former colleague during an on-air TV interview. How does the Torah view revenge?
We must first address a case where there is need for self- defence. While some would advocate turning the other cheek, Judaism insists on the responsibility to fight against an oppressor if it is necessary to defend oneself.
The Torah (Leviticus 19:16) instructs us not to ‘stand over the blood of our fellow’. The Talmud interprets this as an obligation to protect someone whose life is being threatened or who is in danger of financial loss. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein rules there is a similar obligation to protect someone being physically beaten, even if there is no danger of loss of life. If one is obligated to save others, one is surely obligated to save oneself.
It is irresponsible for one to ‘stand idly by one’s own blood’ and allow oneself to be abused. Of course, one’s response must be rational, sensible and must not violate any of the laws governing relationships between man and his fellow. But what about when one is not in danger of being harmed in the future?
Does Judaism recognise a human prerogative to take revenge against a former oppressor? Leviticus 19:18 forbids revenge.
While Maimonides understands this to be a general prohibition against vengeance, most authorities see it as limited to grievances related to monetary issues. Hence, according to the letter of the law, one is not forbidden to take vengeance against someone who caused physical or emotional harm. Two important caveats must be mentioned.
First, one’s vengeance must not involve a transgression of any of the laws relating to interpersonal relationships.
Second, the Rabbis (Yoma 23a) teach that the ideal path (beyond the law’s requirement) is to refrain from responding to insult or injury of any kind. Subtly different to the concept of revenge is that of retribution or justice.
While the Torah forbids human revenge, the Psalms refer to Hashem as a God of vengeance. While this is the literal translation of the verse in Psalms, Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the Torah renders it as ‘God, the master of punishment’. Judaism deplores wilful revenge while preserving the value of commensurate punishment, which is legally sanctioned.
A moral society must send a message of repudiation of evil and do everything legally possible to ensure wrongdoing does not go unpunished. While we aren’t free to take the law into our own hands and passion may not override the due process of law, Judaism insists on the operation of law through fair trial and, when applicable, the punishment of the guilty.
• Anthony Knopf is rabbi of Camps Bay Synagogue, Cape Town