Payback: The art of revenge
In the children’s magazine Highlights, home to those moral opposites Goofus and Gallant, we can imagine that revenge is for the likes of Goofus, while Gallant waits for judge and jury. Vengeance is unseemly, the province of the unhinged, while justice is a Greek goddess holding the scales outside a government courthouse.
Even when it comes to Nazis, Simon Wiesenthal titled his book, “Justice, Not Vengeance.” Even after 9/11, President George W. Bush declared, “Ours is a nation that does not seek revenge, but we do seek justice.”
Thane Rosenbaum, author of the new book “Payback: The Case for Revenge” (University of Chicago Press), muses that bombing Afghanistan and putting a bullet in the head of Osama bin Laden “sure looks a lot more like vengeance than like the more measured application of the rule of law. Why all the misdirection and doublespeak?”
Wiesenthal’s delicate distinction wasn’t on too many minds in 1945. In another new book, “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II” (St. Martin’s Press), by Keith Lowe, we’re told that after liberation, plenty of survivors were perfectly comfortable with vengeance; beating, sometimes killing, their ex-guards, kapos and German civilians.
After all, Lowe explains, “Much as we might now deplore vengeance in all its forms… For Hitler’s victims it restored a sense of moral equilibrium. … Acts of vengeance certainly gave individuals, as well as communities, a sense that they were no longer passive bystanders … the recourse to vengeance at least gave them the sense that some kind of justice was possible.”
And yet, noticed Lowe, “Jewish vengeance was insignificant compared to the havoc provoked [by] other nationalities.” Nevertheless, “revenge was perhaps more widespread than is usually admitted. “
Sometimes it was havoc, sometimes highly organized. One Jewish group, Abba Kovner’s Avengers, appeared to have “arranged the assassination of more than a hundred suspected war criminals, as well as the placement of a bomb inside a prison camp for SS men that killed 80 inmates,” writes Lowe. They poisoned the bread inside another prison camp and at least 2,000 Germans “fell sick with arsenic poisoning, although it is not clear how many, if any, died.”
In time, the Avengers gave up their dreams of reprisal, “choosing instead to fight for the future” of a new Jewish state. Here, offers Lowe, “is a clue that might explain why Jewish vengeance was not more widespread.” Vengeance “is an act committed by those who have an interest in restoring some kind of moral balance. For many Jews, perhaps the majority, there was no such interest. They had decided to turn their backs on Europe altogether...”
Lowe quotes one Jew who explains, “We sought to take revenge on our enemies through disparagement, rejection, banning and keeping our distance. ... Only by setting ourselves apart from these murderers completely ... will we be able to satisfy our desire for vengeance, which in essence means doing away with the European exile and building our homeland in the Land of Israel.”
With the passing of the years, writes Rosenbaum, a novelist and professor of law at Fordham University, the gallantry of vengeance began to disappear into “a dark and deeply buried shelf inside the closet of cultural taboos.”
On the High Holidays Rosenbaum noticed that in the new edition of his liberal prayer book, the ancient Avinu Malkenu prayer was edited so that “a line that asked God to avenge the killing of Jews was deleted…. It made God look unhinged… lest [we] be reminded that the language of revenge had once been very much part of the prayers of the Jewish people.”
In the classical Haggadah, though, when the door is opened for Elijah at the seder, what’s recited isn’t the stuff of tikun olam [repairing the world] but a request that God “pour out Thy wrath” against our enemies who have “consumed Jacob and ruined his home.”
“Vengeance can be curtailed and suppressed but it can never be truly undone, nor should it,” writes Rosenbaum. “Whether we admit it or not, whether we are permitted to act on it or not, revenge brings order to the moral universe, establishes the proper measurement for our loss, gives voice to indignity, and serves as a necessary equalizer when victims have been rendered low.”
Justice may be gallant but not always reliable. In 2009, 27 French Muslims were convicted of kidnapping, torturing and murdering a young Jewish man; some received sentences of only six months. In 1992, a jury acquitted Lemrick Nelson of murdering Yankel Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights riot, and some jurors went out and celebrated the acquittal. Nelson confessed to the murder several years later. In Israel, thousands of terrorists served only a fraction of their sentences before being freed in disproportionate prisoner exchanges.
After the murder of five members of the Fogel family by Palestinians, a poll by Ynet-Gesher (taken before the murderers were apprehended) found that 46 percent of Israeli Jews believed that “price tag” attacks (rogue settler vengeance against Palestinians) were justified. The problem with “price tag” attacks, however, is that they are often indiscriminate, not always directly connected to the victim or the perpetrator. Vengeance, says Rosenbaum, has to be as exact and surgical as possible. Experts such as Don Corleone and the Torah’s Jacob agree.
Rosenbaum discusses a scene in “The Godfather,” when a gentleman, Bonasera, comes to Don Corleone because his daughter was raped and beaten but her tormentors were given only a suspended sentence and left the courtroom sneering. All his life, Bonasera said he played it straight, but now, emotionally wounded, he came to the Godfather on the wedding day of the Godfather’s daughter, when all favors are granted. Now Bonasera says, “For justice, we must go to the Godfather.” Bonasera wants the rapists killed. The Godfather says no.
Bonasera’s daughter, after all, is still alive. When Bonasera leaves, the Don instructs his consiglieri, “Give this to, uh, Clemenza. I want reliable people, people who aren’t going to get carried away.” The Godfather, writes Rosenbaum, “will only ensure that the [rapists] will be beaten up, measure for measure, in the same way as they had beaten up Bonasera’s daughter—but no more… . Revenge is a balancing act that is steadied by a fine sense of proportion.”
The story echoes Genesis, when Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, is raped by Shechem, a local chieftain. Shechem was more misguided than malicious; this was a date rape, says Rosenbaum. It was a crime but on some level Shechem and Dinah were soul mates. The Torah says, “his soul cleaved onto her … he loved her” and wanted to marry her. Yet the rape demanded vengeance. Shechem’s people offered gifts and deals to Jacob’s family in exchange for allowing the marriage. Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi (Dinah’s brothers by the same mother, responsible for her honor) make a counteroffer: if Shechem and all his men would undergo a circumcision, he could marry Dinah. While newly circumcised were recovering from the pain, Shimon and Levi killed Shechem, along with every one of his tribe, looting everything they had.
Jacob was furious, afraid that since his family was “few in number,” the avengers of Shechem “will gather themselves against me and kill me.”
“When vengeance is taken to excess,” explains Rosenbaum over the phone, “it ceases to be revenge and can turn into a blood feud that knows no end.” Excessive vengeance loses moral authority “and when that happens, the retaliation… is neither vengeance nor justice.”
Shechem was avenged, but poetically by Jewish tradition. After all, he and his men earned spiritual grace for having been circumcised. The Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria), father of the Kabbalah, taught that the souls of Dinah and Shechem were given the gift of returning centuries later as Cozbi and Zimri in the Book of Numbers—where they were murdered for sexual misbehavior.
And so the souls, still in need of love and healing, returned again, centuries later, in Roman times, this time as the Talmud’s Rabbi Akiva and Madam Turnus Rufus, the ex-wife of the Roman governor, who converted and became Akiva’s second wife. Meanwhile, the souls of Shechem’s circumcised tribe, taught the Ari, returned as Akiva’s yeshiva students, the ones who died during the Omer.
It is said that when Akiva first saw his future wife he laughed, cried and spit. He spit because of her first marriage. He cried because he could see their death. He laughed because he loved her.
Vengeance was theirs.
Jonathan Mark is associate editor at The New York Jewish Week, from which this article was reprinted by permission.