Continuing our study of R. Meir Kahane’s Or Ha-Ra’ayon (link), we turn to his chapter (12) on revenge. R. Kahane sees revenge as an important tool in repairing the world, something Westerners would certainly find surprising. However, classical Jewish ethicists also see revenge very differently.
I. Kahanist View of Revenge
R. Kahane believes that exacting revenge is a great mitzvah. “There is nothing greater and more righteous than revenge in its place and time” (p. 119). His argument is theological: When the wicked prosper, God’s providence becomes more hidden. By facilitating divine justice, the avenger increases awareness and the glory of God. Revenge is a Kiddush Hashem.
Revenge is a cause for joy, celebrating God’s victory over the wicked (pp. 128, 130). It is a mitzvah that the most righteous Jews strive to fulfill. Admittedly, people often find it difficult to overcome their innate feelings of mercy but those who are able to do so receive ample reward (pp. 132-133). Those who cannot exact God’s revenge ironically display cruelty, even heresy, and deny justice its proper place in the world (pp. 119, 132).
R. Kahane makes two important distinctions regarding revenge. First, you are forbidden to take revenge on other Jews and only permitted on gentiles. This distinction is important in explaining the Torah’s apparent contradictions regarding revenge, praising it (e.g. Psalms 58:11) but also forbidding it (Lev. 19:18). Revenge against Jews is forbidden but against gentiles is even a mitzvah (pp. 120-121). I hope to discuss in a later post R. Kahane’s attitude toward gentiles and therefore will refrain from discussing this further here.
The second distinction is a matter of intent: Revenge out of anger or hatred is unacceptable but based on the desire to increase God’s glory is a mitzvah (pp. 125, 132).
II. Is Revenge Good?
The key criticism on this subject that can be filed against R. Kahane is one of emphasis. He seems more enthusiastic about revenge than any prior scholar. Everyone agrees that the wicked should be brought to justice and that accomplishing such a task is worthy of satisfaction. However, R. Kahane seems to relish it, making it a prime objective.
In comparison, R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (Midos Ha-Nefesh 2:4) writes: “This trait [of cruelty] is in the soul [of one] who achieves revenge against enemies. It is not that bad when used in this way even though the enlightened person should not fully achieve this trait and should not exact revenge on his enemy with all his ability because this is not a good trait. As it says, ‘Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy.’” According to R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, revenge is a necessary evil that the righteous should never fully embrace.
The Orechos Tzadikim (end of achzarius) warns against taking any revenge by stooping to the level of your enemy: “Beware of revenge that emerges from cruelty. If you wish to take revenge, add good [spiritual] levels and walk in the path of the just. With this, you will exact revenge on your enemies who will be pained by your trait and will mourn over your good reputation and good name. But if you perform reprehensible acts then your enemy will rejoice on your shame and take revenge on you.” The Orechos Tzadikim suggests taking the higher road and exacting revenge by acting better than your enemy.
III. Godly Revenge
The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:54) writes that biblical descriptions of God’s anger and vengeance represent His actions and not His emotions:
God’s actions are similar to those that people perform as an expression of some emotion, although God does them without any underlying emotion. It is proper for a leader to emulate God in this aspect. He must do what is appropriate, but not as an expression of emotion… Yet, his acts of kindness should be more frequent than his punishments.
According to the Rambam, we cannot choose revenge as our primary theme but must rather focus more on the positive than the negative.
Following that approach, R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam (Guide to Serving God, pp. 88, 94, 96, 98) writes:
This person [tasked with exacting revenge] should behave according to the statement, ‘and you shall follow His ways.’ Some of God’s ways are ‘slow to anger, pardons iniquity, and overlooks transgression’ and thus, he should be forgiving (in personal matters). Some of God’s ways are ‘jealous and repaying of iniquity’ and thus, he should demand that the people respect their religious obligations to God. He should not be lenient about those matters.
Nonetheless, most of God’s ways are merciful, with a few of strict justice. Therefore, even in religious issues, one must not be quick to avenge and punish. There must first be verification, deliberation, inquiry and ascertainment of the need for punishment…
[We occasionally find a leader] with great intellect and devoutness, adept in the ways of God to the point where anger is inwardly absent. Yet, he is not neglectful or permissive when it comes to the people’s obligations to God. He enforces them as required and seeks to uphold them, without being moved to anger. My father and teacher explained in the Moreh HaNevuchim (1:54) that such a person is on a great level and is soundly of the path for God, for God is beyond all wrath and emotion. The references to God’s wrath are metaphors, which enable us to grasp the concept of His punishments, as our Sages said, ‘The Torah speaks in human terms.’
Like his father, R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam demands that revenge be taken without anger. Not everyone is capable of such a difficult emotional task but whomever the community appoints must be able to act in such a godly fashion, acting with justice and without anger.
IV. Punishment for the Sinner
In a more recent discussion, R. Shaul Yisraeli (Si’ach Shaul, end of Emor) notes the aforementioned contradiction between the prohibition of taking revenge and approval elsewhere in the Bible. He resolves the texts with the Medieval explanation of the seemingly redundant statement after the stoning of the blasphemer that the Jews did as God commanded (Lev. 25:23). Ramban and Seforno explain that the Jews punished the sinner only because God commanded them to do so and not out of any feelings of hatred or vengeance.
R. Yisraeli explains that revenge in itself is improper. However, when someone sins he must fully repent and repay his debt. If he fails to do so, then the court or its emissaries must help him fulfill his duty. Punishment is not revenge. It is assisting a sinner pay his due for his misdeeds.
This all speaks to the unusual emphasis R. Kahane places on revenge. He agrees that it must not be taken in anger yet seems to display an endless reservoir of that emotion. He raises revenge on a flagpole rather than regretfully admitting its unfortunate necessity. He elevates vengeance–the desire for revenge–to a fundamental theological concept of Judaism today.
R. Yehudah (Leo) Levi puts it well in his Facing Current Challenges: Essays on Judaism (p. 353):
[T]here is a facet of Rabbi Kahane’s group which prevents the Torah community from supporting them. This facet shows itself in their symbol–the clenched fist. The fist alludes to “the hands are the hands of Esau”–the very antithesis of the Jewish people. True, at times the Torah also calls for the use of force. But whenever this occurs, we regret the need for it, and one does not pick as his trademark something which one regrets.”
In R. Kahane’s defense, we can suggest that soldiers cannot function properly with the mixed message presented above. We are at war and must patriotically embrace our military requirements. Nuance, it can be claimed, cripples the soldier mentality. Yet I remain unconvinced. Somehow soldiers from other streams of thought in Israel manage fine with nuance.