Friday, February 6, 2015


In early February, the media displayed a video of the death of a Jordanian military officer, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive in his jail at the hands of an Islamic terrorist group called ISIS (“Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”). The pictures shocked the conscience of every civilized country around the world. The reaction of the Jordanians was swift. King Abdullah immediately ordered the execution of two ISIS terrorists held in a Jordanian jail, a suicide bomber wanted back by the militants and another top lieutenant of al-Queda. The Jordanian air force also bombed a number of targets in Syria. 

Many people around the globe appeared to support the reaction, including most of my students at the Ethics class I teach at Framingham State University. Their argument: They did it to us; we will do it to them, even in stronger terms. However, the reaction did not sit well with me. I immediately thought of the Biblical command: “You shall not seek revenge or bear a grudge against your neighbor” (Lev. 19: 18). Similarly, the Book of Proverbs teaches us, “Do not say, ‘I will do to him what he did to me; I will pay the man what he deserves’ ” (24: 29).Was it ethical of the Jordanians to react in such a knee-jerk fashion? 

Jewish commentators discuss extensively the implication of the biblical command found in Leviticus, knowing full well that the Bible also recognizes the validity of lex talionis (“tit for tat”) introduced in the ancient Near East by the Code of Hammurabi of the 18th cent. BCE (see, for example, Ex. 21:23-25; in the Code of Hammurabi, #195ff). 

For the biblical commentator David Z. Hoffman of Berlin (d. 1921), “taking vengeance” implies immediate revenge, whereas “bearing a grudge” means nursing hatred in one’s heart, awaiting a later opportunity to inflict damage on the perpetrator. Both are prohibited by biblical and rabbinic law, with some going to extremes, such as Sefer Ha-Hinukh, The Book of Mitzvah Education of the 16th century (Barcelona, Spain), arguing that whatever happens in life is because of God’s doing, and “should a man inflict suffering or pain on him (the victim), let him know in his soul that his bad deeds were the cause” (#241). 

I cannot go that far. I do, however, maintain that revenge does not accomplish anything, except for the immediate satisfaction that one feels in one’s heart. But that is not a civilized answer. If every person who suffers injustice tries to get even, there will be no end to the cycle of violence. As the Talmud states, “He who takes vengeance or bears a grudge acts like one who, having cut one hand while handling a knife, avenges himself by stabbing the other hand” (J. Ned. 9:4). 

I understand and appreciate the anger that victims have towards their perpetrators. The question is whether revenge is the best response. In Eleni, a remarkable book written by Nicholas Gage (1983), the author tells the story of how his mother Eleni was executed for arranging the escape of her children from their Communist-occupied village in Greece. Decades later, as an adult, Gage sought out the person responsible for her death. He found the culprit in South America, but when he met him in person, he couldn’t find the strength to take revenge, and moved away. Recently, Martin Greenfield, a tailor who survived the Holocaust has revealed how he came inches away from assassinating a senior Nazi’s wife, but his conscience saved him from stooping to the level of the SS (Daily Mail, Nov. 2014). I think this reaction is difficult but correct. Revenge corrodes the soul and destroys the humanity of the victim. Sometimes, it is better to let things go away. You don’t have to remain friendly with the perpetrator but, from now on, you must be vigilant, and move on. 

What do you think?

Rifat Sonsino

Feb.6, 2015