"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind"
(Questionably attributed to Mohatma Ghandi)
It is hard not to see the logic of Ghandi's thought, and from our (post-)modern perspective, it is hard to see the logic behind the original biblical principle. In fact it does not take the perspective of modernity to see the problematic nature of the eye-for-an-eye concept. The rabbis themselves reworked the understanding of the biblical verse - "assuming" that it could never have been meant in its literal sense. In a passage of the Talmud discussing compensation (Bava Kama 83b), the rabbis ask, "Why pay compensation - does not the bible say, "An eye for an eye"?". The rabbis respond to their own question, saying, "סלקא דעתך" - "Cast out that thought of yours!" It is obvious to them, that the meaning of the verse never meant that one whose eye has been gouged out should be allowed to do the same to his attacker - but rather we must pay compensation.
We have convinced ourselves that the very concept of retributive justice is old-fashioned, antiquated, even barbaric - a symbol of a more ignorant, less civilized world. And yet, I am not sure that this conclusion is always correct. It would be tempting to suggest that the spiritual path, the Jewish path, is to reject vengeance, but our tradition is never that simple. Our tradition, as always, has at least two authentic opinions on the question of revenge. In 1945, on his release from a concentration camp, Dr Zalman Grinberg gave the following testimony:
“We do not want revenge. If we took revenge it would mean that we would fall to those moral and spiritual depths in which the German people have been lost for the last ten years. We are not able to murder women and children! We are not able to burn millions of people! We are not able to starve hundreds of thousands!”
It is hard not to agree with his words, and see the morality etched into them. On the other hand, no less of a Jewish view is represented by the last letter of Mordechai Anilewitz,
“The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defence in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been witness to the magnificent heroic fighting of Jewish men of battle.”
Could Anilewitz' desire for revenge be considered immoral?
If we return to Ghandi and his famous quote, it is undeniably true that if we are willing to take an eye for an eye we may all end up blind. But it must be remembered that Ghandi also refused to fight the evil of Nazism - a refusal to engage with evil can lead to a greater evil. Sometimes, intervention is necessary. If we started with a quote questionably attributed to Ghandi, it is reasonable to finish with one of the most common misattributions ever. Edmond Burke never said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” But if he had, he may be adequately reflecting the initial intention of “An eye for an eye”. Vengeance is not Jewish, but Justice, Justice shall you pursue…