Q. I’ve been taught that revenge is wrong. But isn’t a little revenge sometimes permissible when we need it to protect our rights?

A. You should thank your teachers. The Torah strictly warns us against taking revenge: “Don’t take vengeance and don’t bear a grudge against the members of your nation; love your neighbor as yourself”. (Leviticus 19:18.) And in many columns we have pointed out that it is unethical to slander or denigrate someone if there is any kind of vindictive motive.

Jewish tradition provides a number of distinctions which can help us sort out the exact extent of this ethical obligation.

One kind of vengeance is categorically forbidden: bearing a grudge when someone fails to do us a favor. The Talmud asks: “What is an example of vindictiveness or bearing a grudge?” The example is given of a person who asks his neighbor to lend him a saw, and the neighbor says no. The next day the same neighbor asks to borrow an axe. If the first person is able to lend the axe but refuses in reaction to the neighbor’s refusal, this is vindictive. And even if he agrees to lend the axe but points out that this is despite the neighbor’s refusal, then he is bearing a grudge.

In other words, even though small kindnesses like these are a major obligation in Jewish culture, if someone fails to help us we have to just forgive and forget. This policy prevents minor disagreements from snowballing into catastrophic feuds.

What if someone actually insults us or causes us harm? The Talmud states: "Those who are insulted but do not insult back, hear themselves slandered but don’t respond, act with love and rejoice in tribulations -- of these Scripture states that ‘Those who love Him are like the sun rising with all its might’"! The righteous person will refrain from taking any action, and not escalate the dispute; but it is permissible to remember the incident and maintain cool relations until the other party asks forgiveness.

If a person does forget himself in the heat of a dispute and responds to an insult or an attack, he is not living up to the ideal ethical level, but it is not considered a sinful act. However, when the next day comes around and things have cooled down, it is again impermissible to react in anger. Here also the general idea is clear: responding in the heat of anger is not likely to escalate the dispute; but after the dispute has cooled down it is absolutely forbidden to renew it. The injured party may demand that the attacker apologize and replace any loss, but under no circumstances should the spat be turned into a feud.

What about those cases in Scripture where we find that vengeance is proper? For example, the children of Israel are ordered to attack the Midianites in revenge for their aggression (Numbers 31:2); and Samson is granted Divine assistance when seeks vengeance against the Philistines for the loss of his eyes (Judges 16:28). The distinction is clear: in these cases the leaders of the people are not being petty or vindictive for their own private honor, but rather are defending the honor as well as the safety and well-being of the entire people.

In the book of Deuteronomy (32:35), God tells us, "Vengeance belongs to Me." Only the Creator is completely free of any petty motivations, and He has the perfect knowledge and power to make sure that vengeance is carried out in an equitable way. But we humans should strive mightily to erase any vindictive feelings, and respond to slights in a way that allows us to defend our dignity, yet takes care not to burn any bridges of understanding and good will.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Yoma 23a; Sema commentary on Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 421:24.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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