Covenant and Conversation – Vengeance

Ha’azinu – 11th September 2010 – 3rd Tishri 5771

One of the most tragic moments in Western civilization came when Christians began distinguishing between what they called “the Old Testament G-d of vengeance” as opposed to the “New Testament G-d of love.” This is not a small error. One trembles to think how many Jews lost their lives because of it. It survives today, even among good and sensitive people. There is hardly a week when I do not see some reference to it in the national press. It is one of those taken-for-granted assumptions that lie buried so deep within a culture that rarely if ever are they examined in the clear light of day.

Let us state a proposition so obvious that it should go without saying. According to Christianity, the G-d of the “Old Testament” and the G-d of the “New” is the same G-d. If He were not, the whole structure of Christianity would crumble and fall. There was one thinker – Marcion in the second century – who reached the alternative conclusion, namely that the values of Judaism and Christianity are so different that they cannot be seen as worship of the same G-d. Therefore Christianity would have to stand on the New Testament alone. The Old Testament could not, for Christians, be sacred scripture. The Marcionite option was rejected and branded a heresy.

It follows therefore that if vengeance is wrong, it could not have been commanded by G-d – not to Christians, and not to Jews. If it was commanded, we must be able to make some moral sense of it, whether we are Jews or Christians. The idea that G-d can change His mind on something as fundamental as this must undermine all faith. For if we believe we are commanded anything at all by G-d, we must believe that G-d, a decade, a century from now will not change His mind and permit what He had previously forbidden or forbid what He had previously permitted. And if we believe we are beloved of G-d. we must believe that this love, too, will last – that G-d will not cast us off in favour of someone else, at some time else. For G-d is faithful – meaning, He does not go back on His word. A god who is faithless would not be a god worthy of worship.

In fact, as I pointed out in earlier studies, G-d forbids vengeance (Lev. 19: 18). He commands forgiveness, as Joseph forgave his brothers who sought to kill him – and as we, on Judaism’s holiest day, ask Him to forgive us. To quote Maimonides: “As long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take revenge. The Torah therefore emphatically warns us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong shall be wholly obliterated and no longer remembered. This is the right principle. It alone makes society and human interaction (yishuv ha-aretz u-masa’an u-matanan shel bnei adam zeh im zeh) possible”(Hilkhot Deot 7: 8). Note that Maimonides talks about human interaction, not Jewish interaction. He means this as a general rule for all humanity.

However, this week’s sedra contains lines (and there are many others elsewhere, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) that are difficult to reconcile with an ethic of non-revenge:

“I lift My hand to heaven and declare:
As surely as I live forever,
when I sharpen My flashing sword
and My hand grasps it in judgment,
I will take vengeance on My adversaries
and repay those who hate Me . . .”
Rejoice, O nations, with His people,
for He will avenge the blood of His servants;
He will take vengeance on His enemies
and make atonement for His land and people.

Three thinkers, Jan Assmann, the Jewish scholar Henri Atlan, and the Christian theologian Miroslav Volf, have something deeply insightful to say about Divine vengeance. Assmann points out a fundamental difference between the Hebrew Bible and other ancient civilizations. In the others, the human king takes on the attributes of a god. The anger of the king is the anger of the god: the latter legitimates the former. In avenging himself against his enemies, the king is doing god’s work. Violence receives a religious sanction. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, there is a profound and unbridgeable distance between the human king and G-d. Anger is “theologized” and thus “transferred . . . from earth to heaven”.

Atlan argues likewise, suggesting that “the best way to rid the world of the violent sacred is to reject it onto a transcendence.” The “transcendence of violence” results in “its being expelled from the normal horizon of things”. In other words – vengeance is removed from human calculation. It is G-d, not man, who is entitled to exercise it. To be sure, there are times when G-d commands human beings to act on His behalf – the battles against the Midianites and the Amalekites are two obvious examples. But once prophecy ceases, as it has done since late Second Temple times, so too does violence in the name of G-d.

Volf agrees with this analysis, and adds that “in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either G-d’s violence or human violence”. He adds:

Most people who insist on G-d’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of G-d’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands . . . And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a G-d who refuses to wield the sword.

Volf, who won the 2002 Grawemeyer Award for his book Exclusion and Embrace, from which these words are taken, is a native Croatian whose theology was shaped by the experience of living and teaching in the former Yugoslavia throughout the ethnic wars of the 1990s. Real confrontation with violence makes one think differently about biblical texts. What Volf goes on to say next are remarkable for their brutal candour:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone . . . Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude to violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

These are words that, to me, have the ring of truth as well as honesty. I think of the Jews of the Middle Ages, who saw their fellow Jews accused of killing Christian children to drink their blood, of poisoning wells, desecrating the host and spreading the plague (the classic work is Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews), and then murdered en masse in the name of the G-d of love. We can still hear their responses: they are recorded for us in many of the lamentations, kinot, we say on the 9th Av.

Yes, they appeal to G-d’s vengeance, which is to say, to G-d’s justice. But Jews did not seek to take vengeance. That is something you leave to G-d. There is a justice we will not see this side of the end of days. In the meantime, it is sufficient to live, and affirm life, and seek no more than the right to be true to your faith without fear – no more than the right to live and defend that selfsame right for your children. The search for perfect justice is not for us, here, now. It is – as Moses taught the Israelites in the great song he sang at the end of his life – something that faith demands we leave to G-d, who alone knows the human heart, who alone knows what is just in a world of conflicting claims, and who will establish perfect justice at a time, and in a way, of His choosing, not ours.

In a world of ethnic conflict, fuelled by sometimes deadly religious fervour, that is a truth in need of re-instatement. There are things we must leave to G-d. Otherwise we will find ourselves in the condition of humanity before the Flood, when the world was “filled with violence” and G-d was “grieved that He had made man on the earth, and His heart was filled with pain.” Vengeance belongs to G-d. It must not be practiced by human beings in the name of G-d.

G-d does not expect us to get it right all the time
Credo – September 2010

Guilt is out of fashion these days, like sports jackets, courtesy, humility and handkerchiefs. It has a sepia-tinted Victorian air about it. It belongs, so it seems, to that foreign country, the past. They do things differently there.

For us, when things go wrong, it was someone else’s fault: the boss, the colleague, the system, the government, the media, our parents, the way we were brought up, society, bad luck or our genes. Feeling guilty, they say, is bad for us. It lowers self esteem. Who does it any more? We have finally reached the age Shelley dreamed of in his poem Prometheus Unbound. We are “free from guilt or pain.”

Alll of which makes it difficult to understand – except as some relic of the past – what Jews throughout the world are now doing, getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, what we call “the Days of Awe.”

Yom Kippur could almost be defined as a festival of guilt. We repent and confess our sins repeatedly in long alphabetical lists. “We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have spoken slander.” “For the sin we committed through hardness of heart, for the sin we committed through utterance of the lips,” and so on throughout the day.

Yom Kippur itself is the culmination of a process that begins forty days before with the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, our moral early warning system. Then come Selichot, the special penitential prayers said for a week before the New Year, then the New Year itself with its symbolism of the world as a courtroom in session, with our lives on trial. It’s hard to think of anything less in keeping with the zeitgeist, the mood of now.

I think, though, that Judaism gets it right and the zeitgeist gets it spectacularly, dangerously wrong. Consider: guilt enters the world hand in hand with the spirit of forgiveness. God forgives: that is the message emblazoned all over Yom Kippur. God doesn’t expect us to get it right all the time. The greatest of the great, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, had their faults and failings, defeats and doubts. There is only one person in the Hebrew Bible who is said to have committed no sin: Job. And look what happened to him. So, because God forgives, we can be honest with Him and therefore with ourselves. Unlike a shame culture, a guilt culture separates agent from act, the person from the deed. What I did may be wrong, but I am still intact, still loved by God, still His child. In a guilt culture, acknowledging our mistakes is doable, and that makes all the difference.

Today’s secular environment is a shame culture. It involves trial by the media, or public opinion, or the courts, or economic necessity, all of which are unforgiving. When shame is involved, it’s us, not just our actions, that are found wanting. That’s why in a shame culture you don’t hear people saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Instead, people try to brazen it out. The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down we know that there’s something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility.

Ultimately, guilt cultures produce strong individuals precisely because they force us to accept responsibility. When things go wrong we don’t waste time blaming others. We don’t luxuriate in the most addictive, destructive drug known to humankind, namely victimhood. We say, honestly and seriously, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Now let me do what I can to put it right.” That way we and the people we offend can move on. Through our mistakes we discover the strength to heal, learn and grow. Shame cultures produce people who conform. Guilt cultures produces people with the courage to be free.

The Talmud says that the Day of Atonement was one of the happiest days of the year. That’s an odd thing to say about a day of fasting and confession. But the rabbis were right. In place of a low dishonest culture where everyone blames someone else and no one admits responsibility, Yom Kippur offers a world of honesty and responsibility where guilt melts in the flames of God’s forgiveness and we are made new in the fire of His unconditional love.