What is the face of Jewish vengeance?

What is the face of Jewish vengeance?

Ari Berman

Last summer, in the waning hours of Tisha B’Av, I rewatched the Quentin Tarantino film “Inglorious Basterds,” an irreverent fictional film set during World War II in which a motley crew of U.S. soldiers hunts down and brutally slaughters Nazis.

It’s not exactly “Schindler’s List,” but nonetheless it teaches important lessons. At the end of the movie, the martyred heroine Shoshana — a young Jewish woman orphaned by the Nazis — traps the Nazi high command (including Adolph-you-know-who, may his name be erased) in her theater and sets it ablaze, presumably ending the war and avoiding the murders of more Jews. As part of her plan, Shoshana records a video close-up of her face informing the Nazi leadership that she is the voice, hand, and fire of Jewish vengeance — hysterically laughing as she informs them of their imminent demise.

There are many colorful characters in Tarantino’s film, including, perhaps most notably, the “Bear Jew” — a burly Jewish man from Boston who takes comical pleasure smashing in Nazi officers’ heads with a baseball bat while pretending he’s at Fenway Park. As a die-hard Yankee fan, I would have preferred Yankee Stadium, but it is nonetheless a memorable scene and plays to so many of my visceral impulses — combining baseball, Judaism, and a chance to exact revenge on Nazis.

Since the October 7 attack, the Bear Jew has stirred restlessly within me. Previously he moved only intermittently, typically after feeling six million screams flow through my veins following an uptick in antisemitism. These days, though, I find myself wanting to usher the Bear Jew out of his cave as our people fight for their future.

Judaism’s attitude towards revenge is complicated — for good reason. The Torah teaches us to find balance and assess the circumstances before taking revenge. It entrusts us to judge whether we should eschew vengeance in the name of peace, or whether we should take action to avenge our people or avoid further calamity. At the extremes, it seems easy to distinguish — most of us would justify hunting down Nazi killers (or Hamas) but condemn seeking revenge each time someone wronged us. Of course, aside from October 7 moments, we don’t live our lives in the extremes, and this leaves us to carefully balance our desire for revenge with rapprochement.

The Bible’s depictions of God are complex, and this article won’t do justice to the multifaceted reasons for the myriad anthropomorphic descriptions of Hashem. Suffice to say, the Torah includes divine vengeance as one of God’s manifestations (Deuteronomy 32:35). Whether instructing the Israelites to wipe out all traces of Amalek, ordering Moses (as the final mission) to take revenge upon the Midianites for luring the Israelites to idolatry (Parashat Matot-Masei), or condemning to death Israelites who have forsaken or offended God, there are numerous portrayals of Hashem as a vengeful warrior. Moreover, as King Solomon proclaimed in Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything, including a time for war – that is, there are times when we must fight our enemies, even preemptively, which the Torah permits, indeed sometimes requires (Baylonian Talmud, Berachot 58b).

At the same time, we are taught to treat revenge with great care, and the Talmud cautions against even bearing a grudge. Maimonides warns about revenge as a negative character trait. Some of this is driven by the concept of recognizing that everything that occurs is part of God’s will, and that we should trust Hashem to carry out justice if someone has wronged us. Perhaps this frees us to let go of our natural desire for revenge. As Judaism evolved, it has sought to minimize the need for violent revenge and focus instead on the next generation of Torah learning and pursuing a life of mitzvot.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many Jews continued to struggle with the concept of revenge. It would have been hard to argue with the desire to exact swift and impactful revenge upon our enemies following the destruction of a huge proportion of world Jewry, the murder of six million precious souls. Elie Wiesel — in many ways the voice of voiceless Holocaust victims — wrestled with revenge as a concept, but he appeared to land on a vision of revenge epitomized by the lives Jews rebuilt after the war, including the families we created, the businesses we founded, and the books we wrote. To Wiesel, each act of love and sustaining the next generation was an act of defiance, each Jewish baby was its own act of revenge. I desperately want to cling to Wiesel’s courageously optimistic notion like a dog on a pantleg, never letting go of each Jewish moment: whether watching my children learn how to read Torah or lighting the Shabbat candles as a family at the end of a difficult week. But these days, the Bear Jew won’t let me off the hook that easily.

Following the Hamas attacks, and the disturbing but unsurprising explosion of global antisemitism, revenge has taken on different meaning. How should each of us think about revenge with respect to those who wish us harm in the wake of October 7? To those who claim that the best revenge is living well — I respectfully submit that that’s not enough. We owe more to our brothers and sisters who were killed simply because they were Jewish. We need to live meaningfully and purposefully.

As has become clearer by the day, the world doesn’t tire from persecuting and discriminating against Jews. Whether Hamas’s October 7 attack, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life massacre, or countless less publicized acts of antisemitism, we must match our enemies’ morbid determination with our own relentless efforts to sustain our people, support our Jewish institutions, and strengthen Jewish communities around the world — including, when the skies open in earnest, visiting Israel en masse and without fear.

Post-October 7, the Bear Jew has stirred louder than ever, and a big part of me wants to let him swing away with reckless abandon. Sadly, I find myself justifying this atavistic instinct as appropriately belligerent in the moment. It feels empowering. In my heart of hearts, however, my hope is that our sweetest revenge comes in the form of more Jewish babies, greater communal participation, and a renewed sense of brotherhood, of avenging our brothers and sisters through more Torah and ensuring that the next generation will be more committed than the last.

I pray for the day the Bear Jew is content to retreat to his cave for a long, deep slumber. For now, I rest easy knowing that he’s out and about, watching over all of Israel. Am Yisrael Chai.

Ari M. Berman lives in West Caldwell and is a member of that town’s Congregation Agudath Israel. He is an attorney.

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