Inglourious Basterds, the new movie by the director Quentin Tarantino, describes a Jewish campaign of revenge against the Nazis at the peak of World War II, which leads to a change in the course of history. This is a brutal, scathing, baseless and breathtaking fabrication, and its sweeping cinematic manifestation raises questions regarding the gap between the fantasy of revenge in the cultural sense and the desire to fulfill it. Yoske Achituv examines these questions and describes how Jewish culture deals with the issue of revenge and its place in the space between the text and the idea, on the one hand, and the act and execution, on the other. He further examines the question of whether grandiose fantasizing about revenge can free a person from the longing for revenge, or whether it in fact intensifies the desire to fulfill the fantasy.
By Yoske Achituv
The God of Israel in the Bible is, among other things, the God of Vengeance. Vengeance is presented in the Bible apparently as a given in the legal framework: “My hand takes hold of judgment; I will render vengeance to Mine adversaries, and will recompense them that hate Me” (Deuteronomy 32:41). Despite the harsh language used by the writer to describe God’s vengeance, such as: “I will make Mine arrows drunk with blood, and My sword shall devour flesh; with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired heads of the enemy” (ibid. 42), it does not exceed the boundaries of the attribute of justice. Moreover, it also contains an expression of atonement: “And he will appease his land and his people” (ibid. 43).
Human revenge, however, is different. It does not involve judgment and is not based on reason. Humans are motivated to exact revenge by their emotions. Human revenge, beyond the element of punishment, has within it a component of anger over an injustice that has been committed. The expression of such anger can deviate from its appropriate dimensions and harm not only the object of the revenge but his family and surroundings as well. The boundaries of revenge are unmarked. It is no coincidence that in the Bible we find a tendency to limit human revenge and that in Western society it has been prohibited altogether.
In our religious and traditional culture, various ways have been found in practice to neutralize revenge. As shown by Professor Elimelech Horowitz in his research, revenge against Amalek and various persecutors of the Jews has been “channeled” by, for example, identifying them with Haman and hanging them on a high tree on Purim, or through the custom “among children of creating a figure of Haman on trees and rocks or writing the name Haman on them and hitting one against the other in order to erase his name,” as recorded by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the 16th century in Cracow, Poland. Another way is to encourage a fantasy of revenge, which is channeled through the harsh lyrics in the hymns and prayers, such as on Purim and when kinot are read on Tisha B’Av and other public fasts. It is also manifested in the metamorphosis of the enemy and identifying him as, for example, the evil impulse, which is fought against without any blood being shed. Finally, human revenge is neutralized by transferring the function of avenging to God during
the Final Days.
A poster for Inglourious Basterds. Provided by Globus Group.
However, there are two contexts in which there are still those who seek to justify actual acts of revenge. The first is the national context, in which acts of revenge are viewed as being in the interest of the national collective. Even when the act of revenge is personal and individual it is carried out in the name of the nation and for its benefit, such as, for example, avenging its honor or in order to save the nation from a leadership that endangers it or acts against the wishes of God.
The second context in which there are those who justify acts of revenge is based on certain theological and mystical beliefs. Thus, for example, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg justified Baruch Goldstein’s murder spree in the Machpelah Cave in 1994 as an act of revenge based on the belief in divine emanation in all experience, including nature, a characteristic of which is revenge. Ginzburg writes: “Revenge is a natural spontaneous reaction …[it occurs] outside of any rational calculation…Someone who takes revenge becomes part of the ecological flows within reality. His real essence and that of the world come together” (Baruch Hagever, pp. 17-18). An act of revenge, which is under these conditions free of any self-interest, is in his opinion worthy of praise and the act of Shimon and Levi is to him paradigmatic in this respect: “…It is a departure from this world’s realm of morals which involves acting on a higher plane.” It appears, therefore, that one cannot always predict the results of mystic beliefs on ethical behavior in general and the justification of acts of revenge in particular.
Yoske Achituv, a member of Kibbutz Ein Tsurim, is a teacher at the Yaakov Herzog Center and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.