Tzvi Novick

Revenge in Judaism
Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson (

Is revenge a Jewish value? It is well known that the Torah prohibits “taking vengeance against one’s countryman” (Leviticus 19:18).[1]  This prohibition governs interpersonal relationships among Israelites.  Its point is: Don’t try to get back at your fellow Israelite who has wronged you; rather, try to teach him to be better.  Put differently, the point seems to be: Save vengeance for others.  Which others?  At various points, the Torah celebrates vengeance upon the wicked, or on Israel’s enemies.  God commands Moses, as his final task before his death, to “extract the vengeance of the Israelite people upon the Midianites” (Numbers 31:2), who had led the Israelites into sin (25:1-9).  God is himself “a God of vengeance,” dedicated to “giving the arrogant their desserts,” according to the opening of the psalm that is recited every Wednesday in the Jewish liturgy (Psalms 94:1-2).  Likewise, in Moses’ song at the end of the Torah, God declares: “Mine is vengeance and recompense” (Deuteronomy 32:35), against the nations that were God’s vehicle for punishing Israel.

Here, however, it is important to better define precisely what we mean when we speak of revenge or vengeance.  At its core, the Hebrew word naqam, rendered above as “vengeance,” simply indicates the repaying of evil with evil.  When the Psalms describe God as “a God of vengeance,” it means to say that God is angered by evil, and responds by punishing it.  What distinguishes vengeance, as the punishing of evil, from justice?  It is different because it is personal.  It is a matter of giving satisfaction to the victim.  “Satisfaction” is a legal concept; think of the notion of satisfaction of a debt.  But we also use the word to indicate a state of mind; think of the satisfaction of a desire, of feeling satisfied.  Revenge can be a source of satisfaction and thus pleasure, immediately for the victim and vicariously for others.  This is the pleasure of a Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy.  It is satisfying to see the look of confusion and fear on the face of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa at the end of the movie.  A part of us wants to be the Jew bear.

I think we must acknowledge (even if it makes us uncomfortable) that the Torah indeed endorses vengeance as a good, at the national level.  How are we to understand this?  Evidently, within a Jewish worldview framed by the Bible, it is important for Israel as a people, and for Israel’s God, to take an assault on Jews personally; this is arguably a corollary of the very notions of peoplehood and covenant.  And God and the people Israel, in responding to such evil, can and should recognize their response as personal.

And yet, it is also important to appreciate that the Bible also critiques national vengeance.  The Bible in fact flags the personal character of vengeance as problematic.  Where does it do so?  First and foremost, through the Samson story, the beginning of which is the haftarah for Shabbat Naso.

Here is the story of Samson, in brief.  An angel heralds his birth: Samson will help to save Israel from Philistine oppression.  And he is to be a nazirite, partaking of no grape products or alcohol, and never shaving his hair.  As Samson grows up, he comes to possess superhuman strength, along with a great appetite for Philistine women.  His involvement with Philistine women becomes a regular source of conflict with the Philistines, and Samson inevitably gets the better of the Philistines, killing many of their men and devastating some of their lands.  The Philistines seek to learn the source of Samson’s strength, and ultimately make the discovery through the treachery of Samson’s wife, Delilah: It is his hair.  With Delilah’s help, they shear his hair, put his eyes out, and enslave him.  But his hair begins to grow back, and when he finds himself in a great gathering of Philistines, come to celebrate his downfall, he manages to drop the supporting columns and kill many thousands.

To appreciate the Samson story as a critique of the notion of national vengeance, we need to listen to the voices of critique within the story.  There are two points in the story where fellow Israelites critique Samson.  First, after he asks his parents to marry him off to a Philistine woman from Timnah, his parents ask: “Is there no woman among your brothers’ daughters or my entire people, that you go to take a woman from the uncircumcised Philistines?” (Judges 14:3) Samson does not have a compelling answer to this question.  His response (14:3) is, “take her for me, because she is pleasing to me” (ישרה בעיני), echoing the mantra of the end of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; each man did what was pleasing to him” (17:6, 21:25).  Once and perhaps twice more later in the story (at 16:1, and arguably at 16:4, though Delilah’s ethnicity is not given), Samson finds love among the Philistines, and so his parents’ challenge only becomes more pressing.

The second challenge comes from the men of Judah.  After a certain cycle of recriminations—Samson’s Philistine bride is given to another, so Samson burns down Philistine wheat fields and olive trees, so the Philistines burn down the bride’s home, so Samson kills a great number of Philistines—the Philistines enter the lands of Judah to take Samson, who has found refuge there.  The men of Judah confront Samson: “Don’t you know that the Philistines rule over us?  What have you done to us?” (15:11) The challenge to Samson here is: You’re not acting smartly, prudently; you’re just being reactive.  Here, too, Samson has no good answer.  His response is: “As they did to me, so I did to them.” (15:11).  Or in other words, he refuses to acknowledge their critique.

The Samson story is, at heart, a fantasy of the reduction of the political to the personal.  In the Samson story, there are no “foreign relations” between Israel and the Philistines; there are only Samson’s relationships with Philistine women.  And there is no Israelite army, because Samson is himself a one-person army.  Because the personal element is precisely that which distinguishes vengeance from justice, the Samson story represents a sort of exaggerated, fantastical exploration of the limits of vengeance as a collective Jewish value.  And it shows us that there are, in fact, serious limits.

What is wrong with vengeance?  I want to highlight two issues that emerge from the Samson story, corresponding to the two critiques that he confronts.  The first is that, because vengeance makes it personal, because it burdens the issue with intense emotion, it often doesn’t yield very wise or very strategic policy.  This is what the Judahites tell Samson: “Don’t you know that the Philistines rule over us?”  Have you really given due consideration to the prevailing political circumstances, to the limitations of your and our power?  Lack of wisdom isn’t just a practical concern; wisdom is a moral virtue too.

The second problem comes to us initially through the voice of Samson’s parents: Why is Samson so drawn after Philistine women?  Let me put the point in more general terms.  Because vengeance means taking it personally, it means becoming personally invested in your enemy.  It means, to use one of the expressions of the hour, letting your enemy live rent-free in your head.  It means defining yourself in relation to your enemy, rather than cultivating your identity on your own terms.  This is the tragedy of Samson.  His final words are, “let me die with the Philistines” (16:30).  He lives with them–with his Philistine women–and he dies with them.  This is the sharpest and most frightening critique of collective vengeance: If you take it personally, you ironically end up risking the loss of your personhood, your own Jewish sense of self.

These concerns do not belong, of course, to the ancient past alone.  Some Jews today have on their lips a song set to the words of Samson in 16:28, just before his death: “O Lord God!  Please remember me, and give me strength just this once, O God, to take revenge on the Philistines (sometimes changed to “the Palestinians”), if only for one of my two eyes.”  The song was composed in Israel almost thirty years ago, in the aftermath of a terrorist incident, and it has acquired new popularity in some circles in the wake of October 7.  As someone who reads the Samson story as I do, I recoil at this song.  Not because revenge has no place in Judaism, and not because it has no place in response to the terrible suffering inflicted upon Israel and the Jewish people on October 7, but because it is precisely the Samson story that teaches us the limits and dangers of revenge.

[1] Biblical translations follow but sometimes diverge from the NJPS.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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