What is the difference between vengeance and justice?

Jewish Theology and the Holocaust (Topic 5, part 3)

In April 2020, to coincide with Yom HaShoah, the day in the Jewish calendar dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation, Rabbi Sacks launched a series of videos offering his perspective on some of the biggest questions asked about the Holocaust.

People confuse justice and vengeance. They think they are two words for roughly the same thing. They are nothing of the kind. Vengeance is an ‘I-thou’ relationship. I have attacked you, so you attack me, or I attack your family, so you attack my family. Vengeance is the Montagues and the Capulets, or the Corleones and the Tattaglias. It’s my group against yours. That is revenge.

Revenge is forbidden by biblical law. “Thou shalt not take vengeance nor harbour a grudge,” says the Lord in Leviticus, chapter 19. It is absolutely forbidden, and the reason it is forbidden is quite obvious. It is because people and entire families can be prone to perpetuating a cycle of vengeance. It is believed that some such cycle of revenge killed all the inhabitants of Easter Island. Revenge can devastate an entire community, forever.

Justice says that it is no longer me against you. It is both of us, equally, under the impartial verdict of the law. Justice takes the whole thing out of an ‘I-thou’ relationship and elevates it to a completely impartial viewpoint in which we all stand equally under judgement. And that is the only way you can have a law-abiding society.

So when Jews sought justice, they were not seeking vengeance, and the idea that they were seeking vengeance is, I’m afraid, a massive misunderstanding, and even an antisemitic one.

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This series, created in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.