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Reconciliation vs. Vengeance

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood…” Then G-d blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them… “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything… Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of G-d has G-d made man” (Genesis 8:29-9:6).

According to Rabbi Albo, the passage’s logic is clear. Noah offers an animal sacrifice in thanksgiving for having survived the Flood. G-d sees that humans need this way of expressing themselves. They are genetically predisposed to violence (“every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood”). If, therefore, society is to survive, human beings need to be able to direct their violence toward non-human animals, whether as food or sacrificial offering. The crucial ethical line to be drawn is between human and non-human.

The permission to kill animals is accompanied by an absolute prohibition against killing humans (“for in the image of G-d has G-d made man”). It is not that G-d approves of killing animals, whether for sacrifice or food, but that to forbid this to human beings, given their genetic predisposition to violence, is utopian. It is not for now but for the end of days. Meanwhile, the least bad solution is to let people kill animals rather than murder their fellow humans. Animal sacrifices are a concession to human nature. Sacrifices are a substitute for violence directed against mankind.

The worst form of violence within and between societies is vengeance, once described as “an interminable, infinitely repetitive process.” Hillel said, on seeing a human skull floating on water, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you, and those who drowned you will, in the end, themselves be drowned” (Avot 2:7). Sacrifices are one way of diverting the destructive energy of revenge. Why then do modern societies not practice sacrifice? Because, argues the contemporary thinker Rene Girard, there is another way of displacing vengeance. As Girard writes:

“Vengeance is a vicious circle whose effect on primitive societies can only be surmised. For us the circle has been broken. We owe our good fortune to one of our social institutions above all: our judicial system, which serves to deflect the menace of vengeance. The system does not suppress vengeance; rather, it effectively limits itself to a single act of reprisal, enacted by a sovereign authority specializing in this particular function. The decisions of the judiciary are invariably presented as the final word on vengeance.”

Not only does Girard’s theory reaffirm Rabbi Albo’s view. It also helps us understand the profound insight of the prophets and of Judaism as a whole. Sacrifices are not ends in themselves, but part of the Torah’s program to construct a world redeemed from the otherwise interminable cycle of revenge. The other part of that program, and G-d’s greatest desire, is a world governed by justice. That, we recall, was His first charge to Abraham, to “instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Genesis 18:19).

Have we therefore moved beyond that stage in human history in which animal sacrifices have a point? Has justice become a powerful enough reality that we no longer need religious rituals to divert the violence between human beings? In his book, The Warrior’s Honor (1997), Michael Ignatieff tries to understand the wave of ethnic conflict and violence (Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Rwanda) that has scarred the face of humanity since the Cold War’s end. What happened to the liberal dream of “the end of history”? His words go to the very heart of the new world disorder:

“The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations…

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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