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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Revenge vs. Restorative Justice — BT Berakhot 10a — #126

There were hooligans in R. Meir’s neighborhood who tormented him greatly. He would pray for mercy with respect to them—that they would die. R. Meir’s wife, Beruriah, said to him, “What is your reason [for praying this way]. Is it because it is written, May sinners disappear from the earth (Psalm 104:35)? But is it written ‘sinners’? ‘Sins’ is written. What is more, go to the end of the verse: and the wicked be no more (Psalm 104:35). [Therefore the verse can be understood:] May sins disappear [from the earth], and the wicked be no more. Rather, pray for [God to have] mercy on them so that they will repent. [R. Meir] prayed for mercy on them, and they repented.

Is there anyone who has not experienced torment, insult, or degradation and not wished for their tormenters’ demise (or at least disappearance)? Not a pretty thought, to be sure, but unquestionably human enough. Vengeance is a natural emotional response to cruelty and oppression, but that does not make deeds of vengeance morally justifiable. The short interchange between Beruriah and her husband, R. Meir, concerning his feelings and consequent actions with regard to neighborhood hooligans is a blueprint for how we should (1) stop,  (2) think, and (3) respond to instances of mistreatment we endure from others. What is more, in this story, R. Meir, the preeminent Torah scholar of his generation is the student; his wife Beruriah is the Torah scholar and teacher.

The Talmud does not describe how R. Meir is tormented by the neighborhood ruffians. Perhaps they are nightmare neighbors: loud, filthy, destructive. Imagine living next-door to the worst frat house (certainly not the one you lived in in college), whose members are loud and offensive, drunk and brawling all night long. Or, perhaps R. Meir’s neighbors are verbally abusive in a manner we would liken to racism and anti-Semitism today. The description of the situation is sufficiently vague to enable us to draw a connection between R. Meir and a situation in our own lives when we, like R. Meir, find a certain person or group intolerable and cannot stop ruminating on it. When R. Meir prays, his nemeses are foremost in his mind. He therefore asks God to be “merciful” in a way that would satisfy his pain: by making them die. The irony of equating God’s mercy with causing their death is pointed: he is so angry and resentful that his conception of divine mercy conforms to his fantasy of revenge.

Imagine the impact on R. Meir—emotionally and physically—of this attitude. Consider how his stress effects him and how his desire for revenge consumes his thoughts.

R. Meir is blessed with a wife and partner who, in her own right, is a Torah scholar. Beruriah is psychologically astute, as well. She neither judges nor criticizes her husband. Rather, she offers him a scholarly argument—right in his wheelhouse—successfully engaging his attention. She gets him to stop. It is based on the interpretation of Psalm 104:35—May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked be no more. Because the Bible is written without vowels, the word “sinners” (chot’im) can, by changing the vocalization, be read “sins” (chata’im). Beruriah argues: Perhaps, dear husband, you are praying for our neighbors to die because you understand from Psalm 104:35 that if sinners disappear from the earth, then there will be no more wicked people. But here’s another way to understand the verse: read “sinners” as “sins”; if sins disappear, then, by definition, there will be no more wicked people. Therefore, dear husband, pray instead that  our neighbors stop sinning and repent; then they can become a force for good in the world, our problem will cease, and the verse will be fulfilled. With this forceful argument, Beruriah gets R. Meir to rethink his relationship with the neighbors.

R. Meir is persuaded. Beruriah’s reinterpretation of the verse frees R. Meir to reframe his attitude and relationship toward, his neighbors. He prays for their sins to cease. Imagine how R. Meir behaves when he encounters them after the reframing inspired by Beruriah’s reinterpretation of Psalm 104:35. Imagine his very different response. Does he nod when he passed them? Does he say good morning? Does he engage them in conversation? Does he find a way to express his concerns about their behavior? Does he stay long enough to listen to their concerns and explanations?

This story highlights the overwhelming influence of attitudes we hold to determine our behavior. Our capacity to revision a relationship and open dialogue with an adversary can convert an enemy to a friend. The astounding power of repentance to establish justice and peace speaks to the moral potency and transformational power of restorative justice—far to be preferred over revenge. Restorative Justice provides an alternative to retribution. It affords victims a voice and active role in the process. It offers offenders the opportunity to redeem themselves though repentance and atonement.

  1. Presuming that God responded to R. Meir’s initial request that the hooligans die (the belief that there is a God who operates this way is another discussion), would that solve R. Meir’s problem? What would happen the next time someone angered or tormented him? Consider the “collateral damage” of revenge: R. Meir’s family, the family and friends of the hooligans, other neighbors. How might their lives have been effected?
  2. Have you ever undergone a transformation in the way you thought about a situation? Have you ever befriend a person you had considered an enemy? How did it affect your life?
  3. If something unsavory and hurtful to others in your past were discovered and revealed, in the spirit of Restorative Justice, how might you respond? If something hurtful to you from another person’s past were discovered, what would be the best way for you to respond?

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