Thursday, 19 May 2011

Forgiveness or Revenge: Justice?

Originally published 5/19/11, 10:53 pm.
There is a case in Iran that has raised the consternation of not only many around the world but even of many within this country who otherwise may be supporters of the regime.

It seems that a young woman in her twenties has had acid thrown at her face by a rejected would-be-suitor. The acid not only grossly disfigured this woman, who was previously described as attractive, but it also left her blind. The question now is: what to do with the assailant?

It seems that according to Sharia law, there are two options, both dependent on the wishes of the injured woman. She can either choose to forgive this man or she can choose to punish this man by causing to him what he did to her -- having acid poured on his face leaving him also disfigured and blind. Iranians are lining up on both sides in advising this woman what she should do Further on this story, see,8599,2071529,00.html?hpt=C2

On the surface, it would seem to be the classic choice of justice v. mercy. Should this woman exhibit mercy or demand justice? But is this really the question? Is this woman forgiving this man really an act of mercy? Is this woman demanding that acid be poured on the face of this man really justice? This case and the response of Sharia Law may actually raise in us the greater question of what is justice and what is mercy.

Forgiving this man for his behaviour would seem to be, clearly, an act of mercy. There are those who argue, however, that this conclusion would only arise from a narrow perspective and that allowing this man to escape without any punishment would really, from a broader perspective, be an act of cruelty. Advocates of this position claim that mercy for this man would, in the end, only create the possibility of greater terror for women in general. Other men of a similar nature would feel more empowered to force themselves upon a woman who rejects them believing that public pressure, in any event, would demand of her to exercise mercy. A true definition of what is merciful cannot arise by seeing an individual case in a vacuum without a recognition of the consequences of such a decision on the general society is very near sighted. This recognition is being highlighted in this case as both sides are actually contending that they have the more sensitive and merciful position -- the question being whether one should be merciful to this man or to women in general.  Chazal point out that mercy to the wrong person can result in greater cruelty. Would forgiving this man really be an act of mercy?

It is the insight into the definition of justice that this case highlights, though, that has caught my attention. We all know that the Torah's declaration of "an eye for an eye" never meant that the one who injures should, in return, face the same injury but rather it meant monetary compensation. The gemara argues that the Torah could not possibly mean perfect retribution because perfect retribution is an impossibility. No eyes of different individuals are similar so how could you demand of one to face the exact same injury that he/she caused to the other for an exactly the same injury is an impossibility. Thus the Torah in using this phrase must mean monetary compensation. But is retribution, even though it is impossible, still to be seen as a form of justice? I believe that the gemara may also be informing us that such retribution is not really a form of justice -- and this case in Iran highlights this.

There is a thin line between justice and revenge -- and many people if not most do not see this distinction. This is clearly highlighted in this case in Iran for it is the woman who was injured, herself, that is to inflict the acid upon the man. In the eyes of so many, the idea of justice is that a person should get what he/she deserves -- and if you inflict injury on another, you should face the same injury. And this same injury should also take into account the emotional effects of what happened and thus the one hurt the other should then be hurt by this other. But is this really justice? What the gemara is saying in declaring that no two eyes are the same is, in my opinion, a strong statement on the nature of justice. Justice is not retribution but rather an attempt to correct the situation. Justice is not about pain and punishment per se but it is about the necessary steps that must be undertaken to establish and/or re-establish the necessary equilibrium in both the narrow realm of the individuals and the broader societal and global realm. You can't hurt a person the same way this person hurt another for there is no the same. If you think in that way, you miss the point. Justice is figuring out what really is the right next thing to do to move from here to a higher plane. This will result in the person who caused the damage having to carry more of the burden of this correction, but this is justice. The key, though, is the correction.

In the grander scheme of things, we may now wonder: how can you expect a population to act justly if they don't even understand what justice is in the first place?

Rabbi Ben Hecht


micha berger said...

If the punishment is decided by the desires of the victim, isn't the proper term for what they're doing far more likely to be "revenge" rather than "justice"?

Before discussing the problem of not even knowing what justice is, we first have to deal with the fact that the victim isn't likely to have justice in mind. We're talking about someone with a strong emotional investment, no?


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...


But isn't this precisely the point? Within this society, this is indeed perceived to be justice and what justice is. The problem is not only the craziness of this system but that this system is actually defined as justice


Nishma said...

Both Choices are in a way Draconian - a lose-lose situation

"Mercy" means that the perpetrator gets off scott-free

Throwing acid at the guy is a cruel and inhumane punishment - out of bounds in USA due to the Constitution

A subtle possibility arises that the victim does not choose MERCY, but merely finds throwing acid too distasteful to execute. Therefore she chooses Mercy for lack of a viable alternative.

Even if Islam has not graduated to "just compensation" as THE definitive retribution, it might be nice to put that option on the table as a third choice

Pragmatically speaking, the victim can at least recover her financial loss and a partial deterrent has been imposed as well


Bob Miller said...

Justice ought to be as objective as possible and not degraded by subjectivity, even that of the victim.

Nishma said...
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