Solomon Schimmel, a professor of Jewish education and psychology at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, presents a serious, scholarly discussion of revenge, justice, forgiveness, and repentance. In 2002, this book was awarded the best professional and scholarly publication in psychology by the Association of American Publishers. In it, Schimmel presents his arguments in the framework of an analytical comparison of the different perspectives of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish beliefs, with the purported purpose of coming to a clearer understanding of how these phenomena must be dealt with as part of the universal human experience. He also closely examines the differences between the various philosophies of psychology in relation to this focus. However, his personal bias towards the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish traditions overshadow his treatment of the Christian and particularly the Islamic perspectives. In addition, his personal preferences to particular philosophies of psychology are also evident. In these biases are found the weaknesses of this book and color his otherwise extremely scholarly presentation of the research.
With that said, the strengths of this book are too numerous for all of them to be mentioned here. Schimmel’s treatment of revenge and justice as both psychological phenomena and responses to religious beliefs is exceptional. He asserts that evil is ever present, is perpetrated on all of us, and must be dealt with. He dismisses what he considers a typical Christian view that God’s love requires us to forgive all people, regardless of whether or not they repent, or whether or not the demands of justice are met. Schimmel asserts that “the best balm . . . is the proper balance of justice, repentance, and forgiveness.” He explores deeply the human need, or perceived need, for revenge and justice, with the important differentiation between “public” and “private” revenge and justice. To do this, he uses examples from history, more often employing examples of Jewish persecution and privation. His major contributions in this section of the book include his analysis of the evolution of these doctrines in the Old Testament. He navigates the divergent views of biblical writers, from the doctrine that the “iniquity of the fathers” being answered “upon the heads of the children to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:7), exacting revenge and justice on the often innocent descendants of the perpetrators of the original crimes (for example, the command for Saul to annihilate the Amalekites years after their fathers spurned the Jews), to the later and more widely accepted doctrine taught by Ezekiel: that children were not to be held accountable for their father’s sins (1 Sam. 15; Ezek. 18:20). Another significant contribution is his discussion of the apparent reality that wounded parties can never be objective in terms of the amount of evil perpetrated on them, the actual natures of the perpetrators of evil, or their deserved punishments—and that objective third parties should always be called upon to examine and resolve such matters.