Christian forgiveness is generally a very nice attitude, at least in theory. It encourages the transgressor to repent and does not strain the moral conscience of his prosecutors.

There is no evidence that harsh punishments are more effective than mild ones. Robbery exists in Saudi Arabia despite the cutting off of hands, and homosexuality exists in Iran despite executions. The threat of jail has failed to condition the Americans into so little a thing as abandoning marijuana.

forgiveness would be nice

Punishments have only marginal utility. A society completely without punishments invites criminals, but beyond a certain low level, the increasing severity of punishments does not curb crime any better. Why is the Torah so different?

Consider that most Christians practice forgiveness only in theory. They harbor a grudge against their neighbor when the law fails to rectify their grievances. The reason has to do with human mentality and the natural desire for revenge. It is futile to argue whether the desire for revenge is good or bad; it is a fact of nature, like rain or sex. Arguably, revenge is a positive evolutionary trait because it allows people to live in otherwise lawless societies. In law-abiding societies, good Christians rely on the unforgiving ones to provide for their safety.

Here is the key to understanding the Torah’s punishments: they are not really punishments, but institutionalized, civilized revenge. In other instances too, the legist chose regulation over unrealistic prohibition. Jews are practically banned from owning their compatriots, but are allowed foreign slaves almost without restraint. To have too many wives is frowned upon even for kings, but polygamy is accepted. Offerings, abundant in the pagan world, are carefully minimized in Judaism, but are still allowed so as to provide people witha vent against their superstitious fears.

Legalized revenge is the only practical way to keep the commandment that, “You shall not bear a grudge against your neighbor.” People are not only allowed, but mandated to take legal revenge. The approach exactly parallels the one taken for sacrifices: whereas superstitious pagans haunted themselves with the question of whether they had committed a transgression and sacrificed enough, Jews had a clear list of transgressions and expiatory sacrifices. Sacrifices allowed Jews peace of mind regarding their superstitious transgressions; punishments allowed us peace of mind about blood revenge.

Contrary to the modern understanding of ancient people as brutes, they apparently had moral qualms about the punishments. The Torah, therefore, repeatedly pronounces, “Their [the offenders’] blood be upon them,” meaning that those who carry out the punishment incur no guilt.

The US Supreme Court first struck down capital crime laws because of their arbitrariness: the difference between jail and death is unlike that between different prison terms; the offender must clearly understand what he is risking by committing his crime. Three thousand years earlier, the Torah enunciated the same approach: Jews have no latitude is disbursing significant punishments. The moral importance of preset sentences cannot be overestimated. The judges act as God’s instrument with no input of their own. They acquire authority and shed remorse. Likewise, the Torah has no option for personal forgiveness: the offender must be punished, with no exceptions or extenuating circumstances. Witnesses—likely, the victim’s relatives—are commanded to execute the offender in the case of a capital crime; they receive the best of two worlds: the right of revenge and immunity from the ensuing vendetta because they acted according to God’s will.

Another problem with forgiveness is that, like any theory, it loses applicability on the fringes. You really don’t want to forgive terrorists, serial killers, or a gang that terrorizes the locals. Forgiveness might possibly reform many criminals, but unquestionably it provokes some petty ones to commit crimes more often or in a more grievous manner. Forgiveness thus tends to increase crime committed by people on the fringes. One can easily see how a humble yet morally strong Christian stops a robber; any sane person would hesitate to rob someone who refuses to harm him as a matter of principle rather than weakness. Snobbishness would also play a role: harming a (morally) superior person is against human nature. “Weakness,” however, is the keyword. Eventually the robbers would convince themselves that the Christians are physically weak rather than morally strong, and proceed to rob them without reservations.

But revenge too is a theory, and should fail on the fringes. It does. We don’t want to punish an orphan who has stolen bread even though he was not hungry to death, and certainly not Yigal Amir. There is a huge difference between the Jewish and Christian fringes: the former occur when the society is basically stable while the latter tend to occur when the society is endangered. Fining the orphan or making Yigal a martyr in the fight against tyrants won’t really harm society; someone would step up to pay the orphan’s fine, and decades from now Yigal will be praised in school textbooks. But an unreservedly Christian society would fail under the onslaught of criminals.