“When vengeance is needed, it is a great thing” Talmud, Brachot, 3a

Punishment is traditionally thought to incorporate three components: revenge, compensation, and personal and societal prevention. In the history of justice and modern practice only the first component has persisted while the other two cover it in rational and moralistic terms.

Rational compensation is impossible in many cases. Thieves are punished, according to the Torah, with fines of two to five times the original damage, in order to compensate for unsolved crimes. The compensation, however, almost never reaches the victims for the very reason most robberies remain unsolved. In modern jurisprudence, thieves are sentenced to jail terms rather than fined, thus even theoretical compensation is abrogated. Nor is compensation possible in permanent injury cases: given the American standard of multi-million-dollar awards in work-injury cases, almost no attacker has adequate means to provide this level of compensation.

Neither is punishment about personal prevention. Consider a hypothetical case of two men and a woman on an island; one of the men rapes her and she drowns herself. Since there is no other woman around, further prevention is unnecessary—but we would still cry for punishment.

The notion of societal prevention depends on whether punishments deter would-be criminals. There is no hard evidence to that effect, nor is it possible to commission such a study: differences between countries and even towns which practice punishments of varying severity are so great as to make any comparison meaningless. Strong circumstantial evidence raises doubts about the effectiveness of punishment in crime prevention, in Europe in the Middle Ages (and in many Muslim states now) punishments were exceedingly severe, yet the crime rates exceeded current Western levels. The efficiency of punishment likely peaks very low: raising the punishment from a one-year jail term to mutilation would not significantly reduce the robbery rate. Now a test: imagine that a scientific study showed beyond doubt a total absence of correlation between punishment and crime rates in society. Even though punishment would be pronounced objectively useless, we wouldn’t set criminals free. Thus, punishment is not about societal prevention or deterrence.

Leviticus 19:18 prohibits revenge toward “children of your nation,” though not against foreign enemies. The prohibition deals only with personal revenge: people must refrain from vengeance and allow the legal system to handle things. When the justice system fails, individuals are allowed to act: thus, when an inadvertent murderer leaves the town of refuge (the elders failed to detain him), the blood avenger is allowed to take his life.

Absence of revenge makes punishments ugly: for a victim’s relative to take the murderer’s life is natural, understandable, and acceptable; but the sterile environment of the death chamber strips execution of its meaning—vengeance. Purposeless execution unrelated to vengeance is ugly.

In the Torah, execution of the offender removes impurity from the society. Impure society would incur the divine wrath, this execution is a form of societal defense. But more importantly, punishment shows the society’s will to establish justice, as it was commanded to do. The terms “justice” and “righteousness” are synonymous; righteousness lays in adequate punishment of criminals. Punishment reinstates the society’s righteousness which was damaged by the crime. Here we see the exact correlation between crime and punishment: just as a crime removes society from the equilibrium of righteousness, so the punishment must return it to the original position.

Consider the objections to long imprisonment for relatively small crimes: such punishments are pronounced “unjust.” Justice here is a sense of correlation between crime and punishment. There is an implicit understanding that punishment should be proportional to crime. That is exactly the meaning of revenge.