Workshops, seminars and courses that inspire full-hearted living

Emor: An Eye for an Eye?

V’ish ki yiten mum ba’amito, ka’asher asah ken ya’aseh lo: shever tachat shever, ayin tachat ayin, shen tachat shen. Ka’asher yiten mum ba’adam, ken yinaten bo. 

A person who inflicts injury on his fellow, as he did so shall be done to him: a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. However he injured his fellow, so shall be done to him. (Leviticus 24:19-20)

“Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.” (Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof)

Ah, I get to mention Fiddler on the Roof and Torah in the same sentence – it’s already a good day!

But more than that pleasure, Tevye (as usual) speaks for Jewish tradition.

One of my recurring themes in this column is the effort to demonstrate the evolving nature of Jewish tradition. Even though the Torah is our fixed and sacred literature, it serves not as the last word but as the foundation of a legal and ethical tradition that emerged as early as 500 B.C.E. and continues to this day. I think it is necessary to continue to remind us of this fact because of the durable stereotype that much Christian thought foists upon the Jews: Judaism is the religion of law, while Christianity is the religion of love. In that telling, when Christianity emerged, Judaism somehow became frozen in time, rejecting the New Testament, forever stranded in the obsolete ancient paradigm of harsh justice that Christianity was here to transcend.

Now, in my transformative explorations with wonderful Christian colleagues of the 1st century origins of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, we have put the lie to that ancient Christian self-justification. The interpretation of Torah and reinvention of Judaism undertaken by the 1st centuries Rabbis (and their predecessors and descendants) line up closely with the teachings of Jesus, himself obviously a 1st-century Jewish teacher. Jews and Christians are originally “cut from the same cloth.” I am encouraged by the rapid spread of this emerging understanding, which undermines the premises of anti-Semitism and provides a fertile common ground for a new kind of relationship between our sibling traditions.

Nonetheless, the stereotype persists, and often when a newcomer to Torah study encounters some of the Torah’s harsher pronouncements, they assume that Judaism still stands for these ancient codes, and their prejudices are confirmed. And no text has been used against Judaism more than “an eye for an eye.” It is known in Latin as lex talionis, “the law of retaliation.” Lex talionis is repeated elsewhere in the Torah in even more extreme tones, and includes not only parts of the body, but life itself: “a life for a life.” (Ex. 21:23, Deut. 19:20) These laws are assumed to exemplify a Jewish obsession with strict and retaliatory justice, rather than with forgiveness and compassion.

In fact, Rabbinic Judaism openly and emphatically rejects the plain meaning of lex talionis in the Torah, and insists that henceforth it stands for compensatory damages, that is, the value of an eye for an eye, or the value of a tooth for a tooth. The Talmud develops a comprehensive set of standards for compensation, taking into account damages, pain, medical expenses, incapacitation, and mental anguish, contributing to the foundation of many modern legal codes.

But the rabbis go further in creating the legal and moral foundation for their audacious recasting of the plain meaning of the Torah. They expand another principle of the Torah in order to make the wanton disfiguring or extinguishing of a human being a moral wrong. Genesis 1:27 states, “And God created the human being in the Divine Image; male and female God created them.” The rabbis reason that if we are created in the image of God, then disfiguring a person somehow is a “disfigurement” of God as well. Further, if we are made in the image of God, and God is infinite, then the value of a human life must also be infinite. There can be no possible compensatory payment for the loss of a human life. Therefore, capital punishment, which is mandated for a variety of transgressions in the Torah, must not be practiced, and with great audacity the rabbis create legislation that makes it virtually impossible for a court to assess the death penalty on a defendant.

The rabbis emphasize the inestimable value of each human life with the indelible phrase, “One who saves a life saves an entire world; one who destroys a life destroys an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) This becomes the foundation and the crowning glory of Judaism, leaving the law of retaliation in the ancient past.

As an inheritor of the rabbinic way, Tevye can declare, “As the Good Book says…”, and then disagree with it at the same time. On the one hand, on the other hand, our rabbis kept our Torah alive by adapting it, even overruling it with a great deal of chutzpah, to an expanding and evolving understanding of the value of life. Tradition!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan