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AN EYE FOR AN EYE?

Friday, 9 February, 2018 - 2:26 pm

In the 1970's, a Russian school inspector was questioning students. He pointed to a boy and asked, "Who is your father?"

The boy replied, "The Soviet Union."

He then asked, "Who is your mother?"

"The Communist Party," came the reply.

"And what do you want to be when you grow up?"

"A worker for the glory of the state and the party."

The inspector then pointed to a girl and asked, "Who is your father?"

The girl answered, "The Soviet Union."

"Who is your mother?"

"The Communist Party."

"And what do you want to be when you grow up?"

"A heroine of the Soviet Union raising lots of children for the state and party."

The inspector saw a Jewish boy tucked away in the back, trying to look inconspicuous. He pointed and asked, "What's your name?"

The boy replied, "Mendel Abramovitch."

"Who is your father?"

"The Soviet Union."

"Who is your mother?"

"The Communist Party."

"And what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Mendel replied, "An orphan."

A popular old polemic against Judaism is that our faith is a harsh, cold religion of laws, devoid of love and compassion. Christianity was presented as the religion of love, and Judaism as the religion of stern revenge. Christianity's founder supposedly said, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other.’”

This is referring to a law in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. The Torah states that if two men brawl and one shoves a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, the man responsible must pay compensation to be determined in court.

Clearly, it seems, the law is that if one of the men kills the woman, he dies. If he maims her, he receives in return what he caused her. “An eye for an eye… a wound for a wound.”

Yet, astonishingly, no Jewish court ever practiced this law!

Maimonides, the 12th-century codifier of Jewish law, writes that it is obvious that the Torah cannot be explained literally here.

Thus, what the verse meant with the words “a wound for a wound,” “an eye for an eye,” and “a tooth for a tooth,” is monetary compensation. If a person was hired to work for you for his entire life on any possible job, how much would his value decrease if he was missing an eye? That must be paid up, in addition to all his medical expenses, covering his wages during his illness, and paying for the pain and humiliation. 

Then Rambam continues: Though this is obvious from the text itself, we have also heard this from Moses, who explained the text this way. So it was practiced in every Jewish court, in the court of Joshua, the court of Samuel, and in every Jewish court from the time of Moses to this very day.

Delving deeper, the text says, "If there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life; an eye for an eye…."

The Torah never says, "Take an eye for an eye." It says, “and you shall give… an eye for an eye.” Were the text's intention to extract an eye from the villain, the use of the word "give" is inappropriate. The physical punishment of “an eye for an eye” is meant to take from the guilty, not to give to the victim. Giving implies something that is meant to reach the recipient. But if they take the eye of the perpetrator, what are they giving to the victim? Only monetary compensation fits that definition.

The Torah, therefore, proceeds to express both theory and practice within the law. First, the written text records the punishment for wounding another, in terms of compensation. Then the Torah goes on to express the “deserved punishment” without any mitigation: “…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” In this way, the severity of the crime is immediately made clear. The Oral Law serves as the vehicle of transmission so we don’t err in practice.

Why is this so crucial? So you never think that maiming someone’s body is merely a monetary issue, like breaking a watch. It is not! It is something you have no way of atoning for, even if you pay him all the money in the world. Even if it was a mistake, you can never compensate for it via finances alone.

Azar once asked Rabbi Kook: How can the Sages interpret the verse "an eye for an eye" as referring to monetary compensation? Does this explanation not contradict the simple meaning of the verse?

Rabbi Kook responded using a parable. The Kabbalists, he explained, compared the Written Torah to a father and the Oral Torah—the oral tradition which explains the text of the written Torah—to a mother. If parents discover their son has committed a grave offense, how do they react—at least back in the 1920's when Rabbi Kook had this conversation?

The father immediately raises his hand to punish his son. But the mother, sensitive and compassionate, rushes to stop him. "Please, not in anger!" she pleads, and convinces the father to mete out a lighter punishment.

An onlooker might conclude that all this drama is superfluous. In the end, the boy did not receive corporal punishment. The mother was triumphant. Her husband listened to her. Why make it a show?

In fact, the scene provides an important educational lesson for the errant son. Even though he was only lightly disciplined, he was made to understand that his actions deserved a much more severe punishment.

This is exactly the case when one individual injures another. The offender needs to understand the gravity of his actions. In practice, he only pays monetary restitution, as the Oral Law rules, for the Oral Law is like the mother. But he should not think that money alone can repair the damage inflicted.

This is one example of how one verse in Torah, far from expressing harshness in Judaism, is actually a blueprint of how to teach our people the infinite dignity of the human body carved in G-d’s image.

This, we must teach the world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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