An Eye for an Eye

A quotation often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi is “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In other words, when you are wronged or oppressed, you should utilize Satyagraha, nonviolent resistance, rather than resorting to violence. Civil disobedience as a defined term goes back at least as far as Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century and was epitomized by Martin Luther King Jr. just over 50 years ago. It’s very easy to say don’t fight violence with violence-that is, except when you are being attacked.

Judaism presents a very different approach to how to respond to an attacker. We know the famous rabbinic reference הבא להרגך השכם להרגו, “When one comes to kill you, arise to kill him.”[1]  In a similar vein we have this week’s reference to the penalty for damages: “If damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”[2] Sounds pretty fair and straightforward, right?

Those who know rabbinic exegesis on the Bible might think that the rabbis would love this. After all, one of their core principles is מידה כנגד מידה, measure for measure. This is basically “what goes around comes around,” that what you do to others will be done to you. It is therefore surprising to discover that this line of reasoning does not sit well with the rabbis, who reinterpret this biblical verse!

Starting with Talmud Bava Kama,[3] we see the following Mishnah: “One who injures another becomes liable (monetarily) to the other for five items: damage, pain, healing, loss of time and embarrassment.” In other words, injuries, or נזיקים, require monetary compensation. The Gemara, or commentary on this Mishnah, asks Why? Don’t we know in the Torah “an eye for an eye?” The response is Do not let this enter your mind, for look at the following example. Leviticus teaches “He who smites a beast shall make pay.”[4] Just as in the case of a beast one must pay compensation, so too in the case of a person one must pay compensation.

Now wait a second. This might be fine except the Gemara cuts out the second half of the verse! The verse in its entirety reads “He who smites a beast shall pay, but he who smites a person shall be killed!” Through cutting the second half of the verse, we change its entire meaning! Luckily, the Gemara recognizes that this might not satisfy us and brings in another reason why an eye for an eye means monetary compensation. In Numbers[5] it states “You shall not accept ransom for the life of a murderer.” The rabbis take this to mean that you cannot take ransom, or money, only for a murderer but anyone guilty of manslaughter or injuring another can pay through monetary compensation.

Why make two arguments, each of which appears to be weak? I believe it is because the rabbis, like us, were uncomfortable with the idea of exacting punishment in exactly the same way the offense occurred. They couldn’t get rid of the verse, for this is the holy Torah, so instead they reinterpreted it and (for those who did not buy the reinterpretation) they limited its applicability, as they did for the rebellious son. By stating that each of these examples was equal to a monetary amount equal to the offense committed, the rabbis administered justice for the offense while not doing it in the exact way proscribed by the Bible, a way with which they were uncomfortable.

What do we do when we’re uncomfortable with taking a text literally-especially if it’s a text that the rabbis did take literally? How do we balance making changes that we need to live in our modern society with not forsaking or abandoning the Torah? I would argue for us to follow in the rabbis’ exegetical traditions in keeping the text as it stands but in reinterpreting it in a way that it makes sense for our lives. Some would argue that this position is sacrilegious, as our generation is so much lower than previous ones in terms of our knowledge of Torah, so what gives us the right to reinterpret in the way they did? I would argue differently-that if we are not constantly reinterpreting, making changes from within the framework of Torah and Halacha, than we are following a tradition that is stale and which has lost its meaning. Yes it’s a slippery slope and one which must only be done with extreme caution and with utmost respect for those who came before us. However, I believe that it is a slope worth standing on. I would much rather make changes from within the bounds of tradition than to refuse any changes[6] and have people say “This no longer applies to me”; in other words to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This is not just me talking-a common phrase in the Talmud used for deciding Halacha is פוק חזי; to go out and see what the people are doing. Let us find ways to follow the rabbis’ example of revering Torah and tradition while concurrently utilizing exegetical reinterpretation to create a living Judaism. After all, the Torah says “You shall live by them,”[7] which the rabbis interpret as “Live by them-Don’t die by them.”[8]

[1] Numbers Rabbah, 21:4. This is in Chapter 3 of Midrash Tanhuma Pinchas referring to the verse צרור את המדינים והכיתם אותם.

[2] Exodus 21:23-25

[3] 83b

[4] Leviticus 24:21

[5] Numbers 35:31

[6] A point of view which unfortunately is becoming more common based upon the Hatam Sofer’s statement חדש אסור מן התורה, that innovation is forbidden from the Torah. That statement first appears in Talmud Kiddushin 38b

[7] Leviticus 18:15

[8] Sanhedrin 74a. Note that this only applies to violating a commandment to save your life (and the rabbis disagree about which commandments one must die for). It is often taken by liberal rabbis (like me) further-that we need to set halachic boundaries that our communities can live by-not the original intent of the passage.

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