An Eye for an Eye and Our Shared Humanity – Mishpatim 5782

For the past few months, I have participated in an interfaith Bible study group, with several other Rabbis, Pastors, Priests and Teachers.

Our learning is based on a book called The Bible with and without Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. The basic premise is that both Judaism and Christianity rely upon the same sacred Hebrew Scriptures, but interpret and implement them very differently.

These differing interpretations have led to deep misunderstandings over the centuries and have served as the basis for many of the classic antisemitic tropes of the past millenia.

As luck would have it, it was my turn to co-facilitate our discussion this past week, with the chapter in the book that we discussed coming from this morning’s Torah portion.

Before I get to that, I’d like to share a conversation I had with my daughter Noa a few days ago.  We were discussing the term the “Judeo-Christian Tradition” and trying to understand what it actually meant. From her perspective, whenever she heard the term, it did not really reflect her own experience and understanding of Judaism; and I have to say that I agreed with her.

What does it mean? It implies that there is a core set of shared values introduced by Judaism and then extended by Christianity. These values serve as the foundation of Western ethics.

But I had no clue where the expression comes from.

Enter Rabbi Wikipedia.

The first ever reference appeared in an 1821 letter and referred to Jews who had converted to Christianity. An 1829 reference used it to descrive a Church that had deliberately embraced some Jewish rituals so that it would better appeal to Jews. That’s not very good for us.

The earliest reference in something like the way we understand it today seems to have been in 1939. George Orwell referred to “the Judaeo-Christian scheme of morals.” This followed a lot of work that had taken place in the 1930’s to emphasize common ground between Christians and Jews so as to combat antisemitism and anti-Catholicism in the United States. 

The term gradually morphed into political use during the Cold War to contrast the ethics-based system of Western democracies with Communism. 

In 1952, President Eisenhower, one month before his inauguration, became the first President to invoke the term when he said, extemporaneously,

[The Founding Fathers said] ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator … ‘ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men created equal.

One of my problems with the term is that it tends to over-emphasize shared values without recognizing that, in fact, there are some pretty profound differences. For example, it might focus on shared central texts like the Ten Commandments without acknowledging how differently each of our traditions might consider them.

In our group, we are learning how our respective traditions understand the same texts through completely different lenses.  Often, the Christian interpretation and the Rabbinic interpretations of central passages in the Hebrew Bible are in direct contradiction of one another.

Learning together, and openly addressing some of the passages that have historically been kind of thorny, has been a great way to increase mutual understanding as well as learn more about our own tradition.

Now we turn to this week’s Torah portion.  Among the many laws presented in Parashat Mishpatim, we encounter this one. Don’t get distracted by the first part.

When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other 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.

Exodus 21:22-26

This is a strange combination of legal principles. We start with a discussion of an accidentally, but violently, induced miscarriage. Then, we are suddenly talking about “life for life, eye for eye,” and so on.

There are two other occasions in the Torah in which the “eye for an eye” principle appears.  Once in Leviticus, and again in Deuteronomy. Both of them appear in different contexts. This leads us to assume that, when it came to personal injury cases, this was a governing legal principle in ancient Israel.

This legal principle is referred to in Latin as Lex Talionis, which means “law of retaliation.” talionis – retaliation

At first glance, to modern readers, this might seem bloodthirsty and vengeful. Indeed, it has been used as justification for antisemitism for millenia. Jews are overly focused on law rather than mercy. Think of the character of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice demanding his pound of flesh. 

But the truth is quite the opposite.

To gain some understanding of what this principle meant, we need to consider the society in which it came to be, and also consider how Jewish tradition has understood and applied it.

The oldest human record we have dates back to the 18th century BCE Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.  Hammurabi establishes an underlying principle of proportionality, the purpose of which was to ensure, first of all, that retaliation did not get out of hand, and secondly, that a higher class perpetrator did not get off scot-free. The innovation here is that the state took upon itself the authority to regulate and standardize payments for injuries.

In a world in which the blood feud is so tempting—think the Montagues vs. the Capulets—an “eye for an eye” limits retaliation to only an “eye for an eye.”

Here are a few examples from the Code of Hammurabi:

If an awilu, an upper-class free person should blind the eye of another awilu, they shall blind his eye.

If he should break the bone of another awilu, they shall break his bone.

If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh an deliver one-half of his value (in silver).

The Torah takes this a step further.  It does not draw any distinction between the poor and the wealthy.  In Leviticus, it is clear that it applies to Israelite citizens and resident aliens alike. The law of proportionality applies equally to all. This is consistent with the Torah’s general concern with the dignity of the human being, made in God’s image.

Think of the numerous times in which the Torah forbids favoring one side over the other in a court case, or warnings against judges taking bribes, or having a single law that is administered fairly to everyone.

An eye for an eye was an incredibly egalitarian innovation—we could say improvement—over the Code of Hammurabi.

What we do not know is how an “eye for an eye” was actually practiced in ancient Israel. Was it taken literally, as in if I poked your eye out than you would poke my eye out; or was it figurative, as in if I poked your eye out, I had to pay you the value of your eye in compensation?

We just do not have any evidence, and the Bible does not include any examples of it being implemented in practice. For a religion that put such a high value on human dignity, emphasizing that every human being was created in God’s image, it does seem hard to believe that the legal system would intentionally cause the defacement of the human form.

The Rabbis of the Talmud, however, tell us exactly how they understand an “eye for an eye”: it means monetary payment. 

The Talmud goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the Torah itself, when it requires an eye for an eye, means the value of an eye rather than the actual eye itself.

It goes through many creative midrashic attempts to prove it, but then finds cause to reject each of them in turn.  In the end, there is no conclusive proof, but of course that does not prevent the Rabbis of the Talmud from interpreting it in this way.

In the course of their discussions, they raise numerous practical and ethical problems with a literal interpretation. For example, they imagine a case in which someone who is blind causes another person to become blind. Or someone missing a limb causes another person to lose a limb. How could we then fulfill the Torah’s literal principle of “an eye for an eye?”

Furthermore, what good does it do the injured party to have their attacker lose and eye or a limb?  It does not help the victim’s situation at all other than possibly satisfying some urge for vengeance.

The Mishnah establishes, again based on close, creative textual reading, that a person who injures another is liable for five categories of damages:

  1. the injury itself
  2. pain and suffering
  3. medical costs
  4. loss of income
  5. the indignity or embarrassment that the injury caused

Because the injury cannot be taken back, monetary compensation is the best that can be done. For better or for worse, it is how human beings assign value. 

Rather than being an overly legalistic, merciless application of justice, “an eye for an eye” was a major step forward, in practice, of upholding the equal dignity of every human being.

The Rabbis’ wisdom was in understanding that every person’s situation is different, and we must do the best we can to pursue justice at every opportunity, recognizing that we are imperfect, but faithful in the belief that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrated a couple of weeks ago, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Being able to speak with each other honestly about where our differences in interpretation are might lead us to find, not necessarily common ground in how we understand these texts, but common ground in our shared humanity.

Iron in the Shul (After Colleyville) – Yitro 5782

I had the opportunity to learn, earlier this week, from other Conservative Rabbis, which helped me process last week’s hostage taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Some of what I am going to say this morning was inspired by what I learned from my colleagues.

One thing that I want to say from the outset is that there are a lot of really smart and insightful people who have a lot to say about these specific attack, as well as larger trends in antisemitism here in the United States and around the world. I am sure that you have read and heard a lot that you have found to be educational and meaningful.

I cannot hope to match the expertise of others in our Jewish community who specialize in these areas, nor is that my goal. All I can do is speak from my one particular vantage point as the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai.

A hostage crisis during Shabbat services is just about the scariest thing that I can imagine. It is a horrible scenario that has occupied my mind on many occasions over the years. To hear about it happening last weekend, especially with the prominent, courageous role played by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, really hit home for me.

It makes me sad, scared, and angry that we have to deal with such things. I don’t think there are any faith groups in the United States that have had to institute such stringent security measures at their houses of worship. It is not something that we should have to do. Simply put, it is not fair, and the need to do so directly contradicts the purpose of a synagogue.

At the end of Parashat Yitro, God delivers a few more commandments to the Israelites through Moses. One stands out. Here is the translation from our Etz Hayim Chumash:

If you make for me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones;

כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ

for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.

Exodus 20:22

The actual Hebrew word that has been translated “tool” is charb’kha, which actually means “your sword.”

The Mekhilta, an ancient midrash collection, quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar.

The altar was created to lengthen a person’s years, but iron to shorten them. [Iron is the material of weaponry and killing.] It is not appropriate for that which shortens life to be wielded upon that which lengthens life!

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai then draws a connection between the altar and peace.   In a passage parallel to our verse, Deuteronomy instructs

אֲבָנִ֤ים שְׁלֵמוֹת֙ תִּבְנֶ֔ה אֶת־מִזְבַּ֖ח ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ

With whole stones shall you build the altar of the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 27:6

Noting the word sheleimot – “whole,” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai states that these stones of the altar produce shalom – “peace.”  Then he takes it a step further. 

If these stones of the altar, which neither see, nor hear, nor speak, can create peace between the Jewish people and the Holy Blessed One, what about a person who fosters peace between a husband and wife, between one city and the next, between one nation and another, between one government and another government, between one family and another family – how much the more so will such a person not suffer adversity.

Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:22:1-2

It was during Yohanan ben Zakai’s lifetime that the synagogue replaced the altar as the central location for Jewish worship. But it retained the same essential function. The subject of all our prayers, at a fundamental level, is shalom – “peace,” or “wholeness.” It is what we gather in synagogue for, and it is what we should strive for in our personal lives.

The midrash recognizes that there is something symbolically perverse about mixing stone and iron. The altar, and its replacement, the synagogue, should not require the sword to perform its primary function of fostering peace.

But ideals meat reality. We have a security guard at the gate every Shabbat. Our synagogue courtyard is surrounded by black iron bars. We have a sophisticated CCTV system, panic buttons all over our campus, and fancy bulletproof films covering the windows. We hold an Emergency Preparedness Shabbat just about every year during which we actually evacuate the synagogue in the middle of services under the supervision of the San Jose Police Department.

Our synagogue, this house of peace, is not just figuratively hewn from iron, it is covered in it. To protect our sanctuary, we must profane it.

What a sad and unfortunate reality. This is not a subject in which I expected to gain expertise when I decided to become a Rabbi, nor is it one in which I received any training. But it is one which, by necessity, I —we all — have had to reluctantly embrace.  What a steep price we pay.  

Yes, there are financial costs, but the more significant price is spiritual. Nobody should have to fear for their physical safety when they come to shul to pray. Parents should not have to think twice about sending their children to Religious School.  

For years, when I come into this room, I think about escape routes. I look around and try to identify what I could use as a weapon. In a synagogue!

I am done with my harangue.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker did two really important things last Shabbat: he served tea, and he threw a chair.

You have probably heard the story by now. A man, apparently homeless, showed up on Shabbat morning a few minutes before the start of services. It was cold outside, and he seemed to be seeking a place to warm up. The Rabbi welcomed him warmly, made him a cup of tea, and introduced him to the President of the congregation. At the time, there was no evidence that he posed a threat.

As soon as services began, however, the stranger pulled out a gun, and thus began an eleven hour hostage ordeal.

Towards the end, as he became increasingly agitated, Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw an opportunity.  He indicated to the two other congregants who were being held that they should be ready to attempt an escape. At a moment when the hostage taker seemed distracted, he threw a chair at him and the three of them quickly escaped.

An act of compassion and kindness, and an act of courage and, frankly, violence. Both acts should inspire us. We can look to two biblical women, both non-Israelites, whose stories model similar behaviors.

In the Book of Ruth, after her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all die, Ruth binds herself and her fate to Naomi, her mother-in-law.  They return from Moab to Bethlehem, arriving destitute at the beginning of the barley harvest.

As chapter two opens, Ruth informs Naomi, “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness.”  (Ruth 2:2)

What does this simple statement reveal? That Ruth, a Moabitess, knows that this place, where she has never set foot, is one in which a poor, foreign woman can go harvest for herself on a field belonging to another. The Book of Ruth does not mention the Torah’s obligation to leave the corners of the fields unharvested, among other mitzvot pertaining to tzedakah.

The details of the laws are beside the point. What matters is reputation. These people of Bethlehem are known to practice kindness, so when Ruth declares her intention, Naomi responds “Yes, daughter, go.”

Being compassionate, opening up our doors to let the stranger in, makes us vulnerable. Letting a stranger into our shul is a risk. That is why behaving with compassion is an act of faith, but would we prefer a Judaism which did not welcome the stranger? What would we be if we put up barriers that kept everyone else out?

Of course, evil exists. We cannot be so naive as to think that there are not those who hate us simply for being Jews.  Last weekend was the third violent attack in a synagogue on Shabbat in America in just over three years.  There have been six deadly antisemitic attacks in the United States since 2016.

According to FBI statistics, over the last several years Jews have been the targets of around 12% of all hate crimes.  Nearly two thirds of religion-based hate crimes have targeted Jews.  And we are less than two percent of the overall population.

Antisemitism is real and growing. It is not confined to a particular political ideology. Those who hate us for being Jewish do not care whether we are Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, Democrats or Republicans. Our preparation and readiness are not misplaced.

This brings us to our second non-Israelite heroine.

Last Shabbat, while our fellow Jews were being held hostage, we read in the Haftarah about Yael. The Canaanite King Jabin had subjugated the Israelites for the past twenty years, with Sisera serving as the commander of his troops. Under the spiritual guidance and encouragement of the Chieftain Deborah, Barak leads the Israelites into victorious battle against Sisera with his nine hundred iron chariots. 

The Canaanite General flees, seeking refuge in the tent of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite.  She offers him hospitality, feeds him, gives him milk to drink, and covers him with blankets so that he can fall asleep. Then she takes a tent peg and drives it with a hammer through his skull into the ground. In her victory song, Deborah praises this heroine.

Most blessed of women be Jael,
Wife of Heber the Kenite,
Most blessed of women in tents.

He asked for water, she offered milk;
In a princely bowl she brought him curds.

Her [left] hand reached for the tent pin,
Her right for the workmen’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, crushed his head,
Smashed and pierced his temple.

At her feet he sank, lay outstretched,
At her feet he sank, lay still;
Where he sank, there he lay—destroyed.

Judges 5:24:27

Ours is not a tradition that would have us be passive when threatened or attacked. Judaism recognizes that evil exists, and that we have a duty to fight it, that there are those who hate us, and that we must defend ourselves. Sometimes that means we must use force.

This is the uncomfortable place in which we find ourselves. How do we embrace a message of hope and peace, of compassion and openness, while also protecting ourselves from the very real threats that exist?

We cannot afford to simplistically think that there is a satisfying answer out there, if only we can find it.  The Jewish people knows that the world is messy, that human beings are imperfect and often unreliable. That our loftiest ideals have a tendency to slam into disappointing reality.

I come back to our name as a people, the name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the unnamed angel.  Yisrael – for you have striven with beings Divine and human and stayed in the game. That is who we are, and who we must continue to be.

We pray for a time when we can tear down all of the walls, remove the panic buttons and cancel the evacuation drills. In the meantime, we are Yisrael – the people who struggle. We remain committed to each other, to acting with compassion and kindness, to keeping each other safe, and to pursuing shalom in our prayers and our deeds.

Think for a moment: what are the last two words that we recite at the end of every Shabbat morning service?

At the end of Adon Olam, which we typically invite our children to lead, the final words are v’lo ira, words are aspirational and declarative: “I will not be afraid.”