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.

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