Parshat Emor

Torah Reading for Week of April 25 – May 1, 2010

“An Eye for an Eye”

by Rabbi Elisheva Beyer, ’06

Within this week’s Torah portion, there are a number of Biblical laws which seemingly call for severe punishment, including the famous “an eye for an eye” passage. It says,

“If a man inflicts a wound on his fellow, as he did, so shall it be done to him; a break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; just as he will have inflicted a wound on a person, so shall be inflicted upon him. One who strikes an animal will make restitution, and one who strikes a person shall be put to death. There shall be one law for you, it shall be for the convert and native for I am Hashem your G-d.” Lev. 24: 19-22.

According to some, an “eye for an eye” is “one of the most misunderstood passages of the Torah;” and that only “unlearned” people would say that it was meant literally and then later the Sages of the Talmud reinterpreted it to mean one gives monetary compensation for injuring an eye. (Artscroll commentary.) Did the verse originally mean that only money compensation was required? The Talmud says, “Let it not enter your mind” that Torah ever meant that verse literally. Bava Kamma 83b-84a. Indeed, the rabbis in the Talmud, on different occasions, have reinterpreted verses to enhance the literal meaning of the text and extract new interpretations relevant to their period of time. Accordingly, they have shown that certain literal biblical laws were never carried out in reality. Amongst these are the laws of bastardy, the rebellious son and the law of the sotah. Since the Torah is a living text, the rabbis were given the power of reinterpretation in every generation.

If we accept the word of the Sages that this verse should be understood in a more compassionate way, can we also extend this notion to other areas of Halacha (Jewish law)? Certainly there are many stern Biblical laws that are not followed today. For example, we no longer sell our daughters into slavery (Ex. 21:7), force women to marry their husband’s brother if their husband dies (Deut. 25:5) or kill those who work on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2). While we morally and culturally accept the prohibitions against bestiality and incest, we do not burn those convicted of such offenses in a fire. Lev. 20:14. Even some of the ancient Biblical laws, most people do not recognize as sins, such as wearing polyester or shaving one’s beard. Lev 19:19, 27.

Moving closer to today’s cutting edge cultural mores, we have several states which now recognize gay marriage. Even in the Talmud, some rabbis said that the primary, literal meaning of, “You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman” (Lev. 18:22) which has been used to castigate and disenfranchise multitudes, was not about homosexuality, but rather it was about having sex with someone who was androgynous. Yevamot 84a.

Today, there is even some sentiment that perhaps those who are blind, lame, or who have other physical “blemishes” may even be closer to G-d than those with perfect bodies. However, in Biblical times, those people were disqualified from being a priest who brings an offering to G-d. Lev. 21-16-21.

Have times changed? Has our sense of morality and ethics grown to be kinder and gentler? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that we are working to emulate G-d. It’s a journey. The Mysterious Oneness, which is both beyond our ability to intellectually grasp and also closer than the air we breathe, has granted us this lifetime to learn to become more conscious, compassionate, caring human beings. If we learn at least this in our lifetime, we will have accomplished much. Let us trade in our old “eye for an eye” mentality and work towards a more just and compassionate society where we see everyone as created “in the image of G-d.”