The Pastor’s Corner By Roger Skully
Cantor, The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue
President, The Grosse Pointe Ministerial Association

“Lex Talionis”

            One of the most frequently cited and least understood passages in the Torah is found in several related verses that appear to mandate a system of retributive justice: Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 10:2. These verses, discussed in depth and thoroughly explicated in the Talmud—the principal repository of oral and rabbinic law—seem related to the law known in Latin as lex talionis,, the law of retaliation,  Theologians and biblical scholars, however, have noted that lex talionis, an “eye for an eye” system of justice, did not originate with the Jews of antiquity. Rather, it was widely known and practiced in ancient Middle Eastern society. In fact, it was first enunciated by the Babylonian King Hammurabi (1728-1686 B.C.E.) in his famous code of law.

            The Rabbis emphatically rejected a literal application of these verses: i.e., that a comparable physical injury is to be inflicted on one who injures another. They argued, instead, that monetary compensation would provide appropriate redress. Unfortunately, however, these verses have frequently been misconstrued by those unfamiliar with rabbinic law and its application, and cited as evidence of the cruelty embodied in Torah law, Vexingly, a fundamentalist preacher whom I know stated that his quarrel with Talmudic law was that it modified what was explicitly written in scripture. Actually, and perhaps unknowingly, he was arguing in favor of a barbaric system of retributive justice that was in no way consistent with applicable Jewish legal thought and judicial processes.

            It is, in fact, basic to Talmudic tort law that monetary compensation is the only appropriate form of redress. As the Talmud points out: What if the eye of the one charged was large and that of the other small? Or, what if a blind man had knocked out the eye of another? Or, what if a man with an amputated arm had cut off the arm of another? Or, what if a lame man had made another lame? How then can an  “eye for eye” system of justice be applied? It is apparent that a literal application of the text cannot result in a just “rule of law.”

            So, the Rabbis concluded that another interpretation, one that could be universally applied—i.e., material compensation—was the only way to resolve clear inequities in torts. Others point out further difficulties of applying this law literally. What if one were young, and the other old? What if one were a person who used keen eyesight to earn a living, and the other not? The inequities of literal application continued to compound themselves as hypothetical scenarios were constructed demonstrating the need for applying and adapting the law in a manner suitable to a wide range of situations. (B.K. 83b et seq. – Talmudic citation)
A misunderstanding of this aspect of Jewish law can even be found in the Gospels (Matthew 5:38-39) and, more contemporaneously, in a statement issued by Pope John Paul II  in 1982 referring to the “cruel” Old Testament (Jewish) law of an “eye for an eye.” As recently as last week, a local Imam stated in a “Facebook” posting that this (Jewish) law, if implemented, would result in great injustice and carnage without, however, noting that such has never occurred. The posting suggested that his religious laws were more humane and superior to  those of other faiths, especially those based on “Old Testament” sources.

Such statements, regardless of their origin, are divisive. They promote misunderstanding and discord among faiths because they are based on a lack of knowledge. At the very least, exercising a modicum of prudence would prevent or minimize misunderstandings that could lead to enmity. For many reasons, caution must be exercised when citing scripture “literally,” and professing that this is the “Word” to be obeyed. Blind fundamentalism, oblivious to context and interpretation, can easily result in a loss of perspective, and possibly eyes, teeth, and limbs as well.

Today, more than ever, we should all appreciate the benefits bestowed by our respective faiths, but keep our minds open as we strive to achieve clarity and understanding. In doing so, we must bear in mind the fact  that our words can literally be transmitted around the world instantaneously. A tale is told of a man who uttered harsh and cruel words against another. Overcome with remorse, he consulted his Rabbi, asking how best to rescind his ill-chosen words and make amends for his malicious comments. The Rabbi told him to go outside with a pillow filled with feathers, and then, to open the case, letting the feathers be carried away by the breeze. The man did so, and then asked: “now what Rabbi?” The Rabbi responded: now, go and collect all of those feathers and return them to their case. It’s wise to remember that words are powerful entities: before they are uttered, we are their masters and they our slaves; Once uttered, however, they become our masters and we their slaves.

Faith should be a tool to make us better human beings, not more effective bigots. We are hardly bereft of polemics, and are sorely in need of solutions.

Amen and Amen

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