12 March 2010

Eye for an Eye for Something Else?

Eye for an Eye?Coming across the verse עין תחת עין - "eye in place of an eye" (Ex. 21.24 & Lev. 24.20), I would always read in commentary nearby that it would be barbaric to understand it literally (along with the other surrounding statements).
Indeed, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman recently wrote, "The Rabbis simply dismissed its Draconian possibilities by explaining that every person’s eyes are different: who can compare what your eyes mean to you with what my eyes mean to me? Unable to exact theoretical justice, we settle for monetary compensation."1
However, at some point, I came to realize that the original intent of the Biblical text was indeed, meant to be taken literally - it's certainly a more significant deterrent of bodily harm to people in such a society! Indeed, as Hoffman continues, "the Torah’s legislation remains in place lest we forget its theoretical lesson: no amount of money can truly compensate for mayhem. The human body is sacred. Its damaged parts are beyond financial recompense."2
On another note, I came across Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's description of this verse, where he wrote "the Talmudic interpretation of this verse, 'an eye for an eye', has always been that this does not mean that the eye of the offender must literally be extracted, but rather he must pay monetary compensation. Our rabbis' tradition that 'an eye for an eye' means monetary restitution has preoccupied the commentaries throughout the generations."3 I was surprised to see that Rabbi Shmuley was so adamant about it. Why?
Having begun to read the NT, I came across, quite early on, the statement attributed to Jesus "'You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you, don't resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also'" (Matthew 5:38-39). I began to realize that there must have been a Christian polemic against Jewish Scriptures.... Who knows what else I will find and answer those questions.

1 - Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, "Ethical Truths Within 'Harsh' Legalisms," The Jewish Week, 12 February 2010, 51.
2 - Ibid.
3 - Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, Moses of Oxford: A Jewish Vision of a University and Its Life, vol. 1 (London: André Deutsch, 1994), 15.

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