An Eye for An Eye

By Levi Brackman, 02-12-2016.

There are parts of the Bible that if interpreted literally would be cruel and violent. For example the Bible (Exodus 21:24 -- this week's’ Torah portion) says that a violent attacker should pay "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Another example is the law where the bible says that “if someone has a rebellious son who does not obey his parents.. they should bring him to the elders.. and say, “Our son is rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death,” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

Imagine a society that enacted these laws. Killing rebellious children and having a judicial system that delimbed people as a form of punishment. Thankfully if you are reading this you probably cannot imagine a society with that level of barbarity. And although this is what the Bible teaches, Jewish sages have ever taken these laws literally. Instead they say an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth means that the offender must pay the monetary worth of the eye or the tooth. Jewish sages also narrowed the law of a rebellious child to the extent that it became obsolete. 

Many Biblical laws can be interpreted either as a license for violence or in a peaceful manner. Sages of Judaism, throughout the ages, with few exceptions, understood their role in the world as one of bringing peace, love and empathy. Thus, the killings sometimes found in the Bible have been reduced in significance within Jewish thinking and are seen having been nonliteral or relevant only for a bygone epoch. 

Maimonides, for example, writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah 4:14), “God gave the Torah to make peace in the world as it is written (Proverbs 3): ‘Its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peaceful.’” According to the Talmud, a court of law empowered to carry out the death penalty that executes a criminal more than once in seventy years is considered a "murderous court." Throughout the Mishnah and Talmud--which were formed during the rise of Christianity and Islam--you'd be hard-pressed to find a sage who is venerated for his physical battle against unbelievers. Judaism preaches peacefulness in the name of God. 

This is how the sages recast a Bible that had the potential for encouraging violence into one that is a book of peace and love. It is this model of religion that Judaism has exported to other religions such as modern day Christianity, especially here in the US. These ideas form the basis of what is now known as Judeo-Christian values. 

Thus, the war that we have today between the likes of ISIS and the West is really not just one of religion but of types of people. There are those who will see the words “an eye for an eye” and will take it literally without any compunctions at all. For others it will give them pause and as a result they will find ways to take those words in a compassionate manner and, thus, reinterpret them in a manner that is nonliteral. The difference here is one of humanity. The former is dispassionate and inhuman. The latter represents one who feels a sense of common humanity guided by the idea that all humans are fundamentally the same as created in the image of God. In the end, all holy texts from all religions have been read in many different ways, and often what an individual takes from them tells us more about who they are than about the literal words themselves.