Friday, February 22, 2008

An Eye for an Eye

An eye for an eye is one of those verses from the Torah that is mistranslated and misunderstood. It gives some people comfort to use this verse to prove that Jews are a vengeful and are intent upon retribution.

It is used out of context as well. It is a tradition that has been ongoing for over two thousand years.

Michelangelo's Moses has two horns on his head because Michelangelo's Bible, the Latin Vulgate, mistranslated Exodus 34:29 as "Moses had horns" instead of "Moses' face shone." With similar results, Exodus 21:24-25 is commonly read as requiring "an eye for an eye."

By translation or mistranslation, the Hebrew Bible has probably supplied more staples to the Western cannon of quotations than any other book (or set of books), including Shakespeare. Certain Biblical lines stand out, though the distinction is sometimes a dubious one from the perspective of scholars of Hebrew and of the Hebrew Bible. For reliance on mistranslation, projection of preconception, brutality of intent and ignorance of the Biblical context, probably no Biblical verses are more famous, or infamous, than this Torah portion's "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise" (Exodus 21:24-25).

Here, we are told, is vengeful, unbending, even inhuman justice, only too typical of the "Old Testament." Here is the "Law" against which Paul of Tarsus inveighed so heavily; here is Judaism's absolute, untrammeled and altogether one-sided rigor. Here is the transmogrified teaching of the jealous G-d of Moses - Him Who needed to be replaced, or, at the least, developed into Paul's G-d of love, mercy and understanding.

It's worse still. When the Talmudic rabbis came and read "an eye for an eye" to connote not sadistic punishment but monetary compensation for bodily injury, this, we are told, was but the sophistry of the Pharisees, the embarrassed apologia of rabbis too intellectually dishonest to admit to the decisive impugning of Biblical Law offered by its critics.

Every aspect of Jewish life is rooted in respect for life. A discussion during Shabbat services three weeks ago brought this to the forefront. In the d'var Torah, we were asked the question: Which is the easiest commandment to follow and which is the hardest?

The easiest commandment is not to take eggs or chicks from a nest while the mother bird is present. This is to prevent the mother bird pain from seeing her eggs or chicks taken. Kashrut is followed for similar reasons. These rules are meant to make us conscience of all our actions. It governs our speech as well.

The hardest commandment to follow is to honor our mother and father. This is very difficult, especially for teenagers and adolescents. And again, it is an aspect in which we are meant to govern our actions and speech in order to avoid giving pain.

And these rules follow us when war is necessary. Peace is to be pursued but this cannot be ignored: "not standing by while one's neighbor's blood is shed". Pacifism is antithetical to Jewish thought and it may seem paradoxical in light of trying to live and be respectful of all life. But if thought is given to this idea, it would seem to be a logical progression. If someone is coming at my neighbor to kill my neighbor, do I stand idly by? Or do I intervene?

If someone seeks to kill me, do I turn the other cheek or do I defend myself?

And even during war, we are guided by principles:

In sum, there clearly is a license to wage certain kinds of war and kill certain people in the Jewish tradition. However, in order to exercise this license, one must first seek peace; this peace must be sought prior to declaring war, prior to waging a battle, and prior to laying a siege. While war permits killing, it only permits the intentional killings of combatants. Innocent people must be given every opportunity to remove themselves from the field of combat.

Are these the principles of a vengeful people?

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