Friday, May 23, 2014

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Bamidbar 5774 – Torah as Anecdote-It’s a Good Thing

This is called Random Musings. I generally stay close to the parasha or the related haftarah, but sometimes I just wander, simply using those as a jumping-off point. Bamidbar. Numbers, we call it in English.

I’m not big on numbers. Now don’t get me wrong. I did go to the Bronx HS of Science, and I like mathematics and I’m good at it. I like playing with numbers, reading good fact and fiction books that revolve around numbers and math, enjoy a good movie like “Pi” (not the Tiger movie, the computer nerd/Jewish numerology one.) Yet despite having a strong affinity for numbers, I have a much stronger affinity for words, and I do believe words can tell us things that numbers cannot.

Maybe a better way of saying this is that I’m not particularly enamored of statistics, or censuses (yes, that’s the correct plural, look it up) and things of that nature. These things have their place, I guess, but I don’t find them as useful as others do. I am the “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” guy. I am the “give me anecdotal or informally collected information over survey statistics any day” guy. Statistics require analysis. Analysis can be biased. It’s like Neil deGrasse Tyson (another Bronx Science alumnus) said on a recent episode of his remake of Cosmos. I can’t recall the exact quote, but the gist of it was this: science has rigid rules and standards, and is reliable. Scientists, however, are human, and do not always live up to the standards. (This may very well be something Carl Sagan said as well in the original series.) So there’s the thing. The Pew people do this wonderful survey. People analyze the data collected. Not to impugn any reputations, but how do we know that every analyst was completely objective and unbiased? In fact, I wonder if we can simply assume that, because the analysts are human, there has to be some bias in their analysis.

Many years ago, a wise man taught me the concept of MBWA – managing by walking around. In my career I have often found I learn more through this management technique than I ever could through surveys, time and motion studies, focus groups, collected and analyzed statistics, etc. when I move into a new position taking over for someone else, I less interested in whatever written records they may have left behind than in sitting down with them (and the people who worked with and for them) and asking them “so what’s not in the reports?”

I’m active in a large community of Jewish professionals working to envision and shape Jewish education and Judaism in general for the 21st-century and beyond. There are a few people in this community that are ever-insistent on being shown the data. Now I will readily admit that statistical data can be useful, and it can be particularly useful when one is trying to be efficient.  Statistics, data, analysis, survey, focus groups, etc. are tools, and we need to see them as such. They are only a part of the tools and techniques we need to utilize. Anecdotal and informally obtained data can be just as useful (and, in my experience, often more useful.) The thing about polls and surveys is that people lie, or fudge answers. Pure statistical data is like Schrodinger’s cat. Once you bring in an observer to the data, you influence or force an outcome. The data is only pure when it is unobserved, analyzed.

Yes, the science of statistics attempts to take into account such variables. Good survey design allows for the fact that people do lie or fudge their answers, or try to answer based on what they think the questioner wants to know, that how questions are asked can affect how they are answered. What more proof do you need that the words are more powerful than the numbers, because the words influence the numbers.

Sometimes collecting data is a necessity. If you’re going to manage a bunch of people traveling through the wilderness, you do need to know how many of them there are to feed and protect. You do need to know how many are in a  particular tribe that has been assigned to carry your portable sanctuary and its accoutrements. If you’re running a Jewish institution (school, synagogue, charity, etc.) it helps to know the numbers for your target populations, your potential market, and so much more.  Numbers ARE useful.

I’d be willing to bet, however, that you’d learn more about your current and potential clients/stakeholders in a casual conversation in the aisle at a Home Depot or the supermarket or in line or seated at Starbucks. Your religious school parents might learn more about what’s going on in their children’s classroom in a casual conversation after bumping into the teacher (or another more active parent.)

Where are you going to learn more: from a formal exit interview with a  disgruntled congregant who is leaving, or a casual conversation between them and another congregant who is not an officer or staff member? My thought is that you should probably strive to do both.

If Moshe had given more attention to anecdotal information, he might have seen the coming rebellion of Korach and nipped it in the bud with some proactive efforts. I’m not sure what sort of statistical data might have given Moshe the same clues. By the same token, acting upon anecdotal information, Moshe may have gone and made some serious blunders. Anecdotal information is no panacea (then again, neither is statistical analysis.)

What’s going to tell me more as a school administrator – viewing a student’s statistics from an online supplemented study program, or stopping them in the hall and informally assessing the knowledge they may have acquired? Yes, test scores can be one piece of valuable information, but we have given them far more weight and importance than they should have.

Yes, words have their failings too. Midrash and commentary are ways we compensate when the words are inadequate, incomplete, unclear. I daresay we use midrash just as much to compensate when the numbers and statistics fail us. Anecdotal information just that – anecdotal. It can represent a very small sample, and one that is just as easily cherry-picked as statistical data. It is, essentially, unscientific, and not evidence-based. It is often true that anecdotal sources are statistical outliers. I’m not suggesting we base our decisions solely upon, or even largely upon anecdotal evidence. It is, however, an oft overlooked tool.

Consider this, as well. Collect enough anecdotal information, and you can have  a pretty large data set that can be analyzed and utilized.

Unscientific? Perhaps. Then again, we are talking religion and faith here. Science and faith can inform each other, but they cannot be used to explain each other. What we do in our synagogues and day schools and JCCs, etc. is not science. A dependency on the tools of science to tell us how best to teach subjects of faith seems questionable to me.

Science is science. Numbers are numbers. Faith is faith,  People can and do believe and rely upon all of them. However, we are the weak link. We, scientists, mathematicians, believers. We are not always true to the standards and ideals of science, math, and faith. So how reliable are any of them?

This is not an anti-science screed. I love and embrace science. I am not a fan of pseudo-science, and I recognize that pseudo-science often utilizes anecdotal data to support its claims. That which can be verified through repeatable scientific experimentation is, until such time as it is disproven through newly acquired evidence or displaced by a newer theory and experimentation, the way the world is.

Torah is a form of anecdotal evidence. That’s why it cannot and should not be used to question or contradict scientifically verifiable facts. However, consider the value of Torah to us in so many ways. Its stories are anecdotes. They cannot be verified, they probably represent a small sample, and the stories may have been twisted and molded to fit particular agendas over time. Yet we learn so much from it. Can we truly work if we hold our scientific apparatus in one hand and our Torah in the other? I believe the true brilliance of humankind is our ability to do just that. Science, uninformed by faith ethics, morals, empty of meaning. It’s not just the facts. It’s what we do with them.

Me, I like to throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. It may be inefficient, but it works for me.

Well, I’ve mused my way down a wandering and truly random path. I hope the trip has given you as much food for thought as it has given me.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian ©2014 by Adrian A, Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Bemidbar 5773 - Who Really Provides?
Bemdibar 5771 - Moving Treasures
Bemidbar 5770 - Sense Us
Bemidbar 5769 - That V'eirastikh Li Feeling
Bamidbar 5767-What Makes It Holy? (Redux & Revised 5761)
Bemidbar 5766-Redux 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5764-Doorway to Hope
Bemidbar 5763-Redux 5759 (with additions for 5763)
Bemidbar 5762-They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta be Kidding!
Bemidbar 5759-Marrying Gd-Not Just for Nuns
Bemidbar 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5761-What Makes it Holy

Friday, May 16, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’ckhukotai 5774–Taking the Hard Way Yet Again

Some 17 years ago, when I first starting writing these Random Musings, before I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and came to a both a better understanding of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc., I wrote a short thought piece about B’khukotai. Nine years ago  I was tempted to re-write the piece in light of all that I had learned since I had first written it. I decided it might be more interesting to leave it as I wrote it, and add some commentary at the end. This year, I was once again tempted to re-write. This time, I might intersperse some updated thought, but I’ll try to leave things mostly intact and and even more thoughts at the end.

A Slightly Revised Random Musings Before Shabbat-B’khukotai 5757/5765-I'll Take the Hard Way

"Whoa!" I thought to myself as I read and reread B’khukotai. Now some of it makes sense. Christianity has often baffled me. What was so wrong and broken within Judaism that Paul and others had to fashion a whole new theology?

In B’khukotai, G”d tells up what will happen if we follow the commandments, and what will happen if we don't. Nevertheless, in the end, there is a built in forgiveness for our continuing obstinacy – G”d telling us that the covenant will not be abrogated, at least on G”d's part. However, the forgiveness only comes after enduring all the horrendous and increasing suffering brought upon for because of our failure to keep the holy commandments.

Perhaps Paul and his ilk were looking for a shortcut? You can have the forgiveness now - you don't have to suffer. It's just too easy. Although B’khukotai is a hard parashat for a modern liberal free thinking Jew like myself to come to terms with, I find it easier to identify with its model of forgiveness of sins after one has had to deal with the consequences of one's choice to not follow the mitzvot, as opposed to the "forgiveness first" Christian theology (which I realize I am way oversimplifying, but please allow me the liberty.) Forgive me before I sin, and what is there to restrain me from sinning? Forgive me after I have suffered the consequences of my choices, and I have to think a little harder about sinning in the first place.

[From 2014 – I realize that sinning, however one defines it, has an impact upon our own psyches. So the idea that advance forgiveness eliminates suffering is perhaps a bit inaccurate. The sinner may sense and experience forgiveness, but it’s likely they first need to feel remorse, and profess or confess their sin before they can feel forgiven. Yet some do still pervert the concept and eliminate that middle step.]

Yes-I want G”d to love me. I also want Gd” to care enough about my personal growth that I am allowed to learn through making mistakes.

Some might argue "what's the difference?" In either case, you know G”d will forgive you-the end result is the same. Is it?

Leviticus 26:39 The few of you who survive in your enemies' lands will [realize that] your survival is threatened as a result of your nonobservance. [These few] will also [realize] that their survival has been threatened because of the nonobservance of their fathers.

Now, we can get into a really deep philosophical spiral here, if we start wondering about a G”d who punishes us for wrong actions. Let's not go there today. (It's not a trip I particularly enjoy at any time, but it cant be avoided forever.) Let's just take the words at their face value - and recognize the gift the Am Yisrael has been given in forgiveness after consequences, rather than before.


Comments from 2005: My understanding of both Jewish and Christian views towards sin and G”d's forgiveness have certainly changed from 8 years ago. The comparison I offer is not only overly simplistic, but also not a representative characterization of the diversity of views on these topics within Christianity (and you thought Judaism was full of internal contradictions and inter-movement strife?) There are certainly Christians that take this somewhat simplistic view (and take advantage of it) and there remains a broad range of views on these topics in Judaism as well. Yet rabbis and ministers everywhere are working hard each and every day to counter the overly simplistic, dogmatic, and misunderstanding views of their congregants.

[2014: Is it not entirely unfair to state that being a Christian requires one to be forgiving of others. That G”d forgives is a given based on the sacrifice represented by Jesus.  In Judaism, G”d can forgive humans for sins against G”d, and, at least according to what we read here in parashat B’khukotai, G”d will always eventually forgives those sins that the Jews commit against G”d. It is equally clear that Judaism requires forgiveness for sins of one human against another be dealt with by those same humans. G”d does not (cannot?) forgive the sins one human being commits against another human being. One is required to seek forgiveness of one whom they have wronged. One is required to forgive one who comes to them in sincerity and piety seeking forgiveness. (Ever practical, the rabbis tell us that after one has gone to another seeking forgiveness and has  been rejected three times may consider their obligation fulfilled. In contrast, Jesus. when asked by Peter how many times he must forgive one who has wronged him, and Peter suggests seven as a fair number, responds seventy times seven, probably meaning an unlimited number of times. (Matthew 18:22.))]

[2014: Islam, too, speaks often of forgiveness. Allah is sometimes called Al-Ghaffur, oft-forgiving. Islam, unfortunately, burdened itself in regards to forgiveness, in the way that Judaism burdened itself with slavery. Jews, though former slaves, may not enslave other Jews but may enslave non-Jews and even treat them harshly. Similarly, the Quran argues strongly that Muslims must forgive other Muslims, somewhat less so for converts, and forgiveness for unbelievers, and apostates, is, in some interpretations of Islam, actually discouraged. (A lot hinges on how “unbelievers” is defined.) In some ways, Islam’s insistence upon being a believer to merit forgiveness is akin to Christianity’s insistence on acceptance of Christ.]

No matter how practitioners, scholars, and clergy  spin their particular faith’s understanding of forgiveness, and G”d’s part in it, I still maintain that there are some fundamental differences in how G”d's forgiveness is ultimately realized in Jewish, Christian and Islamic understandings.  Both Christianity and Islam, albeit in different ways, and again, this is over-simplified, fundamentally involve G”d in the process of forgiveness between human beings, and require only a belief or faith in G”d to receive G”d’s forgiveness.

The Torah, in this parasha, does indeed teach us that G”d will ultimately forgive the Jewish people their transgressions against G”d. Without wishing to undermine the nature of the covenant between G”d and the Jewish people, it does not say that this forgiveness will not be extended to others.  It does not say that there is “no way to the Deity except through x.” It clearly says that G”d will punish the people for sinning against G”d – punish perhaps is very horrible ways. We can attempt to excuse this away as harsh rhetoric intended to scare us into obedience, or we can accept the notion that we will sin against G”d and we will be punished for it. Sins between one human and another are another matter entirely.

I do want to give a nod to the something in the parasha, in the midst of the litany of horrors which could befall the Jewish people for their transgressions. It is this sense of justice in the idea that the land will lie fallow to make up for the years when the Jewish people had sinned against G”d by failing to follow the laws for shmita (the sabbatical year) and Yuval (Jubilee.) In the midst of the catalog of calamities (a title I have also used to refer to the litany of punishments in parashat Ki Tavo) is this notion of balance. It’s not enough, in my opinion, to balance the overly negative and somewhat over-the-top list of punishments to be meted out to the Jewish people for their sins against G”d, but it is a place upon which to hang my hook and maybe pry a little into the layers in my never-ending search to redeem the irredeemable texts which litter the Torah.]

[2014: When it comes to forgiveness,] for me, the "Jewish way" if there can be said to be such a thing, is the one that resonates for me. It still feels a little "harder" and more insistent on consequences and personal/communal responsibility. In fact, is it this very communal dimension that I believe truly separates the Jewish understanding from our co-religionists. (Though it can be easily argued that "catholic with a small c" Christianity is no less communal than Judaism, and that Judaism, too, has its own understandings of "personal relationships" with G”d. Different sides of the same coin? Who knows? I've often felt that G”d allows multiple human religions to exist because G”d understands different learning styles and the concept of differentiated education, and this multiplicity of religions allows each person to find the method that works best for them.)

And with that interesting thought, as I have done twice before, I bid you [Shabbat] Shalom for this week.

Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened.

A sweet Shabbat to you all.


©2014 (portions ©1997 and 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Bekhukotai 5771 - The Long Road Ahead
Bekhukotai 5765-I'll Take the Hard Way
Bechukotai 5763-Keri Is So Very...
Bekhukotai 5760-Repugnant Realities

B'har B'khukotai 5773 - In Smite Of It All
B'har-B'khukotai 5772 - Scared of Leaves (Redux & Revised 5769)
B'har-B'khukotai 5770 - Bad Parenting 301
Behar-Bekhukotai 5769- Scared of Leaves?
Behar-Bekhukotai 5767-A Partridge in a Tree of Life
Behar-Bekhukotai 5766-Only An Instant
Behar-Bekhukotai 5764 - The Price of Walls
Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 - Tough Love
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out Gd's Way)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’har 5774 - Avadim Hayinu v’ata Avadim Heim

There are a lot of things right about religion. I’m no fan of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. However, there is no arguing that religion hasn’t been responsible, to some extent, for underpinning, guiding, or perpetuating some of humankind’s worst ethical choices. Near the end of parashat B’har, we find a case in point.

The verses Lev. 25:39-46 tell us that we may not make our fellow Israelites slaves (though we can treat them as hired or bound laborers until the Jubilee year or they are redeemed by their kinsmen for a fair price based on the proximity of the redemption to the year of Jubilee) but that we can have slaves acquired “from the nations around you” or purchased from resident aliens living among us. These slaves we may keep as property and inheritance – the Jubilee is meaningless for them. The text tells us we may not rule ruthlessly over our kinsmen. By implication, this means that we can rule ruthlessly over our non-Israelite slaves.

Whoa. Think about this the next time you go singing “avadim hayinu.” Why was the ethical precept “you shall not enslave another human being” an outgrowth of our having been ruthlessly treated slaves in Egypt?

While we are fond of speaking of biblical slavery with the euphemistic comparison to indentured servitude, this was applicable only to Israelites who were slaves to other Israelites. Non-Israelite slaves were slaves. Period. The Rambam (Maimonides) says quite clearly that we can be cruel to non-Israelite slaves, but that we should be compassionate instead. Our tradition is replete with such apologetics.

While preparing this musing, I came across an article on (not usually my goto place, but I do try to research sources across the widest possible spectrum of ideas) that offered an interesting rationale for why the Torah permitted slavery. The executive summary version is this: if the Torah told us everything we needed to know, it would never be real to us. Torah starts with the world as is, and gives up the opportunity to evolve to a better understanding.

The OU has a similar article (though for parashat Mishpatim) written by former Chief Rabbi of Britain Lord Sacks best summed up by this quote:

“So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will.”

At first it seems an enticing idea. Unlike the thoughts of Rabbi Lord Sacks, the interpretation in the Chabad article credits the Oral Torah as being the real guide for humankind, superior, it almost suggests, to the Torah itself. (The cynic in me wants to scream “yeah, of course the oral Torah appears superior to the Torah because it finds all the mistakes, conflicts, contradictions, ethical quandaries, and whitewashes them, sanitizes them, explains them away, talks circles around them, rewrites them, or outright contradicts them. But it also just makes up a lot of sh*t.)

So I can agree with the idea, and it is one I have espoused myself, that sometimes the troubling things in Torah are there just to trouble us, and perhaps leads us to a better way of thinking, a more compassionate, just, or loving approach.

Rabbi Lord Sacks, in commenting on Mishpatim, notes that it contains some very positive laws about the treatment of slaves – but he doesn’t note this applies only to Hebrew slaves to other Hebrews. He suggests, however, that these laws pertaining to Hebrew slaves set the stage for future abolitionists.

Rabbi Lord Sacks can be a persuasive writer. He closes his article thusly:

Yet slavery was abolished in the United States, not least because of the affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson, who wrote those words, was himself a slave-owner. Yet such is the latent power of ideals that eventually people see that by insisting on their right to freedom and dignity while denying it to others, they are living a contradiction. That is when change takes place, and it takes time.

If history tells us anything it is that God has patience, though it is often sorely tried. He wanted slavery abolished but he wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does. The God of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.

I cannot read these words without finding some wisdom in them. At the same times, they play right into the hands of the anti-religionists who might suggest that had G”d gotten to the point from the beginning by saying “no war, no slavery, no capital punishment, no oppression, no cheeseburgers” (sorry I just couldn't resist throwing in that last one) we might have been a whole lot better off a lot faster. Or it allows them to easily argue that these same ethical precepts evolving were simply a matter of time, and we didn’t need religious texts spurring us on to the task.

The kabbalists might have a somewhat different take, seeing the Torah as representative of the world in its most imperfect state from the shattering of the vessel. Finding the shards and repairing the vessel. (An idea that, by the way, dangles precipitously over the cliff of original sin.) This, too, in a way, argues for progressive improvement over (a long period of) time.

It’s the time scale aspect of all this that makes the “deliberate inducement to progressive moral improvement” theory simultaneously the most palatable yet also most attackable. Just tell us what you mean G”d! Stop beating around the bush. (It’s like that old joke about Moses trying to understanding “not boiling a kid in it’s mother’s milk.”)

Here’s the thing. We sometimes look back on our history and consider our ancestors more primitive. The fact is, it is quite possible, even likely, that they had the same intellectual and philosophical curiosities as we do, and their moral development was not as hampered as we think it was. Well, according Hitchens and Dawkins and others, their moral development was stunted by religion.)  If the Torah had not permitted slavery, might we have come to be a better world any faster? Or would Rome have just wiped out the Jews when they first encountered them because of the threat of an anti-slave morality to their lifestyle?

It’s easy to say “don’t look back, look forward.” It’s also easy to say that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I was talking about all this with a rabbi friend today and he suggested that context really does matter. Our ancestors, in situ, might not have come to the same ethical and moral conclusions. Hitchens, Dawkins, Gladwell, et al, he thought, would not be saying then what they are saying now. Or, in any of these cases (pro/anti slavery/religion,) if they did, they would be a small, largely ignored voice in a huge sea of normative cultural practices.

Perhaps. I’m not convinced. An idea becomes an idea before its time only when that idea doesn’t take root at first. If extant cultural context truly prevents and hinders advances in moral thinking, why all that agony by Starfleet over the “prime directive?” One person with an idea can change the world. Again, it’s all about time scale. Remember James Burke’s series “The Day the Universe Changed.” Tell me that one person, ahead of their time, can’t actually bring about change. We know they can-though it can take time to yield results.

Which is the better tool, the better methodology? Accept things as imperfect as they are and hope that, over time, things will improve, or rant against the status quo and try to change it in your own time, even if the change might not actually happen until well after you are gone? Is the answer to that as obvious as the give a man a fish/teach a man to fish one?

Of course the “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” school of thought supports the notion expressed by Rabbi Lord Sacks and Tzvi Freemen of Chabad of intentional progressive moral development. Make it too easy and we don’t appreciate it, don’t learn from it, don’t make it part of who and what we are.

I don’t know. I’ve no grand conclusions here. I only know that I still remain unsettled about and uncomfortable with excusing the Torah and religion for avoiding certain ethical teachings and lessons simply because of the cultural norms of its own time. The rational part of me understands that it is about choosing your battles, and yes, allowing for progressive moral improvement. The passionate part of me says “I want the messianic age, and I want it yesterday. In fact, I want it thousands of years ago! Oh wait, Some people thought it was coming thousands of years ago. And no, I don’t just mean the followers of that itinerant rabbi from the Galil. He was just quoting what our great prophets had already seen saying for centuries.

(It should also be noted that Islam is dealing with this same debate about slavery and how it written about in their sacred texts.)

We were slaves in Egypt, but now we’re free. but we can keep these other people as slaves. Not exactly stirring lyrics for a song to sing at our Seder, is it?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Behar 5765-Ki Gerim v'Toshavim Atem Imadi
Behar 5763-Ownership
Behar 5760-Slaves to Gd

B'har B'khukotai 5773 - In Smite Of It All
B'har-B'khukotai 5772 - Scared of Leaves (Redux & Revised 5769)
B'har-B'khukotai 5770 - Bad Parenting 301
Behar-Bekhukotai 5769- Scared of Leaves?
Behar-Bekhukotai 5767-A Partridge in a Tree of Life
Behar-Bekhukotai 5766-Only An Instant
Behar-Bekhukotai 5764 - The Price of Walls
Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 - Tough Love
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out Gd's Way)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Random Musings Before Shabbat Emor- Lex Talionis (Redux & Revised from 5759)

It has been 15 years since I wrote the words that I am revisiting and revising here. Recent events make it seem all the more appropriate that I do so now.

Here it is before us, in Lev. 24:19-20, a repeat of the Exodus passage that some claim is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted of all the passages in our holy Torah, the lex talionis, "eye for an eye." (Ex. 21:23-25)

יז וְאִישׁ כִּי יַכֶּה כָּל־נֶפֶשׁ אָדָם מוֹת יוּמָֽת: יח וּמַכֵּה נֶֽפֶשׁ־בְּהֵמָה יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה נֶפֶשׁ תַּחַת נָֽפֶשׁ: יט וְאִישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּן מוּם בַּֽעֲמִיתוֹ כַּֽאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כֵּן יֵעָשֶׂה לּֽוֹ: כ שֶׁבֶר תַּחַת שֶׁבֶר עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן כַּֽאֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מוּם בָּֽאָדָם כֵּן יִנָּתֶן בּֽוֹ: [מפטיר] כא וּמַכֵּה בְהֵמָה יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה וּמַכֵּה אָדָם יוּמָֽת

Lev 24: 17 If a man kills any human being, he shall be put to death. 18 One who kills a beast shall makes restitution for it: life for life. 19 If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him; 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. 21 He who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but he who kills a human being shall be put to death. [JPS]

In Exodus, it reads:

כב וְכִֽי־יִנָּצ֣וּ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְנָ֨גְפ֜וּ אִשָּׁ֤ה הָרָה֙ וְיָֽצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן עָנ֣וֹשׁ יֵֽעָנֵ֗שׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָשִׁ֤ית עָלָיו֙ בַּ֣עַל הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֖ן בִּפְלִלִֽים: כג וְאִם־אָס֖וֹן יִֽהְיֶ֑ה וְנָֽתַתָּ֥ה נֶ֖פֶשׁ תַּ֥חַת נָֽפֶשׁ: כד עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן יָ֚ד תַּ֣חַת יָ֔ד רֶ֖גֶל תַּ֥חַת רָֽגֶל: כה כְּוִיָּה֙ תַּ֣חַת כְּוִיָּ֔ה פֶּ֖צַע תַּ֣חַת פָּ֑צַע חַבּוּרָ֕ה תַּ֖חַת חַבּוּרָֽה

Ex 21:22 When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. 23 But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. [JPS]

We cannot be sure if a Jewish court or community ever carried out such a sentence, and the rabbis clearly understood these to not be literal commandments, and substituted monetary compensation instead. They recognized the old adage that if we literally follow the commandment as eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth we’ll have world full of eyeless and toothless people.

I wonder if the were rabbis correct in their interpretation or was what they did merely a clever circumnavigation? For one thing Lev 24:17-18 puts it more plainly. Death for human killing human, restitution for human killing beast. I’ve tried working out the logic of the rabbis in finessing this, but I’m not entirely certain I understand it (though, as an opponent of capital punishment, I embrace it.)

So I'm not at all sure that the Torah permits monetary restitution in the case of injury or death by a human of another human. But then, who I am to argue with the rabbis?

In any case, I see an entirely different meaning here. There is a reading which removes the troublesome element. One way to translate what the text literally says is:

""the blemish which he put in a person thus it shall be put in him.” (Lev 24:20b)

It is not a call for others to inflict upon this wrongdoer the same blemish he caused to another, it is a reminder to those who would commit a wrong that the sin of what they do will always be in them.

In V. 19 it is stated differently, and using different verbs:

"If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him."

Again I think you can get the same reading - blemishing another will also cause one to blemish themselves. (There is more difficulty in this reading for this verse because of the verbs used. In both verses, the man "puts", "yiteyn" (from the root n-t-n) the blemish. In v. 20 the same verb root (n-t-n) is used again to describe what will be done to him in return. Yet in the earlier verse, 19, after the first use of the verb root n-t-n, we see the use of the verb root asa - ayin-sin-hey, to make or do. The implication is a it clearer. For causing the injury, that which he has done shall be done to him. Nevertheless, I still think a reading in the style of my interpretation of verse 20 is possible.

The context here in Leviticus is different. In Exodus, these laws are promulgated as part of a long series of instructions for the children of Israel to follow regarding treatment of others. Here in Leviticus, it is sandwiched in-between verses dealing with blasphemy (speaking or profaning G”d's name.) And the end of the verses pertaining to the lex talionis end with a very important verse which I have written about in previous musings on Emor:

מִשְׁפַּ֤ט אֶחָד֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם כַּגֵּ֥ר כָּֽאֶזְרָ֖ח יִֽהְיֶ֑ה כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם

"You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike, for I am the L”rd your G”d." (Lev 24:22)

G”d's rules apply to all living in the land, equally. The stranger who blasphemes, or who injures another shall be responsible under the law and treated as any other person. (Hmmm...what implications does this have for those who say non-Jews are only responsible for the Noahide laws?)

Why sandwich this repetition of the lex talionis in a segment about a blasphemer? Perhaps because to G”d, the speaking of G”d's name as a curse or in vain, this blasphemy, is injurious to G”d, so injurious that it invokes a severe penalty.

Perhaps there is another reason. If my interpretation of the reading of verses 24:19-20 are correct, perhaps they are there to also mitigate the harsh punishment for blasphemy - that one who blasphemes shall injure him/herself when blaspheming G”d. The death that is meted out in punishment to the blasphemer or the murderer is his/her own ethical slaying of his/herself, of his/her soul, through their heinous action.

Thus, when we do not keep the Sabbath, it is ourselves that we injure. When we blemish the Sabbath, we blemish ourselves. If we blemish the Sabbath, shall not our penalty, in lex talionis fashion, be that the Sabbath shall blemish us? Or that our own Sabbath experience is blemished, in that our self-imposed blemish prevents us from experiencing the fullness of Shabbat.

Is not all of this an extension of the metaphorical concepts expressed in parashat Tazria and Metzora? The blemishes spoken about in those passages are often thought of as outward physical manifestations of inner sin or guilt. Further punishment from the community may not be necessary – sometimes the internal blemishes we inflict upon ourselves with our sins are painful enough to seem just punishment. (Yes, we do have the case of the psychopath, but in many ways, these people lacking a conscious may be the most tortured of all souls!) The recent botched execution in Oklahoma seems fitting background for this discussion. Is the “justice” inflicted upon this murderer the justice that G”d is commanding us to mete out here and elsewhere in the Torah?

For me, every time we execute someone, it is a blemish upon our society as a whole. (The same is true when anyone dies in a war, or a terrorist attack, or from hunger, or lack of sanitation, or other preventable reasons. I know that what I seek may not be possible until the messianic age, but it is equally as likely that we will not see the messianic age until we have accomplished that task of creating a truly just and loving world.) As long as we carry these blemishes, can we truly heal our world?

May this Sabbath be as blemish free as possible for you and all of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 (portions ©1999) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Emor 5773 - The Half-Israelite Blasphemer
Emor 5772-Eternal EffortII: We Have Met the Ner Tamid and It Is Us
Emor 5771-B'yom HaShabbat, B'yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 - G"d's Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 - Mum's the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort