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.
©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