Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Emor 2014

Parashat Emor
Cantor Gershon Silins
2nd May 2014

This week’s portion, Emor, is one of two places where we encounter a well known principle of justice, often referred to as “an eye for an eye.” This understanding, and its superficial persuasiveness, is responsible for a great deal of brutality in the world, as well as a source of unending cycles of violence and injury, followed by revenge, injury, and more violence; an encyclopedia of woe in the “Hatfields and McCoys” tradition of eternal vengeance. As it is formulated here, we read (in Leviticus 24:17-21) “If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him; fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it, but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.”

There is a satisfying literalness to this rule. Justice, it says, is equitable, certain and timely. If you commit violence, you will be subject to the same violence yourself. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if evil or thoughtless people could see an immediate and terrible consequence to their violence, and wouldn’t this ultimately reduce violence for everyone? Who, after all, would risk injuring someone if they knew they would be subject to the same injury? And here it is, in black letters in the Torah itself; what reasonable person could deny it?

It is well known that our sages, writing their opinions long after the time of the Torah, softened this vengeful blow. The footnote to this passage in Etz Chayim, the Torah commentary of the US Conservative movement, says, “Saadia sought to prove that the verse refers to monetary punishment, as the Sages suggested, rather than retaliation, by citing the story of Samson in Judges 15. Samson says of his attack on the Philistines, “as they did to me, I did to them.” Yet what he did to them was not literally “as they did” but instead what they deserved.”·However, this is not a strong argument, since it suggests that the plain sense of the text does indeed favour retaliation in exact kind, and one needs to soak it thoroughly in weak rationalization to make it consumable for the delicate taste of the rabbis.

Even the earliest rabbinic sources argued the gentler path. The Talmud says, “It was taught in the school of Hezekia: Eye for eye, life for life, and not a life and an eye for an eye; for should you imagine it is literally meant, it would sometimes happen that an eye and a life would be taken for an eye, for the process of blinding him he might die.” One can imagine our biblical ancestors saying, “ buck up, man! We are commanded in simple and straightforward language to carry out this punishment; if the one who took another man’s eye should die as result of his injury, so be it!” Are we just playing with words in order to save ourselves from the need to be as brutal as the Torah requires us to be?

Saadia Gaon, whom we encountered earlier, lived in the time of the Karaites, a breakaway sect which interpreted the text literally (or at least they sought to do so; it’s not as easy to do as it looks). They called for the cutting off of the appropriate limb in the case of an injury of one person by another. Saadia responded that one cannot take this text literally, for if a man were deprived of a third of his normal sight as a result of an injury, how could a retaliatory blow be so finely calculated as to have this result, not more and not less? On this basis, the punishment would have to be a monetary equivalent. The Karaites replied that if the attacker had no money, what would his punishment be? But Saadia said, what if a blind man injured another person who had normal eyesight? The poor man with no money might someday become rich enough to pay, but the blind man who causes the injury, being blind already, on the literal reading of the text, can never pay for what he did.

The issue here is not whether rabbinic authority can or cannot ameliorate the violent consequences that the text appears to set forth, but rather that it seems important to find in the Torah text itself a strong argument for doing so. That argument is to be found more clearly in another text, the Kuzari. The Khazar king asks, doesn’t the Torah expressly state that the penalty is eye for eye, tooth for tooth, maiming for maiming? The scholar responds, how can we guarantee that the wound to be inflicted on the offender will be identical to the one he inflicted in the first place? A wound that injures one person may kill another. And how can the blinding of a one-eyed person be a just recompense for him who gouged out one eye of a victim but left him with the sight in the other eye, if we are told, as he maimed a man, so shall it be done to him?

What the rabbinic understanding teaches is that literal interpretation of the Torah would lead us into an inequity that is itself prohibited by the Torah. So the Torah is as good as telling us that it cannot be literally interpreted; we are obligated to engage with it creatively in order for it to be meaningful. In this instance, the rabbinic voice of calm reason and humaneness clearly derives directly from the consequences of what the Torah itself sets forth, and demonstrates that our modern sense of what’s right can be rooted in our earliest sources.