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Torah Commentary
Emor (April 27, 2013)

Rachel Brumberg, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning

“AN EYE FOR AN EYE and a tooth for a tooth.” This week’s parashah (portion) brings us one of the most quoted passages in the Torah. We’ve all heard it; we’ve probably even all said it at some point in our lives. But what does it really mean? And is it right?

On the surface level it says that the punishment for a wrongdoing should be that the wrongdoer is penalized by having the same act done unto him or her. You poked my eye out, so you must lose one too. I killed your animal? I must replace it. You killed someone? You die. In this manner, the text certainly speaks to a level of equality and reciprocity. If someone does something to you, then you can equal the score by doing it back to him or her.

There is, of course, something simple and fair to that judgment. It is very clear how to rule in each case if we follow this judicial system. But perhaps this reading of the text is too simplistic. What does it get us? Two impaired or toothless (or dead!) people. How is this ethical or acceptable in today’s society?

Yesterday I saw a quote (on Facebook, of course) that sums up the counterargument pretty accurately: “Equality does not equal justice.” The punishment, “eye for eye,” might equal the crime as laid out in our Torah portion, but justice has not been served. If someone is killed, then killing another does not help us to understand the situation; it does not bring closure to the family or provide help to the perpetrator; nor does it educate the greater community on how to avoid the situation in the future.

Looking back at our original text, how can we interpret it to still hold meaning in our world today? Is there a way to find a punishment that can equal the loss of a life without taking away a second life? How would that ruling look? In our country, at least, the answer to these questions can be found in today’s legal system. Judges, lawyers and juries build arguments and debate the merits of the situation at hand so that justice can be served. Often this results in a monetary fine and a rehabilitation plan for the criminal. Ideally, when trading an eye for a course deemed of similar value (other than the taking of another eye), the final ruling will result in equality and justice for the victim and the offender as well as the betterment of our society overall.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts.

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