I remember the first time that I read Parashat Emor from the Torah scroll, 46 years ago. In fact, it was the first time I read any portion from the Torah scroll – it was my Bar Mitzvah. I still remember that the focus of my Bar Mitzvah “speech” was verse 22 of chapter 23 of Leviticus: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Lord am your God.”
The congregation where I grew up was the oldest congregation in the State of Illinois – yet steeped in 1960’s style social justice activism. I learned then that commandments to help the poor and the stranger were expressive of Judaism’s age-old, unchanging commitment to the most vulnerable members of society.
Since then I have learned of Judaism’s age-old, unchanging commitment to reforming, reshaping, reconfiguring, reconstructing our understanding of Torah as a way of responding to the cultural reality of our time and place. A different commandment, near the end of Parashat Emor, provides an instructive example.
In Leviticus 24:19-20 we read: “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.” This law, known as lex talionis, the law of retaliation, is found explicitly in two other places in the Torah.
To our modern ears it sounds barbaric. In fact, in Torah times, it was likely progressive. In Genesis 4:23-4 we find Lamech boasting to his wives Adah and Zillah: “I have slain a man for wounding me, and a lad for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” It seems that our verse’s stipulation of “an eye for an eye” was a deliberate restraint on unbridled vengeance. It served as a progressive corrective to overreaching on the part of an aggrieved party.
By the time of the rabbis, the Torah law of “an eye for an eye” no longer seemed to be progressive justice but rather simplistic, primitive and punitive retribution. The rabbis were mostly urbanized and understood intuitively that along with the division of labor in society comes an understanding of variegated value and worth. They decided that our text was not to be taken literally: “an eye for an eye.” Rather, they taught, it really means “the value of an eye for an eye.” In other words, it came to mean monetary compensation for physical damages.
If, for example, a ditch digger accidentally put out the eye of an airline pilot we would readily see that literally “an eye for an eye” would be inadequate and unequal compensation. After all, a one-eyed ditch digger can still work successfully in his profession but an airline pilot would need a new career.
If, for example, a one-eyed man accidentally puts out the eye of a previously fully sighted individual, we can readily see that while a literal application of “an eye for an eye” would leave the original victim visually impaired, it would leave the original perpetrator blind! So the rabbis determined – not through means of biblical interpretation but by means of pure logic alone – “an eye for an eye” really means: “the value of an eye for an eye.” Our modern interpretation of “an eye for an eye” might be something like: “the punishment ought to fit the crime.”
Our tradition’s understanding of these two commandments: leaving the corners of the field for the poor, and “an eye for an eye,” help us to see how the values of our worldwide Progressive Movement are not some freewheeling innovation of modernity. Rather, both our emphasis on social justice and our commitment to reshape our understanding of Torah law to apply to contemporary cultural reality are time-honored expressions of Judaism.
About the author:
Rabbi Michael A. Weinberg serves Temple Beth Israel, Skokie, Illinois.
The above formerly appeared as #114 in our Torah from Around the World series.