The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
Understanding Divine Justice

Understanding Divine Justice

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:28 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Havdalah: 8:31 p.m.

The Hebrew Scriptures have been maligned by much of the Gentile world with negative characterizations painted with broad strokes. The God of the “Old Testament” has been depicted as jealous, vindictive, blood thirsty and cruel. We, on the other hand, think of the Almighty as a loving father and described in terms of His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that we repeat in the Selichot.

A favorite passage contrasting the “New” with the “Old” Testament is found in today’s Torah portion: “And he that mortally smites any human, he shall surely be put to death. … And if a man inflicts a wound in his fellow, as he did shall be done to him; a break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; just as he maimed a person, so shall it be rendered upon him” [Leviticus 24:17-20].

Contrast this with the Gospel of Matthew. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” [Matthew 5:38-39].

At first glance one would think that the Torah does sound cruel. Plucking an eye out or breaking a bone to compensate for a similar injury to the victim appears to be too strong a punishment. That is, if you don’t know that the Written Law cannot be understood without the Oral Law that explains the true meaning behind the Torah verses.

In a lengthy discourse in the Talmud [Bava Kamma 83b-84a], the Mishnah states, “One who inflicts a wound on his fellow can be liable on account of him for five things: damages, pain, medical expenses, workman’s compensation and humiliation.” The Gemara goes on to say that when the Torah states, “an eye for an eye,” and the other bodily injuries, it refers only to monetary compensation and is not to be taken literally. However, when the Torah says that if one commits a deliberate and premeditated act of murder, then “He shall surely be put to death.”

I have two questions. If the Torah meant to require monetary compensation for bodily injury, why didn’t it say just so instead of allowing the meaning of inflicting the same damage on the perpetrator to be misinterpreted? And if we now substitute monetary damages in the former case, why don’t we allow a murderer a similar penalty?

The Torah explicitly states, “You shall not accept ransom (kofer) for the life of a murderer who is worthy of death, for he shall surely die” [Numbers 35:31]. After all, we know in some societies, from ancient times to the present, the practice of receiving ransom payments from a murderer — blood money — was often customary. 

We start with the following assumptions. First, that the Torah was given to us at Sinai by a perfect God and that His judgment is perfect. Second, that the Oral Law was given to Moses by God at Sinai, as well, and passed down to us through the ages. These stipulations were not accepted by those who broke away from traditional Judaism. The way the verses have been interpreted by our Sages is what God requires of us, and not how we understand the simple interpretation of the words.

The guiding axiom of God’s view of justice is the principle of “Mida K’neged Mida,” measure for measure. That is the starting point for applying true justice. When the Torah states “an eye for an eye,” that is true justice. However, if instead of reading these verses through a judge or a third party, I suggest that they should be understood only through the sensibility of the victim. If we remove the eye of the assailant or extract his tooth, the victim will have no direct benefit. The victim will have incurred damages and monetary loss that he alone will have to bear. So by giving the victim financial compensation, his interests are preserved and justice is served. If, however, the victim is murdered, there is no way he can be compensated. Therefore, we revert to the judicial guiding principle of measure for measure, and again justice is served in the form of capital punishment. We now can begin to understand why the Torah has written these difficult commandments in the way it has been presented to us.

Turn the other cheek or measure for measure? Which serves society in a more effective manner? “All who are made to be compassionate in the place of the cruel, in the end are made to be cruel in the place of the compassionate” [Kohelet Raba 7:16]. The Midrash is teaching us that those who are kind to the cruel, in the end will be cruel to the kind.

Our God-given Torah laws are perfect, just and true. Sometimes they are difficult to understand because of the limitations of our reasoning. But through their observance and careful study we can be assured of a life that is well lived.

Fred Ehrman is an investment adviser in New York. He has held leadership positions in various Jewish organizations, and is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi, the daily-page study of the Talmud.

read more: