The oft-repeated slur on Judaism is that it is cruel and inhuman, expecting obedience to primeval laws which have no place in a modern society. We examine the truth of this in relation to this week’s portion The concept of “an eye for an eye” or lex talionis as it is called in Latin, is one of the earliest aspects of any legal code. It can be found in many early legal codes, including the Code of Hamurabi (Babylon 1727 BCE). Indeed it is repeated in the Torah in three places – Exodus, here in Leviticus and Numbers.
The problem is that in earlier times, Christianity was at pains to find Judaism antiquated and therefore barbaric. Using the Torah’s text, they took every opportunity to show how our religion was no longer relevant and that the true way was now the one they were pushing. This necessarily led to misrepresentation and a willingness to take texts literally, in isolation from their context and thus their true meaning.
The Rabbis go to great lengths to show that this text, repeated as it is, was never meant to mean a strict retaliation. This has the result that the text is actually understood as a rule of monetary compensation – if you cause someone to lose an eye or a tooth, to be beaten black and blue or hurt in any other way, the compensation is to be assessed according to the degree and location of the damage. For example, Tractate Sanhedrin informs us that we assess the damages according to the reduction in the value of a slave in the market – if say he only has one eye, his usefulness is reduced and commensurately his sale price, and so that reduction is the compensation value for an eye. Similarly a one-legged servant is going to be worth much less than one with two. I suspect that these days when there is no slavery the assessment would be along the lines of the diminution in the person’s earnings, which is an aspect of their value. If the earnings are assessed in the manner of a house – as 10 years’ being worth approximately the notional monetary value of a person (ignoring, of course the priceless notion of a precious human life) – then one can arrive at a fair assessment along the same lines as in the days of slavery.
The Rabbis say that the value has to be exact – no more than the value of the part lost or damaged. That is why it says “eye for eye” and so on: the value of an eye and no more for an eye, is the implication. It is interesting to note that there is also a system of assessment for compensation for pain and embarrassment. All these are designed to ensure that this law is fairly implemented.
In view of all the above, we can confidently assert that far from being barbaric this sophisticated system is perhaps even more just than our British system of compensation. And to understand what it is really about, all we really need to do is read the context, and examine the Halacha for ourselves.