Emor: Eye for an Eye

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor 

If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. . . .  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. (Shmot/Exodus 24:17-20)

As for bin Laden, what was meted out to him was vengeance. Vengeance pure and simple, sweet and sound. Vengeance cathartic, uplifting, necessary and right.

Got a problem with that?  (Wall Street Journal editorial, May 3, 2011)


At first glance, it seems like the Torah portion Emor is the fitting coda for a week filled with the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, along with details of the operation and debates about the politics, tactics, repercussions, and larger strategic concerns. OBL, as he’s known on the internet, bore responsibility for thousands of deaths, and so it seems that the principle of “an eye for an eye” provides ample justification for his violent death and burial at sea. 

Yet Judaism has never endorsed a literal reading of the verses above; from the earliest days of rabbinic Torah interpretation, we have always read these verses to teach not revenge, but proportional compensation. It is impossible to damage someone’s eye or tooth or limb in exactly the way the victim was injured, but it is not impossible (difficult, but not impossible) to figure out a fair monetary compensation for the victim’s pain, missed wages, doctor bills, etc. (See more here and here.)

In fact, I’d say, contra the WJS, that Judaism does, indeed, have a problem with revenge, understood as an extrajudicial harming of another party for reasons of emotional satisfaction, carried out by a victim or the victim’s family or associates. Look at how the Bible begins: with the murder of one brother by another, over a perceived slight- hardly an auspicious beginning for humankind, and not one that the Torah seems to endorse. 

Please note: I am not comparing OBL’s crimes to a “mere slight.” I am pointing out that the emotional and ethical dynamics of violence are a deep concern of the Torah from its opening pages. Having said that, it’s also true that the Torah does seem to endorse capital punishment, but the ancient rabbis, in their insistence on proper legal procedures, sharply curtailed its use, precisely to slow down the passions that lead to vengeance.

It’s a complicated topic, but I would suggest that revenge is not an appropriate way to justify the action taken against bin Laden. It may be satisfying, but an ethical civilization does not kill because it feels good, nor do we rejoice in revenge, even for a man who boasts of his crimes. (Cf. Proverbs 24:17, among others.) 
What makes more ethical sense to me is identifying OBL as rodef, or pursuer- that is, one who is actively intending future harm, and who thus may be legitimately killed or harmed according to Jewish law. (See here if you haven’t already.) Now, we can argue back and forth as to whether he was intending immediate harm, and we won’t settle that debate- too much is unknown or properly kept secret. That’s not the point, which is to distinguish between revenge, which has little place in a society of dispassionate laws, and the law of the pursuer, with its active concern for the protection of innocents in the future.
To be clear: I am not mourning the terrorist. I do, however, believe that celebrating the death of a human being, with parties and high-fives, is not the Jewish way; we who spill out drops of wine for the suffering of Pharaoh and his people might instead regard any violent death as tragic. Tragic not because violence is always wrong, but tragic because a violent act means that a human being- in this case, the arch-terrorist- betrayed his own humanity and the possibility of a better way. I blame no one but bin Laden for his death, and I do not mourn him, but I will not rejoice. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

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1 Comment »

  1. elayne weinstein said

    Well said!!!!It wasn’t the act that was so appaling but the jubilation that followed…..

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