Is an eye for an eye kosher justice?

The latin lex talionis means the law of retaliation. Some think  this law is a core element of early biblical justice, familiarly expressed as, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a life for a life."

I was teaching a Jewish Studies class a while back about how Talmudic law interprets virtually all retaliation in terms of monetary compensation. The Talmud provides methods to determine what is the value of the damages to an eye, the cost of pain, medical expenses, loss of income, suffering and humiliation.

This is a qualitative advance over the previous forms of justice via the literal direct retaliation of an eye for an eye, I explained. Any questions?

A student raised his hand. "How can you say the biblical idea is justice? It is barbaric to take out an eye. What kind of biblical morality was that?"

I was caught off guard. "By the standards of our developed sense of civilization you are right," I replied tentatively. "But imagine, if you will, what came before the biblical reforms. I put out your eye, then you took vengeance on my entire family, and I in turn came to wipe out your whole tribe. In comparison, the biblical scales of justice are a great leap forward in civilization. And the Talmudic interpreters carry justice further forward. They say that money compensates for damages, not direct physical retaliation."

Alas and alack. Since the time of that classroom discussion years back the world has experienced a dramatic era of regression in the practice of lex talionis, the law of retaliation.

Terrorism in particular is not an enterprise that is balanced in any way, shape or form. Muslims who feel resentful of occupation took up suicide bombing, killing hundreds of civilians in Israel. Militants in Oklahoma with a perceived grievance blew up a government building killing young children. Al Qaeda declared themselves our enemies then flew planes into our buildings killing thousands more innocents. And our government, under attack by that small group, went to war killing tens of thousands in multiple foreign countries.

Nothing in all this seems balanced in the biblical sense of a tooth for a tooth. To me this means we have allowed our civilization to regress far-far back, to some three-thousand-year-old-pre-biblical concepts of justice.

The 1984 book Vengeance served as the basis for the Spielberg movie Munich [Munich (film) - Wikipedia]. The 1972 Olympics massacre is a dramatic chapter of our violent modern times. The book and movie tell of the retaliation that followed. Bottom line, that was a measured response, regardless of whether we judge it to be perfect or moral. In the decades that have passed since that episode we have not been so lucky as to see much balance in anyone's retaliation of violence for violence.

I do fervently wish that practices of justice in the world will start to evolve now from where it has been of late in pre-biblical times -- at least to the level of the primitive biblical notions of lex talionis.

/repost from 12/22/05/


Tzvee Zahavy said...

**** I rate the film four stars. It is long and complex and entertaining. Those who say it is balanced or pro-Palestinian are way off the mark. This movie is strongly pro-Israel.

Unknown said...

Why is it immoral to take the eye away from the assailant, when the assailant was aggressive to me and took my precious eye?
If you are negligent and hurt me, why is it wrong (immoral) for me to take your freedom?