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    Eyes & teeth – Mishpatim

    “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” – the lex talionis – has a bad reputation.

    Those who believed the Jewish God was a harsh, vengeful God decided that this law proved their case.

    You can understand why. If someone injured you, so the critics read the verse, you go and injure him. Measure for measure. Tit for tat.

    It sounds like the Code of Hammurabi which said that if a house collapsed and killed the son of the occupant, then the son of the builder could be executed.

    Yet in Judaism there is no evidence of any such act of retaliation being carried out. On the contrary. This was not a law of physical vengeance but of monetary compensation.

    The very context in which the law appears (Ex. 21:24) proves it, and indicates that “an eye for an eye was not a law of retribution but of compensation… An eye for an eye expressed the need for justice, for correct compensation, not for vengeance… The Mosaic law set limits: the punishment must fit the crime” (S. Levin).

    What we are dealing with here is technical idiom: not literally gouging out an eye or pulling out a tooth, but having as it were a tariff of compensation that would ensure that the victim is not under- or overcompensated, and that the compensation payable does not vary according to the socio-economic status of the person concerned.

    Unfortunately, the fairness and sensitivity of Jewish law has still not been universally emulated in human thinking.

    Wild revenge is still far from obsolete. A minor slight brings massive over-reaction. Even when a person has not opened their mouth or done a single thing, the mere shape of their face or the colour of their skin can provoke victimization and violence… “Why are you hitting me?” “Because you’re black, or old, or fat, or a woman, or a Jew…!”

    It’s not even an eye for an eye: it’s an eye without an eye, a tooth without a tooth. There’s no justice here, or decency, or humanity, or morality. I much prefer the Jewish system.

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