EMOR – AN EYE FOR AN EYE
In the Torah portion Emor, we are provided a brief reprieve in the giving of laws by a small narrative whereby a nameless character, known only as the son of an Israelite woman, vilifies the Name and is stoned to death. At the conclusion of this narrative interlude, the text resumes its previous focus, and we are given the famous lex talionis, the laws of retaliation, which have become best exemplified by the famed “eye for an eye” saying.
Jesus referenced this saying during His Sermon on the Mount and consequently, it became a major teaching in Christianity that many of these lax talionis were therefore done away with and replaced with a moral code that was allegedly more aligned with the radical love Jesus supposedly preferred over the more backward morality of the Torah.
On the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard 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. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you’”.
Our Messiah though was not making the case for the revocation of lex talionis, but was rather, as was the point of the Sermon on the Mount, encouraging his listeners to grasp the spirit of the Torah, and therefore, elevate the Torah. Judicial punishment, including the death penalty, was not the issue here, rather, the issue was the impulse towards acts of revenge, the impulse to take the law into one’s own hand, and the corrupting influence this has on one’s soul and on society.
Therefore, it was expected that punishments for crimes would be administered by a court system whose philosophical foundation was an “eye for an eye”. This way, punishments administered by the court could not be accused of being acts of revenge. Likewise, one who took matters into his own hands, was risking acting in the spirit of vengeance, a spirit that the Torah has taught only belongs to God.
As Jesus taught, the foundation of all our interactions was to be love, as was said in Leviticus, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself”. Whilst the laws of retaliation are necessary for a court system, Jesus taught that such a philosophy could only properly exist on a foundation of loving service.