When the Torah Does Not Say What It Means
by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, author of Unlocking the Torah Text
Commenting on one of the most well-known legal passages in the Torah, the rabbis overrule the seemingly clear intent of the text. The Torah states, in its discussion of the laws of personal injury: “…And you shall award a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.”
The rabbis in the Talmud, however, maintain that the Torah never intended to mandate physical punishment in personal injury cases. Instead, they say, the text actually authorizes financial restitution. The oft-quoted phrase “an eye for an eye,” for example, means that the perpetrator must pay the monetary value commensurate with the victim’s injury.
All the other cases cited in these passages are to be understood similarly, in terms of financial compensation.
Why doesn’t the Torah simply say what it means?
Over the ages, the “eye for an eye” formula has been cited by critics as proof of the vengeful, primitive nature of Mosaic law. If the Torah never meant to mandate physical punishment in cases of personal injury, why wasn’t the text more clearly written?
A great deal of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and trouble could have been avoided had the Torah simply stated, “The court shall levy the appropriate compensatory payment in cases of personal injury.”
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Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.