Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
10 Iyar 5776
An Eye for an Eye
Torah Portion: Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah Portion: Ezekiel 44:15-44:31
What is the value of a human life? It's a question that's stumped theologians and philosophers for millennia. And also bureaucrats. While philosophical answers tend to see human life as priceless, actuaries have had to come up with more concrete numbers. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency places a value of $7.4 million dollars.[i] But there are other calculations. The FDA figure is $7.9 million.[ii] Finally, it's the Department of Transportation with the highest number, identifying "$9.1 million as the value of a statistical life."[iii] Despite the need for such figures in crafting public policy, it's understandable if it all sounds a bit, well, unseemly. We'll examine that discomfort later on.
First, we turn to our weekly parasha, which contains one of the most controversial, and misunderstood set of verses in the Torah: Leviticus 24:20-21. These verses teach:
"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."
At first the meaning might seem pretty straightforward: if I break your arm, you get to break mine. But, as our sages realized, you quickly run into a whole host of practical problems if you attempt to interpret the verse literally. Let's say my arm breaks after you run over it with your cart. To inflict an equivalent injury, we'll need to get the same cart, place it on the same surface, traveling at the same speed, running over my arm in the same spot. Even then, there's no guarantee I will suffer the same injury; I might get up unscathed, or conversely I might also be injured enough to require amputation. It can get even more complicated: what if I suffer an eye injury that only partially blinds me? Or what if I was blinded by an already blind person? Our sages wrestled with these questions and realized the literal realization of "eye for an eye" was impractical, if not impossible to carry out.
The medieval commentator Maimonides explains the solution, writing that the above verse "does not mean the literal inflicting of the identical maiming on the guilty person, but merely that though the latter deserves such maiming, he pays the monetary equivalent."[iv] The 20th century scholar Benno Jacob reaches a similar conclusion using a logical comparison with another Torah verse: in the book of Exodus we read that if someone deliberately injures another, his punishment requires only that he pays damages. How could it be that here--in the case of unintentional injury--the punishment would be more severe?
But, no matter the arguments, we're still left to wonder: if "eye for an eye" really means "value of an eye for an eye," then why doesn't it say it? This takes us back to the fundamental difficulty with assigning a price to our lives or our bodies. There are ways to calculate these values: in biblical times, you could compare the wages of a one-armed worker with an able-bodied one. The difference would be the value of an arm. You might reach a different value assessment if you ask people how much money they'd accept before they parted with theirs. But this sort of assessment is ultimately lacking.
Our tradition teaches that our bodies come from God.[v] They are not mere objects that can be traded or valued. The Maharal of Prague explains that this priceless nature of our bodies is why the Torah verse avoids explicitly demanding monetary compensation. "That we should not imagine that once the offender has paid the compensation, he is completely free, just as in the case of killing an animal where he pays and has no further obligations."[vi] In other words, the only equivalent value to an eye, is another eye. No amount of money can make up for injury.
As unlikely as it seems, we see echoes of this sentiment in our bureaucracy. On its website, the EPA explains that, despite using a defined dollar amount for the purposes of cost-benefit analysis it "does not place a dollar value on individual lives."[vii] The Department of Transportation similarly states that in respect to their figure, "what is involved is not the valuation of life as such, but the valuation of reductions in risks."[viii]
In her commentary, Nehama Leibowitz laments that few verses of the Hebrew Bible "have been so frequently and widely misunderstood by Jew and non-Jew as [these]."[ix] They have been misused to justify a cruel and vengeful perversion of justice, when, as we have discovered, their deeper meaning stresses that human life is Godly, priceless, and irreplaceable. Injury to another cannot be absolved merely by writing a check, no matter the amount. Instead, when we injure another, we must not only provide appropriate restitution, but must also seek atonement and forgiveness. God-willing, we will never find ourselves in such a position, but we still learn a valuable lesson: our lives and bodies are beyond any worldly sum. May we remember to treat them accordingly!
[iv] Maimonides, Hilchot Hovel u'Mazik 1:3-6.
[v] See Genesis 1:27.
[vi] Maharal, Gur Arye.
[ix] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, v. II; 494.
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Rabbi Jeremy Simons
Director of Rabbinic Services
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