by Joe Gindi, Jewish Studies Teacher

There have been many times in my life when I’ve felt a wide gap between the texts of our tradition, and my own commitments and investments. For example, this week’’s Torah portion establishes the infamous Biblical commandments of lex talonis, a system of direct and proportional retaliation for injury. “If damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:23-25)

Judaism, however, is not a Biblical religion. The rabbis of the Talmud are noticeably uncomfortable with this system of direct proportional justice. “An eye for an eye!?” the Talmud exclaims. “Don’t even let it enter your mind” that was are talking about actually removing the aggressor’s eye. Rather, the Talmud concludes, we follow the Mishna’s ruling that the injured party must be provided monetary for the value of the eye, “for pain, for medical costs, for loss of livelihood, and for humiliation” (Bava Kamma 83b).

How can the Talmud make this claim in the face of the clear meaning of the Biblical text? While the details of their legal logic are beyond the scope of this drash, put simply, the Talmud relies upon a series of recontextualized definitions that lean on the Biblical frameworks for addressing damage to livestock. Since livestock is property, any damage to it necessarily results in monetary compensation. So too, they argue, any injury to humans as well.

The rabbis of the Talmud know that they are flatly overturning a direct Biblical commandment. The moral consequences of justice meted out via revenge, proportional as it might be, are just too terrible for the rabbis to conscience. “Don’t even let it enter your mind!”  At the outset of the discussion, the quote from Exodus 21 is invoked with the phrase as “The Merciful One says…” By framing it this way, the editor of the Talmud heightens the moral contrast between the Mishna’s system of damages and the Bible’s. Without making overt moral claims privileging the Mishna over the Bible, the Talmud develops a line of argument that upends the text of the Torah in favor of their own moral sentiment. 

When I first learned this sugiya (portion of Talmud) it blew my mind. Here were the Talmudic rabbis grappling with a moral gap between the core text that they revere as a testament to God’s will, and their own expectations of justice. While there are processes for uprooting Biblical law (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Mamrim 2:4) here the rabbis of the Talmud opt for a more durable and less disruptive process, re-interpreting the text so that is eventually comes to mean what they need it to. This model suggests that reinterpretation can be more powerful and more sustainable than rejection.  I’m really grateful for the model of these Talmudic rabbis transforming Jewish law from the inside out. While it’s not always the right path, this framework has led me to deeper spiritual experiences with the siddur and more nuanced and poignant reflections on Jewish life in the diaspora. I hope for you too, as you grapple with the space between yourself and our texts, you can use this framework of reinterpretation to enable our tradition to speak to your deepest commitments and concerns.