Our Torah portion this week contains what, at first reading, could seem to be a draconian or even primitive decree: "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" [Leviticus 24:20]. Yet nowhere in Jewish tradition is this understood according to how it might be read without further information.
Read in context, one finds an unusual use of language, describing these injuries as cases where a man "shall give" a wound to his neighbor. The same verse concludes, "as he shall give a wound in a man, so shall it be given in him." The Talmud teaches that the compensation must be something which can be given from hand to hand — namely, money.
This week we saw the demise of a mass murderer who claimed he was following religious teachings. What is worse, he was able to motivate a cadre of murderers to carry out his evil plans. Why is it that two major religions built upon our Bible have both produced armies of "crusaders" who believed that murder was justified in the name of religion — while despite calls to arms found in the text of our Bible, Jewish history is devoid of similar mobs?
There are many reasons, but one of them is surely the Oral Law which guides all rabbinic thought. The Oral Law prevents a person from taking a phrase out of context and misusing it for evil. It forces us to read everything under its guidance, with what may appear cruel in one place contextualized in another.
Under its restrictions, religious leaders are not free to rip a phrase from its moorings and misuse it. Much of what we call today "civilized thought" is based upon principles found in the Oral Law… and, of course, the moniker is accurate!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org