How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

April 28, 2006

By way of introduction…

Filed under: Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 19:40

I guess I should say something about myself, now that this is working, and now that I’ve commited myself to updating it regularly… But maybe not… Perhaps I should just go ahead and keep posting these old divrei Torah, and once I get that out of the way, I’ll start posting current-event, what’s-on-my-mind-at-the-moment blog posts. Next dvar Torah: delivered May 14, 2005, for parashat Emor:

***

Laws, laws, laws.

Laws of priesthood. Laws for the holidays. Laws of ritual sacrifices. Criminal laws.

This week’s parasha, Emor, is all about laws. Booooring, right? Well, not quite. Because just when you think you can’t take any more of the legalese, you reach the end, and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc…” (ch. 24 v. 20)

Well, truthfully, that’s not the only interesting bit. Just before this is a juicy bit about some schmoe who blasphemed. His sentence is that he’s stoned to death by the entire community. Granted, this is pretty dramatic, and it should make us grateful that the holy name is, thank God, ineffable.

But what’s a little stoning when you’ve got “an eye for an eye”?

Of course, over the generations our sages have interpreted this verse figuratively and metaphorically, not literally. Rather than taking the life of a healthy cattle animal to compensate for a destroyed one, for instance, the rabbis taught that the injured party – the dispossessed owner – would be paid the assessed value of the animal. This was even extended to cover human bodily injury. Granted, the punishment for murder was the death penalty, but, again, the rabbis made it so difficult to carry out this most harsh of sentences that it was effectively abolished. Namely, it was reserved for cases in which there were two witnesses, and the murderer was warned about the consequences of his actions and went ahead anyway. Of course, all these laws were written for a time when Jews ruled their own destinies and had political and social standing that made having the rules relevant. As we know, until the 20th century, those times were scant indeed.

This Shabbat, having just observed Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – and Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut – Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day – I wish to draw your attention to the one place where these rules of law are relevant once more. Law and order in the modern state of Israel is partly, if not largely inspired by the ancient verses we read each week. This goes beyond the mundane things like the lack of public transportation on Shabbat and holidays, and the fact that you can eat out throughout Passover AND keep kosher.

It is reflected in the fact that Israeli society puts such a high value on human life that the death penalty is reserved only for war criminals, and, as such, has only been carried out once, famously, in the case of Adolf Eichmann. Despite years of criticism and protest, successive Israeli governments have resisted extending capital punishment to terrorists. It is telling that, as the Torah instructs, Israel’s laws apply equally to its own citizens and the gerim – the strangers or foreigners – living under its jurisdiction. Thus, the calls to expand the death penalty to apply to convicted terrorists have been rejected along with those calling for the execution of “unique” criminals like Yigal Amir, the assassin who murdered Yitzhak Rabin.

Behind this reticence about state-sanctioned execution, I believe, lies the underlying respect for not only life, but the body in which we live it. Because really, what is “an eye for an eye” if not the Golden Rule stated in reverse? As Hillel famously said to the aspiring convert who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go and study!” So, while codifying capital punishment in such a way as to make it singularly difficult to prosecute, our tradition built in the powerful mitzvah of taharat ha-met – purification of the dead – an intense and empowering ritual that I’ve had the honor of participating in a couple of times over the last several months. (This is a rite in which members of the community prepare a deceased’s body for burial.)

Our bodies, the tradition tells us, are not really our own – they’re on loan from God. And as such, we should take care of them, from the moment we arrive on this earth until literally the moment we reenter it. Judaism’s abnegation of human sacrifices, a common practice among the pagan peoples surrounding the ancient Israelites, is one of the principal tenets that separated us from the masses – made us a goy kadosh – and has helped sustain us through the ages.

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Jewish scholars seem to have internalized this philosophy long ago, and it is our privilege to read the verses that inspired them and be galvanized in our own turn to act in ways that exalt our bodies.

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