Justice from JudgmentIf men strive and strike a pregnant woman, so that her child comes out, and there is no injury, he shall surely be punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him. And he shall pay as the judges say And if any injury occurs, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exo 21:22-25)
What about the eye for and eye thing in this week's portion ?
Equality under the Torah
Take two people. Bob is an employee, Jack is a billionaire.
Bob has a good steady job, works forty hours a week plus some overtime, and is able to pay bills on time and provide food for the family. He has two strong hands, a strong back, and two good eyes. All helpful in his work.
Jack owns an investment company and works eighty hours a week, his health is good because he works out at his gym regularly. He too has two strong hands, a strong back, and two good eyes.
The Torah says Bob's eye and Jack's eye have the same value. They are of equal worth.
Traditional Rabbinic understanding
An eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth, etc was never meant to be understood literally, but rather that a monetary value should be placed on say, an eye. If someone lost an eye, they could essentially sue for the value placed on an eye, but no more. If Jack lost his eye due to Bob's assault, he could sue Bob for the value of an eye, say one million dollars. Vice versa, if Bob lost an eye due to Jack's assault, Bob could sue Jack for the million.
This Torah judgment set a value on loss. It also limited the value of loss. So, Jack couldn't say that because he makes substantially more money than Bob, he should be entitled to substantially more of a settlement for the loss of his eye than Bob would be. An eye is worth a million, regardless of whose eye.
On the other hand, Bob could not claim that because Jack has substantially more money than he does, Jack should be required to pay substantially more should Bob lose his eye.
Considering the argument
On one side of the equation, the payment of an equal monetary equivalent is sound. Any injured party can expect to receive just compensation for the loss of an eye, and the injured party is not allowed to seek exorbitant compensation above the set value of loss. That makes the wealthy and the worker equal.
But, let's look at the other side of the equation.
If Jack loses an eye at Bob's hand, in order for Bob to pay out the million dollars to Jack, he has to sell his house, borrow all the money he can, go into debt for the next thirty years, and eat beans and rice for every meal. He will be ruined financially and left homeless. He would be extremely careful never to cause another person to lose an eye. (I know, that's why we have insurance, but insurance wasn't around when Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt)
On the other hand, if Bob loses an eye at Jack's hand, Jack pays out the million from his checking account, chalks it up to the cost of doing business, and goes merrily about his lifestyle with nothing but a slight tic on his balance sheet. When the next Bob comes along, Jack has no more concern over whether he puts the new Bob in the same situation that caused our Bob to lose his eye. Why should Jack care? He could pay out a million per eye for years before he felt any real impact or had cause for changing his eye damaging practices.
Now imagine if the Torah judgment was literal.
Knowing that should he cause an employees to lose an eye, Jack, regardless of his wealth, would face the penalty of losing one of his own eyes, he would be extremely careful about working conditions that might cause the loss of eyes.
On the other hand, Bob would not be ruined financially, but would lose an eye.
Punishment works, if we work it
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, "very good, that way the whole world would be blind and toothless." I disagree. If each person knew that if they caused the loss of and eye, they would actually lose one of their own eyes, I think we would all be more careful about how we treated each other. Punishment is a deterrent, but only if it is meted out quickly and consistently.
The reason "punishment" is not a very good deterrent today is that we don't apply it consistently or quickly, and what we sentence criminals to isn't really any kind of punishment. Our society has learned that crime does pay, and criminals don't have to pay for committing it.
We need to return to a system where any person who commits a crime, whether causing the loss of an eye as in this judgment, or any of the other Torah instructions, will face quick, balanced, and consistent punishment.