Torah through Modern Eyes:


The Torah was far more revolutionary in its time than the American Constitution was in its day. Despite our prejudices and without diminishing the accomplishments of other ancient civilizations, it is difficult if not impossible to find another work of comparable stature which divides history into what was before and what it is now and that has had a greater influence on the world at large. So why if this is so, even with most people throughout the last century acknowledging it as the moral bedrock of western culture,  are the underlying premises of the Torah so often spurned by modern thinkers as primitive and anachronistic. Epic stories, fine poetry, and full of historical charm, but otherwise totally unsophisticated when compared to modern modes of thought, based on empirical evidence, objectivity and the “scientific method”. It can be shown that this seemingly intuitive view that Torah doctrines are arbitrary and “unscientific” does not bear scrutiny when we look more deeply at them. If they seem this way, it may well be our assumptions and prejudices which need reexamination, and so we must define criteria by which this knowledge can be evaluated. How do we know when purported wisdom is really wisdom ? In a modern scientific view we might say when it can be independently confirmed by multiple sources and provides a convincing consistent explanation for observed phenomena. So how, you say, can this be said of such an ancient document ?


Actually it is easier than ever to see the profundity of a number of these ancient ideas because they are so similar to ideas which have come into the realm of the believable if not fully comprehensible through the theories of modern physics. For example, the idea that there are actually hidden dimensions which defy our accepted intuitive  measurements. Virtually all of us are familiar with the concept of time warps and worm holes. Yet long before Einstein and Star Trek, concepts just as strange and mysterious were widespread in Torah literature. I am referring to the phenomena of “Kfitzat Haderech” or the “contraction and flexibility of  physical matter, which at its heart embodies this principle of ‘hidden dimensions. This is not strictly “kabbalah” or any sort of secret known only to the initiated, but rather a widely and universally accepted premise of the vast Jewish Midrashic (homiletic) literature. And it is here where the Torah crosses swords with the heritage of Plato, Aristotle and the academies of Athens and of course later Rome.  These two opposing cultures dominated the ancient western world of the intellect, repeatedly probing, arguing and ridiculing each other until finally trying to settle their differences through the war we Jews call Chanukah. This Greek and later Roman view of the physical nature of the world was on important points diametrically opposed to the Torah view, especially the aforementioned concept of “Kfitzat Haderech”. To the Greeks, knowledge was mostly true to the intuition of our thoughts as expressed through words and ideas. Geometry was reality, and the commutative and associative laws of identity were the very foundation of knowledge. They believed strongly in the evidence of their eyes and Nature of course was sacrosanct. The Greeks projected their mental postures on the world and believed them to be a serious reality. There was no concept of the empirical and proof through experimentation. Einstein, in his book “The Evolution of Physics” starts by pointing out how the intuitive but fallacious Aristotelian concept of motion hobbled physics for centuries. But more of this later. First let me tell you how I came upon this epiphany.

It happened not surprisingly, when I was a 19 year old lad who, while traveling in Israel was invited to partake of a Jewish  religious experience by coming to study in a yeshiva (a Torah seminary). Since I did not read Hebrew at the time, other students gave me English language books to read. In one of them concerning the biography of a certain Chassidic Rabbi, mention was made of a companion of his named Rebbe Avraham, better known as “the Angel”. This very saintly man was alleged to be able to walk through walls ! This was of course quite a novel idea to me at the time. Not that I accepted it outright, since even for my new age open-minded outlook, it was a stretch. After all, what human experience or doctrine could I point to to justify such a thing? On the other hand, it didn’t seem right to arbitrarily limit the scope of human capabilities based on my own subjective knowledge and experience. Are we not constantly seeing and hearing of human accomplishments which defy physical limitations ?  For example, who would believe human beings could walk barefoot across burning coals without being seriously scorched ? But still, walking through a wall ! How could one even conceive of such a thing, unless of course there was some non-intuitive mental aspect to it ?

Gradually I began to see this and similar ideas turn up in other contexts. The patriarch Jacob walking a distance that would normally take days, in a matter of minutes ! The simultaneous water/blood and  light/darkness of the ten plagues. That is when an Egyptian drank the waters of the Nile it seemed to him like blood, while at the same time if an Israelite drank of the water, it remained water. The the Ark of the Covenant in the holy of holies of the Temple in Jerusalem was “beyond measurement” that is, it did not appear to take up any space in the room it was stored in ! Was this just fantastic and fertile imagination or is there something else at work here ? It is important to remember that we are not dealing here with arbitrary unrelated “miracles” merely requiring enough faith, but rather a methodology of understanding the physical world which is fundamental to the Torah perspective and therefore frequently repeated throughout its literature. Today modern physics stands if for nothing else,  than the idea that our view of reality is nothing more than a probability wave, a possibility among multiple possibilities. Matter is not what it appears to be, that is, it is not the solid absolute that our eyes insist it is. This concept is already so common place that it should not strike anyone as strange, out of touch or mystical. If it does, then main stream physics has become mysticism, and those who refuse to countenance this new world view are now backwater Newtonians.  Bear in mind that I am not saying that physics accepts a Torah version of a divine being, although “Intelligent Design” has made its inroads. But regardless, the similarity of thinking is striking.


Subsequently, my little yeshiva story had a happy ending, at least for me. Some years ago, National Public Television (aka channel 13) on its program Nova, presented a series on modern physics based on the works of physics author Brian Greene. In his book  “The Elegant Universe” Professor Greene traces the development of physics in its quest to unite Relativity and Quantum physics into an all inclusive  “theory of everything”. While stressing the idea that the physical world consists of multiple interpenetrating and hidden dimensions, professor Greene makes the following observation; According to our current understanding, it ought to be possible to walk through a wall ! Indeed professor Greene spent a lot of time emphasizing this walk through the wall concept. Obviously it was very important for him to clarify this point. Suddenly I remembered the story of Rebbe Avraham, and was struck by this remarkable confluence of thought. But what gave Professor Greene such confidence? And how interesting that Torah scholars are pilloried for such views whereas physicists are lionized for them. As for the former point, we can probably assume that had Professor Greene heard the story of Rebbe Avraham before physics reached that conclusion, he most likely would have unhesitatingly rejected it as ancient fantasies. But when mathematical equations, which are assumed to have no preferences and no vested interests point to such a conclusion, Professor Greene waxes quite enthusiastic. This leads us to an important difference between the story of Rebbe Avraham and that which Professor Greene is expounding. In the former, the fact that a particular individual was capable of walking through a wall and the reason that he could accomplish this was the essential point. In the latter case Professor Greene is concerned primarily with the theory that walking through walls is a Quantum possibility and not necessarily that which would actualize such a possibility.  He probably doesn’t expect to see the materialization of this concept anytime soon, even if it has already materialized. This difference in perspective follows from the core difference between the Torah approach to knowledge and that of science. Science has developed as detached and  non participatory observation of phenomenon. In a word, separation of subject and object in a world in which man is an enigmatic and out of place stranger. To say nothing of being an accident of evolution.


Torah (or Judaism in general) on the other hand, has been relegated to the domain of the “unscientific”, where the arbitrary and unverifiable are fed by human bias or ignorance, supposedly producing mostly abusive traditions  and dogmas. But it is bias as well to assume that what is modern must be better, without understanding the basis of the ancient knowledge. Add to this that each individual has the right to reinvent those doctrines which offend his modern sensibilities. Abuse and human weakness not withstanding, Torah knowledge and experience has its own perfectly solid rock to stand upon. That is, its central and immutable thesis of the unity of all that exists and by extension, its sublimation to greater (divine) purpose. Unique revelation and its derived logic replace experimentation and detached observation, leading to a system that fosters participatory results from imparted wisdom. Wisdom now being primarily the application of knowledge rather than visually agreed upon facts themselves. Since the word Torah means instruction or teaching, this is a critical distinction. We see this for example in the creation story itself. Many wonder why such a serious subject should be couched in so seemingly simple story like fashion, such that its mysteries appear as mere mythology. There are a number of answers to this, but among the most important is the idea that Torah must speak to all men at all levels of their mental sophistication or lack of it. Children must be able to “get the message” and the heart of the message is that man must know what is important in life and how to play his critical role as partner in creation before he satisfies his need to know the mere mechanics of the physical world as important as they may seem. Hence the Torah is not written as a cosmology textbook but rather as a human drama which all men can relate to. Nevertheless, I can assure you that the deepest scholar will not go away disappointed, as every word contains profound truths and insight regardless of whether it is understood literally or as a parable .


However, this idea of  the unity of all created things is not at all an unscientific idea itself and is a bedrock of modern physics. Since as we probe ever deeper into the structure and substance of the material world  we are struck by the utter interdependence of matter and energy which are merely reconfigurations of the same stuff.  Meanwhile those who have delved into the depths of kabbalah have found in it a comprehensive and profound explanation of creation and metaphysical logic which goes far beyond the theories currently proposed by cosmologists, completely based on the above idea of the unity of creation. Those familiar with these teachings and their conceptualization of divine emanation, will probably not have a problem with Rebbe Avraham. Others, insisting on the priority of their sensory experience, may feel totally uncomfortable. But sensory experience has now been sacrificed as the price to pay for deeper understanding of our universe. The Zohar in discussing the relationship of the ‘plan appearance of Torah narratives to deeper levels of knowledge has this to say;


“Woe unto those men who say  that Torah merely presents narratives and mundane matters. For if that were the case we in our day could compile a superior version and there are greater books in the possession of the world rulers as well. However the uniqueness of the Torah lies in the fact that each word contains supernal matters and profound secrets… Tales related in the Torah are merely its outer garments and only a simpleton would look at a well dressed person and judge him merely on the basis of his garments ”  (written circa 1290 AD in Spain, supposedly based on the scholarship of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai living in Israel in the 2nd  century AD)


But our purpose here is to try and stay close to the basics. Since the Torah is studied by such a relatively small portion of the human race it seems easy to dismiss its claims as partisan beliefs with little or nothing to substantiate them. However, since these ideas were recorded in ancient times, there is obviously no attempt here to gerrymander the text to appease the modern savants and impress modern readers. Quite the contrary, the Jews suffered ridicule and abuse for these views,  much as the average person in the twenty-first century will scoff at anyone trying to convince him that one can indeed walk through a wall. It is only now that science has begun to pick up a similar thread that I can write these words with some hope that they will be meaningful to modern minds. But still one can legitimately ask for some objective derivation, and understanding the process of such derivations is part of the very fabric of the Jewish tradition. It is perfectly legitimate to ask questions and let no one’s vested interest stand in the way. An irrational leap of faith or reliance on verbal dogmas is not required or  even desirable with the exception of one. The absolute unity of G-d's existence and the inseparability of this unity from all creation. This was the single most important point of the divine revelation on Mt. Sinai which every Israelite witnessed. This was no “one man divine revelation” without witnesses. All were equal in that respect and hence none could legitimately dispute what had happened. It was truly a unique event under circumstances unlike those claimed for any doctrine anywhere !


Part II


To appreciate what “the basics” means in the study of Torah, it is important to understand that virtually all Torah concepts, both legal, homiletic and kabbalistic, are derived either directly from those who were true and undisputed prophets or from the subtleties of the text as rendered by oral traditions and methodologies going back to Moses on Mount Sinai and subsequently wielded by men of  outstanding character and acuity of mind. The bottom line however, is this; for those who may have read the Torah in translation, I can say with confidence that you are reading a very different book from that which I am talking about. The Hebrew of the Torah cannot be simply translated into another language word for word and remain the Torah. Its language is far more than a means to transfer a record of ancient events from one generation to another. Rather, it is a complex web of  exacting word selection, sentence structure,  logic, letter rearrangements and substitutions, numeric codes, visual codes, and even musical notes (which are of no small importance!) encompassing relationships on multiple levels which has  embedded in it and can be extrapolated from it, a self consistent guide to personal and societal existence both explicit and  implicit. Hence the vast bulk of the Torah is not what was written down, but rather how to understand and expound upon its core principles as explained to Moses and the elders of his generation and later to the prophets of succeeding generations, which is referred to the as the 'Oral Torah' to distinquish it from the written. As the Babylonian exile drew to a close (end of the sixth century BCE), Ezra and the men of the great assembly found it necessary  to revitalize Judaism and Torah by putting fresh emphasis on the Oral Torah to counter the errors of previous generations. This was deemed “building a fence around the Torah” so that it should not easily be trampled upon. This corresponded to the new reality of the Nation, since there was no longer any  priestly temple service to unify the nation, with Prophets acting as visionaries to guide and inspire. As time went on however, the derivations from the the written text by succeeding generations which were the underlying foundation of the law came more and more into the foreground as the level of uncertainty or disputes over points in the law became more common.  It was this process which formed the basis of much of the talmudic teaching clarifying the connection between the written and oral laws as mentioned above. The critical period for this latter process was from about the century before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (usually given as 70 A.D. , as opposed to the Babylonian destruction some 600 years before) to about the time of the closing of the Talmud in the 5th century A.D. At that point the entire oral tradition was committed to writing, something which had been prohibited previously. Why it had been necessary to  keep the bulk of tradition oral is an important issue in itself and is the subject of another essay.


But before going further I must pause and defend myself against cynics and critics since in today's world of lowest common denominator thinking and politically correct academic standards, I am by default, on the defensive and am supposed to apologize for my position of opposing the so called 'modern' approach to this subject. However, I feel no need to apologize for what is now a minority belief. First off let me state that I am not interested in arguing with those who believe differently. This does not mean I should refuse to relent if shown to be wrong, but rather the recognition that people usually see what they want to see, or what their mental filters allow them to see.  I am stating something that may well not be seen without the proper linguistic tools and the methods by which they are traditionally applied to the text. One must make an honest attempt to adapt to the traditional methods of understanding the text. Once this is accomplished, the thesis speaks for itself. However, the proof while logical, is not ‘visual’, that is, it is not something that could simply be placed before multiple sets of eyes and be automatically perceived in the same way as is the goal of science. I think it is accurate to say that one’s judgment is only as good as one’s information and to be human is to have mostly bits and pieces of information and never  the entire picture. Yet all of us are constantly making judgments based on this minimum of information or subconscious assumptions. Nevertheless, just as physicists have learned to accept the validity of knowledge as that theory which explains the observed phenomena best and most consistently so one can see a parallel approach in the traditional  study of  Torah. That is, that elucidations of and expansion of Torah knowledge is certainly possible if one knows how to apply the traditional rules of interpretation of Torah concepts, which can be accepted as long as they are consistent with the context and cross referenced relationships throughout the entire body of the text and direct traditions traceable back to antiquity. This is to distinguish them from the reconstruction of previous concepts and laws which were forgotten by a later generation, and is summarized by the Talmudic principle of  “This view and that view are the words of the living G-d” (alew va alew divray ehlokim chaim).  Meaning that yes, in matters in which the original law was forgotten or disputed, there are often multiple views that appear to be contradictory on the surface due to the fluid nature of the boundary between the physical reality and abstract logical descriptions. However, more often than not, apparently disparate views can be considered valid since there is a certain compelling though exclusive logic to each view which fits a common abstract framework but may not be identical in terms of the physical framework. This is one reason why the oral law must remain oral. If we commit it to writing it may become absolutized in a way it was not meant to be and it will no longer be a living law. We will look at some examples of this type of open and interpretive thinking. However, it is necessary to bear in mind, that the more general the principle the less room there is for dispute. The idea of forbidden categories of work on the Sabbath is not up for debate although the particulars of one of those categories may find supporters and detractors, again, because an abstract concept very often applies to the physical world in multiple perspectives, and each perspective is perfectly legitimate. So what in the end determines which view is accepted as binding, at least in legal matters?  For that we have the principle of “After the majority to determine” (acharay harabim lehatos). While this needs no support from modern physics to justify it, it is instructive that the methodology of modern physics is seemingly so similar. Reality is now seen as a multi-dimensional mesh of concurrent quantum waves, each showing another unique facet of reality. In fact physicists go further and insist that all reality takes place within our minds only, with no objective outside process . Understanding this, it is much easier for our generation to appreciate that which was an enigma to many in previous generations i.e. the obfuscation of faith in tradition by clinging to conventional human sensory based systems as the arbiter and determinant of knowledge. Thus we have particular generations in which observance was weakened by the opposing but popular view held by many on Aristotelian philosophy or later by overconfident Newtonian advocates of science, which in their time were considered objective absolute truths and not merely one possible view among many. While science now relies heavily on formula’s, theories and concepts which can only be  tested indirectly, it steadfastly refuses to consider as knowledge, anything which cannot be couched in physical terms. Hence we have a ‘big bang’ consisting of abstractions which are quite difficult to test directly or completely, but no interest whatsoever in the phenomena which produced this ‘bang’ which does not fit the definition of science and therefore is not a factor to consider.  Yet it is certainly logical to think that the underlying origin of the bang is no less important than the ‘bang’ itself regardless of whether we can fully understand it or not. Are scientists perhaps anxious to preserve for themselves the prestige of being the arbiters of what is acceptable to think ? Oh that human element keeps lurking in the backround, despite the attempted purity and objectivity of the thinking.


Remember that to be wisdom it has to meet the criteria of being independently verifiable by multiple sources and answer the issues demanded of it in the best possible way and with consistency.  My claim is that oral Torah fulfills these conditions handily.  The Talmud is a compendium of discussions on the derivations of oral Torah from the underlying written text. To the untrained eye it appears as a chaos of conflicting opinions, but that is because many expect it to be only a divinely dictated list of imperatives. While it is true that all dispute or logical derivation ceases when it is clear that the origin of the law in question is based on a received tradition going back to Moses himself or an authoritative generation, but when it comes to extending and applying a known principle, the Torah was given over to men to participate in its derivitive processes. After delving into the divergent views, there is a sorting out of  approach and method which almost inevitably resolves itself under a system of checks and balances based on known traditions.


Of course there are many people who have a personal bias in interpreting the Torah according to what they wish to prove a priori,  but even in physics there are preferred views based upon the above criteria. There is no question that a strong case can be made for the traditional view as the preferred view.  While it is easy to deny the oral Torah and claim it is an invention of later generations, it is not difficult to see that even without the tremendous subtleties in the text there is no plausible alternative explanation which renders the written Torah as an independent stand alone manual of Jewish observance in all aspects of civil, criminal and ceremonial law.  As an example take the idea of fasting on Yom Kippur. The written Torah says nothing about fasting, rather it states that on that day “you shall afflict your souls”. Yet everyone accepts the idea that this has always meant fasting. The text says nothing about not eating milk with meat, but rather uses the puzzling phrase “Do not cook a kid (goat, lamb or calf) in its mothers milk” yet again I have not heard of anyone ever challenging this meaning . These are simple examples. A more subtle example might be the laws of the making of phylacteries (teffilin). There is virtually no detail given in the written law on how to construct them, the text merely says “you shall place these words between your eyes”. Regardless, the laws concerning them are many and have remained consistant for the entire span of Jewish history (Rabainu Tam not withstanding). Without the guidance of an oral tradition regarding these matters, there would clearly be utter chaos in standardizing their practice. Again, part of the problem is that many people intuitively assume that G-d would not leave these things to chance, and that an oral tradition means people assuming license to take control of the text.


But if we grant the assumption that the Torah is divinely authored  then why shouldn’t we expect every letter to be revealing and part of a larger organized body of knowledge ? Again to distinguish Torah from human writings we must apply rigorous standards to all aspects of the Torah’s language. There must be not only profound ideas but these ideas must form an underlying consistency. Indeed most of the body of derived Torah knowledge while appearing to the layman as arbitrary and haphazard is actually based on guidelines and particular insights that have been handed down from Mt Sinai itself and wielded extensively by earlier generations. As examples we have the general rule that no letter or word in the Torah is superfluous, the 13 rules by which laws are derived from general legal principles, Gematria or the numerical equivalence of words or groups of words, Temora, or the ability to substitute letters which come from the same source in the organs of vocalization, the interconnection of adjacent narratives, the dual aspect of "krie va kasiv" where words are written one way and pronounced differently than how they are written,  and others.  In Torah academies there is an expression that the particularities of  a given Torah verse (i.e. phrasing, spelling, choice of words etc.) cry out “darshani”, that is “interpret me , there is an important point here to be elucidated !”  However, this is not by any means a free for all. Those with trained eyes and well tuned ears may see profound insights, while those unfamiliar with the terrain of the forest will more than likely read something into the text which is quite foreign and inconsistent with the overall culture of the Torah.


As a legal example I will use the now infamous principal of  “an eye for an eye”, bandied about by the ignorant as the epitome of  primitive and barbaric biblical justice. This example however is classic as it clearly shows how it is a virtual impossibility to understand Jewish law through mere translation. First a bit of backround. Most people born before the last half of the twentieth century probably learned that among the earliest legal codes we know of  was the “Code of Hammurabi”. Named after the Babylonian king of the 18th century BCE, which not coincidentally, is the same time as the patriarch Abraham lived. This organized and fairly comprehensive legal code covers many of the same legal categories as the Torah and given its chronological position as preceding the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai has been assumed by many of the so called biblical scholars  to be the source of much of  Torah law. The truth is however, somewhat the opposite and again shows that the simple intuitive view is more often than not naïve and misleading.


People think nothing of assuming that what is being said implies that one who has poked out another's eye should have his own eye poked out as retribution. Not only is this the opposite of what Jewish law teaches, but it is a reading taken totally out of historical context. Hammurabi's law spills much ink in dealing with the laws of talons i.e. retribution for wrong's perpetrated on individuals. Naturally in the manner so common in the ancient world, one's societal stature largely determined what sort of penalty you would pay for a crime. It was a given that different socioeconomic classes would have different standards of justice. For  Hammurabi this meant slaves, commoners and nobility. Slaves of course had no rights and punishment was severe for them, as they were totally subject to the whims of their masters. But what about standards of justice for equals ? Well the code clearly puts the emphasis on exact retribution and one of its primary deficiencies is that it fails to distinguish between men and objects. There is no underlying basis of “man being created in the image of G-d”  and he therefore must be treated with respect. Suppose for example, that a builder builds a house for another citizen and that house collapses killing the son of the householder. How is justice served ? Simple, we take the son of the builder and collapse a house on him and now everyone is happy. Similarly, if someone pokes your eye out, well the only justice is to poke out his eye. Literally an eye for an eye. This is no exaggeration, it is how  Hammurabi's law actually deals with these issues. It is remarkable that the Torah which became one of the pillars of the modern American justice system and the US constitution would be suspected of dispensing justice in such a barbarous manner. But since the vast majority of humanity doesn't study the Torah, they read the translation and see no reason why that's not all there is to it. After all why would Jews, to whom the Torah is directed, and who have been studying it for several thousand years in its original language, know any better ?  In reality however, the Torah restates many of Hammurabi's laws in order to reject the judgement of his code which was undoubtedly widely known in the ancient world. However, since the Torah is orally orientated, it does not  explicitly list every detail as you would expect if it were an encyclopedia. Only those who understand how to apply the derivative principles to the phrasing of the verses referring to this matter as well as maintaining legal consistency in their relationship to all other principles are fit to decide the law.  So whats involved here ? The principle of an eye for an eye is first mentioned in the chapter of the Torah called Mishpatim or Judgments. This was the very first set of laws given after the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The law can be simply translated as follows;


“If men are quarreling and they strike a pregnant women and she loses the child, the matter shall be given over to judgment. And if it turns out tragically, (i.e. the child dies) you shall give soul for soul, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, blow for blow” (Exodus 21, Verse 22).


This is unusually wordy for a Torah verse, and we know that since the language of the Torah is concise (i.e. there is no waste of even a single letter), there must be important principles being hinted to here in these extra words. This verse however, appears to mirror a similar quotation from the Code of Hammurabi which also lists a series of limbs but concludes that in each case that particular limb shall be actually severed to compensate for the exact limb which was damaged by the perpetrator.  But don't we know after the first or second specific body part that we don't pay for an eye with a hand etc. ? Regardless, here are some of the reasons given by the Talmudic sages for why the true meaning is monetary compensation and not physical disfigurement;


 1)The first thing we see from here is the difference in punishment between intentional and non-intentional injury . In the physical struggle between these two people, their intention was no doubt to hurt each other. However, the end result was the injury or death of an innocent bystander. If we say that at least one of the people fighting was responsible for this death and should be put to death himself (we can't kill his infant child because we have a principle that children are not put to death for the actions of the parents) then there is no difference between between intentional and non-intentional death. Clearly an unjust and unacceptable situation.


 2)The exactness of the given equivalences implies that if the court would actually extract an eye from the perpetrator and he died in the process, that would be giving a soul for an eye and is therefore unjust and unacceptable. Hence we are compelled to find a way of compensation which does not risk this possible injustice. In other words an eye for an eye means only an eye for another eye and not a life for an eye. This in itself implies that only monetary retribution is acceptable as it comes closest to being an equivalent which does not add additional risk to the process of finding a just solution.


 3)The method of  Torah is to give a general rule followed by a detail or set of details but not necessarily in the same chapter or book of the law [as a rule the order which events are expounded in the Torah is not strictly sequential]. Here (in the chapter called “Judgements”)  as in many other cases we find a laying down of general principles. Later on in the third book of the law called Vayikra (Leviticus 24,20) we find the followup to the “eye for an eye” teaching;


“If a person gives  a wound to a fellow Israelite, as he has done so shall be done to him. Wound for wound, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, as he has given  ,so shall be given to him.”


Here we have a clear and obvious equivalence of phrasing between the term do/done and the term give/given, which leaves no doubt that the intention of this verse is to clarify the previous information we quoted above. Since the wounding of a person is an action, we do not normally apply the term “give” to, the verse is saying that monetary compensation which is something “given” is equivalent in this case to the “doing” of an action. Of course the use of the term “give” is not arbitrary. It is used in other verses when money is being handed over  as payment or compensation. This method of defining the use of a term is called “Gezarah Shaveh” or Decree of Equivalence, and is one of the thirteen general principles by which Torah verses are to be understood. No one but no one among rabbinical scholars named in the Talmud, understands this verse in any other way in principle although there may be disagreement on details of compensation. This is a simple example of how exact the language of the Torah is. One would think that this could be seen in an English translation as well, but nuances of language such as this are more often glossed over and there is little or no recognition of  the “Thirteen General Principles” because they are part of the Oral Torah.


4)  In addition to reason three above, the verse following it gives the case of a master

who strikes the eye of his servant and destroys it. As compensation he must free the servant, since to give him money for the eye would not be considered compensation if he continues to serve him. However, the principle of alternative compensation for damage remains in effect.


 5)In the the chapter called Massei (Numbers 35, 31) , a verse discussing the same subject says “Do not take monetary compensation for the soul of a murderer”. Since the verse specifies that money must not be taken for the soul, we can logically deduce that only for the soul we do not take money (in the case of intentional murder), but for the individual (damaged) limbs it is perfectly legitimate to take money. This type of derivation (positive from the negative) is consistently used throughout the Torah to learn what is permitted from statements of what is prohibited.


 6)Although I list this reason last, it is not at all the least important reason. In fact it may be the most important, because there is also the issue of the spirit of the law. The rabbis, understanding the entire context of the Torah, were guided by the general principle of  “All its ways are ways of pleasantness” as well as the immutable fact that man is created in the image of his creator, thereby bestowing divine dignity and respect upon all actions concerning men. Punishments, while never pleasant, are nevertheless needed to preserve the well being of society, which is an overriding imperative. The rabbis understood that the type of revenge which which may seem apparent from the simple meaning of the words 'eye for an eye' is baseless cruelty which serves no purpose whatsoever except perhaps to pander to emotions of the victim and is therefore inconsistent with divine justice. Similarly we read in the Torah what seems like severe and cruel punishments. However, these were almost never put into practice but were always treated as bulwarks and warnings to emphasize the need to take a very serious view of civil order as well as personal responsibility and penitence.



Other traditional oral interpretations of written laws show a similar deeper understanding of the entire legal structure reflected in a particular law. We can see this is the situation of the “Stubborn and Rebellious Son”. This is another case where underlying principles would be at risk of misunderstanding without the guidance of the oral law. The chapter in question states as follows;


“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not harken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother when they reprimand him. His father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city (i.e. court) and to the gate of the city. They shall say to the elders of the city “Our son is stubborn and rebellious and does not listen to our voice, he is a gluten and a pleasure seeker. The people of that city shall stone him to death so that you may clear the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 21,18)


This of course sounds amazing to the ears of modern readers. Stoning a boy to death is certainly hard to accept and should be a relic of ancient times except of course in Muslim countries where it is still not only practiced but provides entertainment and warning for the public, a thing which is completely out of bounds in Torah. However if we look at it under the prism of the oral law the situation changes completely.


 1)The first thing to notice is the context in which all this is happening. These verses are near the beginning of the portion of the Torah called Ki Taitzae (when you go out, Deuteronomy 21). The portion starts off by discussing how soldiers engaged in fighting in enemy territory should deal with women they come across. Rape and wanton abuse are not allowed. Realistically however, men are not angels and are very liable to take license in such a situation where the normal rules of civilization seem null and void. Hence the law comes up with a way to compensate for human frailty while upholding the yolk of acceptable behavior. If you are physically attracted to this woman, you can  forcibly take her for yourself. However, there is a prescribed way to do this, which entails sparing her from the crueler aspects of conquest. Since the Torah permits this as a concession to human frailty, by placing these issues side by side, it is also warning that such actions (that is, taking a woman for a wife against her will) will very likely end badly. She may very well resist either overtly or covertly her being co opted to a foreign people and at any rate resist bringing up her children in the spirit of her coercing culture. Consider this especially in light of the fact that converts to Judaism are primarily accepted for their sincerity and willingness to bear the yoke of  a life which emphasizes obedience to divine principles where often ones personal prerogatives are  set aside. In effect the child is a prime candidate for a rebellious nature. Similarly, the legal discussion following the discussion of the stubborn and rebellious son, centers on the concept of not treating a first born son in an inferior manner to the son this man may have with another woman (polygamy is not prohibited by the written law). That is, the father cannot discriminate against this “foreign” son at the time when he comes to inherit his fathers estate.


 2)Since when do we put someone to death for what he might do in the future ??? The Talmud states that this is the reason the verses say that he shall be put to death. Given that this boy (he cannot be tried unless he is about bar mitzvah age) is currently a gluten and a pleasure seeker (also  needed to qualify for a death sentence), he is a danger to society, as he will eventually exhaust his parents money and being habituated to a life of pleasure, will probably resort to some sort of criminal behavior to satisfy his wants. Therefore we put him to death now  so he shall die innocent. History has certainly seen this idea previous to later generations. Did the Catholic church not put Jews and others to death to save their souls ?  The rabbis understood that there is something much more to this. No one is put to death for what we fear they might do in the future. So how can we possibly kill this boy based on what he might do later ? Hence they understood that the Torah here is teaching us something about raising a child. Parents on the one hand have the obligation to society not to tolerate certain types of behavior. If the child fails to heed their admonition, they should take up the matter with societal standard bearers since it is not acceptable to ignore this situation. If the parents and legal authorities do not step in, then it is as if they have killed this boy, since his life will wind up being counter productive and a threat to others. The conclusion of the Talmud is that the sequence of steps as described in the written Torah culminating in the execution of the child never happened (in the 2000 years up to the time of the Talmud) and never will. Although there is one opinion who claims that it did happen. If it did, it was extremely rare, as an entire cadre of criteria had to be met. For example the mother and father had to have the same voice (since the text says “he does not harken to our voice ! Although going into further detail is somewhat beyond the scope of this writing, suffice it to say that the rabbis understood well what the Torah was really saying.


 Nevertheless as most of the capital punishment mentioned throughout the breath of the entire Torah, it is more as a guideline for how seriously such crimes should be viewed than an actual directive to action and certainly never by whim or capriciousness of any person or group. The exception is the executions which actually took place in the narratives of the written Torah when the Israelites were in the desert. They were unfortunately necessary to establish the authority of the court. Plus they took place at a time when the Israelites were literally being led by G-d himself, which made overlooking them out of the question.


 The legal requirements  for capital punishment were always extremely stringent. For example not only did the perpetrator have to have had two witnesses see him do the act in question, but they had to warn him that he would face capital punishment for the crime. This does not mean that no one was ever executed. If the court of 23 judges was convinced that such a crime was committed, the perpetrator was duly punished as the courts had the authority to judge when capital punishment was necessary to remove a serious danger from the community at large. This subject is too complex to go much into the details here, but suffice it to say that as an example of how careful the courts were,  if all 23 judges held that the defendant was guilty he was automatically exonerated. The idea being that as a safeguard, if all the justices reached the same conclusion then they must have been hasty in judgment since it is not likely that all the judges could not find one reason to suggest innocence.


I conclude this essay by noting that I have attempted to cover a lot of ground with out delving too much into details, many of which are covered or will be covered in other essays.