If you close one eye and look ahead, you will be able to see quite a bit. But if you open both eyes, you will have a clearer perception with more depth and perspective. The Bible was meant to be read with both eyes. Allow me to explain.
In this week’s Torah portion, we come across the infamous “lex talionis” – law of retribution, “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24).
Christian commentaries adhering to the doctrine of “sola scriptura” have a hard time escaping the straightforward meaning of these words. Many take the approach that the verse is teaching us that not more than an eye can be taken in retribution. But they seem to understand the law to involve the mutilation of the attacker.
Jewish courts never mutilated an attacker who damaged another person. There are at least three major problems with taking this verse literally:
1. It would be barbaric.
2. It would not be of any help to the victim.
3. It would almost never be fair. For example, if the attacker only had one eye to begin with. The victim who lost an eye will still be able to see with his remaining eye. Removing the eye of the offender will render him totally blind. Or, if a surgeon chopped off the hand of an opera singer – the victim can still sing with one hand. The surgeon will no longer be able to practice medicine if the court takes one of his hands.
Judaism maintains that God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai was not limited to the text written by Moses. This text is part of what God revealed, but not the entirety of what He revealed. God clarified, amplified and explained to Moses how to understand the written text. It was here that God explained that we are not to actually take out the eye of an attacker. Rather, the attacker must financially compensate his victim for the value of the lost limb, the cost of the medical treatments, lost wages, pain and embarrassment.
The Gaon of Vilna noted that this is hinted at in the text itself which says “ayin tachat ayin” – an eye in place of (or literally under) an eye. The Hebrew word for eye is spelled with the three letters ayin yud nun. The Gaon explained that the three letters that appear after (or under) these letters in the alphabet are fay, chaf and samech. These three letters spell ‘keseph”- money. So, if you take out someone’s eye – ayin, the penalty is seen in the letters that appear ‘under’ the letters of this word: keseph, money.
Now, there is a very obvious question that should be asked. If God’s intention all along is that we make financial restitution for injuring someone, why didn’t the Torah just state that? Why does the text say “an eye for an eye” if that is not what God intended?
Had the Torah simply written that we pay money for taking out someone’s eye – it would have been incredibly crass. It would trivialize the monstrous act that was committed. The criminal chops off an arm and writes a check. By stating “an eye for an eye” the Torah is expressing its revulsion for the horribly venal act that was committed and teaches the offender that on some level – he deserves exactly what he did to his victim. However, as we have seen, if the court did this it would be barbaric, unfair and would not help the victim. Therefore, in practice, the attacker makes financial restitution.
When we read the Torah with two eyes, it gains in stereoscopic richness and depth. The written text speaks about what the criminal deserves in theory, while the oral Torah teaches what is to be done in practice.