KUL Heschel Center: Misunderstandings over the “eye for an eye” principle
photo by KUL Heschel Center
“I hear frequently from Christians that Jews promote the retributive violence of an eye for an eye whereas Jesus teaches the restorative justice of turning the other cheek. This interpretation misunderstands both Jesus and Judaism. Jesus is speaking about humiliation, not mutilation. The Jewish tradition does not promote retributive violence. To the contrary, it insists that, in the case of physical injury, the person who causes the injury must compensate the victim for pain or medical expense,” explains Prof. Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, the first Jewish woman to teach New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, in a commentary for the Heschel Center of the Catholic University of Lublin.
Prof. Amy-Jill Levine stresses the need for an in-depth analysis of the text. According to her, ignorance and too superficial a reading of Scripture have repeatedly been the source of Christian misunderstandings about #Judaism by introducing or reinforcing negative stereotypes.
The full commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew (Matthew 5:38-48) for the Seventh Ordinary #Sunday.
Leviticus 19.17 provides instruction on tochecha, giving honest criticism when needed to members of our community. It is our responsibility as our brother’s and sister’s keeper to correct community members when what they say or what they do creates harm. Should we fail to offer correction, we too will incur guilt. I find this idea of tocheca helpful in Jewish-#Christian dialogue, because sometimes we need to correct the misunderstandings we Jews and Christians have of each other. Correction is particularly important when the misunderstanding either introduces or reinforces negative stereotypes.
The lectionary today has given rise to numerous Christian misunderstandings of Judaism. I hear frequently from Christians that Jews promote the retributive violence of an eye for an eye whereas Jesus teaches the restorative justice of turning the other cheek. This interpretation misunderstands both #Jesus and Judaism.
The Jewish tradition does not promote retributive violence. To the contrary, rabbinic Judaism (m. Bava Kamma 8:1; b. Bava Kamma 83-84) insists that “an eye for an eye” is a legal principal: in the case of physical injury, the person who causes the injury must compensate the victim for pain, medical expenses, loss of work, etc. There is no eye for an eye because, as the rabbis explain, the commandment cannot be taken literally. No two eyes, or limbs, are alike.
Jesus, however, changes the subject. To be slapped on the right cheek – a slap with the back of the hand; a slap meant to humiliate rather than to maim – is not the same thing as to lose an eye or an arm. Jesus is speaking about humiliation, not mutilation.
Also in terms of misunderstanding: there is no biblical or Jewish mandate to hate the enemy.
Helpful on the question of how to react to an enemy is a teaching from Beruriah, a highly respected Jewish woman whose legal rulings are preserved in rabbinic Judaism. According the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 10a, Rabbi Meir (a late first/early second century sage) once prayed that some evil-doers in his neighborhood would die. His wife, Beruriah berates him, and I paraphrase: “Are you commenting on Psalm 104:35a, which you are reading as ‘Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more’? What are you thinking? That the verse uses [the term] hoteim (חוֹטְאִים), ‘sinners’? No, the term should be read as hata’im (חַטָּאִים), ‘sins.’ Therefore, you should pray for the destruction of sin, not sinners.” Beruriah’s reading, while a bit playful with the Hebrew, is compatible with Jesus’s non-violent response to persecution.
About the author:
Prof. Amy-Jill Levine is a Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Mary Jane Werthan University’s Vanderbilt Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion and Department of Jewish Studies, as well as the Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK. She has delivered more than 500 lectures on the Bible, Christian-Jewish relations, and religion across the world. In the spring of 2019, she became the first Jewish woman to lecture on the New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome; in 2021, she was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.