Rabbi Rachel Miller Solomin is a Jewish educator, writer, life coach, and mother living and working in California’s Silicon Valley. She was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2001.
Several years ago, on a bright California Sunday, I had a car accident involving pedestrians. By maneuvering my car, I had avoided hitting them head-on. The family involved incurred only minor physical damages, but they were traumatized.
Since then, I have been struck by the relationship of these events to the Jewish laws of monetary damages. This week’s Torah portion, Emor, contains the biblical origins of these laws: “If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him” (Leviticus 24:19-20, my emphasis). This formula, known variously as the lex talionis, reciprocal or retributive justice, assigns penalties appropriate to the injury. In the Torah, “an eye for an eye” is intended to limit consequences to proportional justice rather than permitting vengeance killings in response to minor injuries. When the accident happened, I ran out of my car and collapsed, sobbing apologies, beside scared, crying children in their stroller. The children’s mother suggested I move away from the kids -- ”If my husband sees you, he’ll kill you.”
Injury is unavoidable to a certain extent; the Torah recognizes both a need for penalties to deter willful harm and casual negligence as well as a need to tamp down that innate impulse for revenge that can bring otherwise calm people to dream of violent scenarios punishing wrongdoers.
By 200 CE, this biblical notion of equivalency in punishment had been transformed into monetary calculations. Instead of blood-letting, the rabbis assess the value of a slave’s limb, how much a person would be willing to be paid for undergoing comparable pain, medical expenses, lost time at work, and embarrassment and mental anguish.
Until my experience of the car accident, I had felt that this was reasonable. Sane. Evolved. And then I spent years reading medical reports trying to sort out which medical issues of my victims were preexisting and which were caused by my actions; how much time lost from work had been caused by the accident and how much possibly by other underlying family issues. My teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen points out that some of the Talmud’s Sages were troubled by the assessment of victims’ monetary equivalents, as if they were chattel. The Talmud reports a case in which a father refuses to allow his son to be evaluated as a slave, preferring to pay the damages himself rather than having them paid by the donkey driver who had caused the injury to his maimed son.
During the process leading up to a settlement between my insurance company and my victims’ family, I received hundreds of pages of paperwork. I read it all. With every report, I cried. Like the father in the Talmud, I saw these assessments as dehumanizing, potentially even causing additional harm to the children wounded by my actions.
As we read the headlines out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, I think about the moral calculus touted by politicians and activists, journalists and military chiefs. On the surface, there seems to be a sanity in evaluating how many people are injured by each side, a logic in counting how many of them were children or other non-combatants, a reason in leveraging the deaths of irreplaceable people in discussions of whose actions are more grievous, a purpose in calculating potential losses prevented by technological defenses deployed. The scale of harm is different--here we speak of two large communities perpetually wounding the other. No set of statistics can ever truly represent such injury and pain, health care disparities complicate measuring the economic toll of medical care for both parties, border closures and other government policies on both Palestinian and Israeli sides may prevent disaster or enhance it while limiting job opportunities, and both Jews and Arabs are embarrassed by seeming legions of writers who compare us to children fighting in a playground and refusing to let the grown-ups intercede.
Just as the social system of damages in the U.S. dehumanizes both victims and perpetrators, so does any calculation of suffering in the Middle East. What remains for us as peacemakers is to focus less upon the calculus of suffering--particularly our own, when there is clearly anguish and destruction on both sides--and focus more upon acting to ameliorate the suffering of all involved by establishing two states dedicated to the human and civil rights for all. Only the “re-humanizing” of both Palestinians and Israelis through these universal rights can heal the injuries of all parties, after which face-to-face contemplation of our own and others’ suffering can lay a foundation for peacefully coexisting states and make a holy “neighborhood” safe again.