'Munich' on their minds: Justice, ‘Munich,’ and lex talionis

By Tzvee Zahavy | Published  12/30/2005 | Opinion |

The Latin lex talionis means the law of retaliation. Usually we think of the goal of this law as a core element of early biblical justice, familiarly expressed as, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a life for a life.”

I was teaching a Jewish studies class a while back about how talmudic law interprets virtually all retaliation in terms of monetary compensation. The Talmud provides methods to determine the value of the damages to an eye, the cost of pain, medical expenses, loss of income, suffering, and humiliation.

Scholars have long debated whether any society ever took the talionis law literally. Some say that it expresses the principle that the punishment fit the crime and that penalties for the rich and for the poor should be equivalent, but as compensation only, not as physical injury.

Others have argued that indeed “an eye for an eye” implied equivalent physical punishment. If so, it could be accused of being a morally inferior legal action. The talmudic law of strict money damages then stands as a pure qualitative advance over the previous forms of justice via physical retaliation, I explained to my class.

Any questions?

A student raised his hand. “How can you say this biblical idea is justice? It is simplistic; it is barbaric to take out an eye in any circumstance. What kind of advance in morality did the Bible legislate?”

Momentarily I was caught off guard. “By the standards of our developed sense of civilization you are right,” I replied. “But imagine, if you will, what came before the biblical reforms. I put out your eye, then you took vengeance in a perpetual feud with my entire family, and I in turn came to wipe out your whole tribe. In comparison, the biblical scales of justice are a great leap forward in civilization. And the talmudic interpreters carry justice further forward. They say that money always compensates for damages, never direct physical retaliation.”

Since the time of that classroom discussion a few years back, the world has experienced a dramatic era of regression in the practice of talionis, the act of retaliation.

Terrorism in particular is not an enterprise that is balanced in any way, shape, or form. Arabs who feel resentful of occupation have taken to suicide bombing, killing hundreds of civilians in Israel. Militants in Oklahoma with a perceived grievance blow up a government building killing young children. Al Qaida declares itself our enemy, then flies planes into our buildings killing thousands more innocents. And our own government, under attack by that small group, goes to war killing tens of thousands of others in multiple foreign countries.

Nothing in all this is balanced in the biblical sense of a tooth for a tooth. We have allowed our civilization to regress far-far back, to the awful concepts of justice that predate the Bible — more than 3,000 years old.

The new film “Munich” is a graphic reminder of the sad state of our civilization. The 1984 book “Vengeance” served as the basis for the Spielberg movie. The 1972 Olympics massacre is but one dramatic chapter of our barbaric modern times. The book and the movie tell of the retaliation that allegedly followed the massacre. Certainly, the bottom line is that that response gives the semblance of a measured response, regardless of whether we judge it to be perfectly moral.

In the decades that have passed since that episode and its aftermath we have not been so fortunate as to see much — if any — balance in the acts of violent terrorism of our times or in the retaliation against the evils of such violence.

Tzvee Zahavy, a local professor and rabbi, just finished teaching a course on terrorism called “War and Peace in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck. His blog is viewable at Tzvee.blogspot.com.

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