Based on a Torah reading from Leviticus chapter 24, verses 10 through 23
The Israelites have fled from Pharaoh in Egypt and are receiving laws from their god, Yahveh. Sometimes the laws are not complete, and Moses brings a new case to Yahveh for a decision. In this situation, what do you do with someone who curses?
My Torah passage from Leviticus focuses on how a man with an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father curses in God’s name during a fight between him and another Israelite. He is taken to Moses, and God proclaims that all who heard him shall strike him on the head with their hands, and he shall be publicly stoned to death. This is given as an example of when someone might be put to death. The other famous example here is the rule called lex talonis, or “an eye for an eye.” If anyone hurts someone else, they will be hurt; if anyone kills another, they will be killed. And the Israelites do as God says.
In Humanistic Bar Mitzvahs, we are able to choose our Hebrew reading. When it was time to choose my passage, I was considering multiple options. Passages from Genesis, other parts of Leviticus or Deuteronomy, but “lex talonis,” or “the law of an eye for an eye,” caught MY eye. As I started to learn more about it, I realized that it was almost the exact same as a part of Hammurabi's Code, which also includes its own law of an eye for an eye. We studied Hammurabi's Code in school last year and it really interested me. I was fascinated that people from different time periods had the same ideas. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have some version of lex talonis, even though they each have different ideas about the principle. And we still use death for death today.
The death penalty is still in use in some countries, including ours, even though many consider it brutal or barbaric. On the wall of my Sunday School classroom, I read this line: “Why do we kill to show that killing people is wrong?” How many people wonder that? I do. It sure seems hypocritical to use lex talonis, like yelling at someone, “Stop yelling!” I do understand that some people believe that what one does should be done to them. Or you could say, “What goes around, comes around.” Even though it may sound reasonable, it never really is that easy.
That is one reason why Jewish law after the Bible reinterpreted “eye for an eye” to mean financial compensation or paying fines, just like today we use lawsuits, fines and prison. For example, in a book called the Mishnah, which was put together around 200 CE, the early rabbis describe their alternatives to lex talonis. They set up a system of paying for all of the things that the injured person experienced. The damager has to pay for their pain, what it costs to heal the person, the loss of their time, the insult to their pride, and the damage to their value. How do you decide what an eye is worth? You can figure out how much they were worth if they had been a slave with two eyes, and how much they would be worth now with only one eye. The difference is how much an eye is worth. Although it is not used exactly the same way today, the idea of paying for pain and suffering and damages is the same.
Another fascinating detail of this passage is the fact that the laws, both lex talonis and laws about cursing, apply to everyone, friend or stranger, Israelite or non-Israelite. The problem with this is that these are religious laws, decreed by the Israelite god. If someone was living there from another religion or another ethnicity, they might not know about these laws. If they disobey them, there might a problem. The other side to the situation is that ancient Israel was predominantly Jewish. This was a long time before the separation of Temple and State, so if it was the religious law, then it was the country’s law. Even today, you have to follow the laws of the country you are in, no matter where you are from.
What we find very foreign is the idea that laws about religion should apply to everyone – hurting people and other crimes makes sense, but why should blasphemy be as bad as murder? After all, today people swear all the time and for no good reason – just visit the third floor 8th grade hallway in my school. Although these laws are still in the Torah, are they really relevant today? They might be to more traditional Jews, but not to many others. In many religions today, if you break the rules, they kick you out – like being expelled from school. Even in Judaism, we changed stoning to excommunication a long time ago. Why not just excommunicate him? Why kill him? There are religions today kill you for breaking their religious rules, but who wants to be like them? Everything has changed. Back then, it was wrong to swear and ok to stone someone to death; today, people swear all the time but we do not accept stoning. Is there anyone today who never swears, and never will? Should everyone be punished? Who would be left to throw the stones?
Consider how the blasphemer is treated – the people who heard him swear are supposed to strike him on the head. Maybe they were the people who were hurt by what he said, or this could be some kind of “ear-witness” testimony. Why have the whole community stone him instead of having him killed by an executioner? Because he offended the community by taking their god’s name in vain, and so the entire community is involved in punishing him.
It is interesting that this story specifically talks about someone with one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. Why should this rule about blasphemy mention who his parents were? What does it matter? It could be just to show that the law applies to strangers too, since he has an Egyptian father, or it could be an acknowledgement that Jews have married non-Jews for a long time. Notice that this “mixed” family WAS part of the Jewish community before this incident, and we can assume that his parents stayed there. Another possibility is that the writer might be saying that mixing Jews and Egyptians is not a good idea – just look what happened when these two had a kid. My perspective on this story is that even though some people may think this, a person from a “mixed” family should be no different than a “full Jew,” whatever that is.
To me, the whole point of a Bar Mitzvah is not just about your religion; it is like a metamorphosis, an important change. A change meaning in the way you think, the way you act, and the way you live. My Bar Mitzvah is meaningful not simply for the religious ritual, but also for my personal development. This ceremony announces, “I can be free and I do not need the constricting guidance of others.” Well, maybe I still need SOME guidance from time to time. One may ask, “Why do these few hours make such a difference?” The difference is in your mind – how you feel, and what you think about yourself. There is a reason it is called a coming of age ceremony.
Part of coming of age is taking responsibility and helping others. For my mitzvah community service, I worked with an organization that receives donated medical equipment and then provides it to people who need it but cannot afford it. In my Torah passage, it says that the laws should apply to everyone the same, so in my opinion, everything else should be fair as well. If law and punishment are the same, why not help and healing?
Where do we learn our values? Is it community and peers that make us act the way we do, or is it what we ourselves think is right? Do we read rules from a book and follow them, or do we make our own choices? Are values what you think about yourself or how what you do affects other people? Maybe it is important to make sure we have a balance of all of these. If we have no rules, we could be too free; and if there were too many rules, we could not be ourselves. The right balance is up to you.