Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Eye for an Eye

I was reading about this case, I believe in Saudi Arabia, concerning a man who poured acid on a woman's face causing her severe disfigurement and blindness in one eye. This woman has refused to accept "blood money," a fiscal compensation for her injury but demands that this undergo what she went through, including becoming blind. The old adage of "an eye for an eye" which, I guess, Islam applies literally. While giving a right to a victim to take financial compensation for an injury, it would seem that Islam grants the victim a final say and if the victim wants a similar to injury to occur to a perpetrator that occurred to a victim, so be it. What interested me, though, is why would a victim choose such a punishment rather than financial compensation which can benefit, in this case, her?

Of course, within Torah law, a victim does not have such a choice. Financial compensation is the sole punishment available in the vast, vast majority of cases. (The case of an injury below the value of a sheva pruta, the smallest monetary value, need not be considered.) Yet within the Torah text, the punishment is presented as "an eye for an eye." While this is understood as referring to financial compensation, this case in Saudi Arabia demonstrates a distinction and the desire of the female victim to see the perpetrator suffer is most revealing in highlighting this distinction. It would seem to me that at issue is: how to respond in a case of battery? This woman's desire is for the man that caused her such harm to feel the pain of a similar harm. This is more important to her than receiving compensation, than receiving assistance in dealing with the harm that has befallen her. She, simply, wishes to punish is the most direct way -- to have this man suffer similarly to how he made another suffer. Financial compensation does not do that. What it does is help the one who has suffered mitigate the effects of the suffering. One would think that this would be a higher priority to the one harmed -- after all it helps this person out. This Saudi Arabian woman is actually refusing that which would really help her.

This gives great insight into the Torah. By using the language of "an eye for an eye" the Torah is, perhaps, informing us that, in theory, a person who causes such great harm should be punished with experiencing a similar harm. That is the most honest repercussion for an evil deed. The fact that this woman wants this type of punishment to occur to the one that harmed her can be understood on this level. This is a certain level of justice. The problem is: what's the effect? One harmed must still live -- and now with an adversity of overcoming the harm. In the context of life -- of a value to life -- this must be the overriding concern. Thus the call must be for compensation, for assisting the one harmed rather than simply punishing the perpetrator in a vacuum. This is a great Torah insight. Indeed true justice, in a vacuum, would demand that someone who harms feels the pain of this harm. Yet, in a context of the challenges of life, a purpose in life, lessening the negative effect of the harm must have priority. We remember the idea of "an eye for an eye" but compensation must have priority because we must deal with the future, with assisting the one harmed to live. When one considers this perspective, one can begin to understand that one can only have this type of perspective if one truly finds that growing and developing in life is of paramount importance -- and this is not only Torah but, it would seem. a uniqueness of Torah.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

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