Let’s Put the “Eye for an Eye” Verses to Bed Once and for All! Quick Comment, Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9)

No matter how many times I explain, the question still comes up. Sometimes people ask respectfully and sometimes scornfully to “prove” that the “Old Testament” is a book of harsh vengeance.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Deuteronomy 19:21; also Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20) is not instruction that we should understand literally. In all Hebrew Scripture (thirty-nine books), you will not find a single case where punishment involved amputation or mutilation. No! An “eye for eye” is a vital commentary on the Torah portion’s flagship statement. “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, Justice shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20).”

That statement truly capsulizes the ideal of Hebrew Scripture and later Jewish thought. It is in stark contrast to Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38): “Do not resist an evildoer.“

A completely just society will always elude us, but we must always strive toward that goal. As Rabbi Tarfon put it in the second century CE, “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirke Avot 2:21).”

Understood as part of the ongoing quest for justice, the “eye for an eye” passages mean the punishment should fit the crime. The Talmud (B. Baba Kama 83b-84a) clearly states that when the action of another cost a person limb or an eye, judges must levy financial compensation commensurate with the loss.

Punishment should neither be too lenient nor excessive. “An eye for an eye” reminds us to constantly pursue Tzedek (true justice) the elusive balance of punishment and compassion as we seek to create a world that lives up to God’s hopes!

Anti-Semitism: Something We Try to Keep in Check But Can’t Seem to CURE

Me speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938

Me speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938


In Leviticus chapter 10 there is a chilling scene: While Aaron was celebrating his investiture as High Priest of Israel, his two older sons, Nadav and Abihu lay dead before him. Just as Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe enjoyed unprecedented economic and social success, Hitler rose to power and suddenly–within twelve years–European Jewry was no more.

Just as the Biblical text tells us that Aaron was silent in the face of the tragedy, so too, the Jewish world was all but silent about the Holocaust for more than 30 years. The enormity of the tragedy belied any attempt to explain, analyze or understand it. To articulate the horror was to relive it.

In the biblical text, though, once Aaron had washed off the anointing oil, and the bodies were outside the precinct of the tent of meeting, the Israelites accepted God’s command to publicly mourn the slain boys.

Our experience with the Holocaust again parallels the Bible. With the passage of time the Jewish community has been able to mourn. Moreover, we have sealed in our collective memory the Holocaust’s enormous reality.

So we commemorate it, we build memorials, we build museums, and we conduct programs and rituals of various types. In so doing we try to make sense of the inexplicable.

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II survivors are rapidly dying off, and our urgency to remember grows. Pseudo-historians challenge the Holocaust’s validity while we Jews continue to think of each of our children in the words of Zechariah, as “A brand plucked from the fire.” (Zechariah 3;2)

Jews have achieved much since the end of World War II. We are comfortable for the most part, and except in the Arab world, there is no official anti-Semitism anywhere. But anti-Semitism is a chronic disease. We can try to keep it in check, but we cannot cure it. Today it is once again on the rise in many parts of Europe. And if it seems to some that we are a bit too sensitive about it, I would rather be too sensitive than oblivious to a force which history proves can rise up to engulf us. We dare not forget that Hitler was the butt of beer hall jokes in the late 20’s. By 1933 he was the Chancellor of all Germany.

In every country where Jews have lived–since we entered Egypt as protected relatives of the Pharaoh’s advisor Joseph–to the present day, our fortunes have been subject to change.

Our protected status in Egypt gave way to slavery and oppression. England, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland–just about every country where we have ever lived–has expelled us from its borders. So if we seem a bit too quick to react to anti-Jewish messages, we trust and hope our friends will understand.

There is a famous Hasidic story of an enthusiastic disciple, who exclaimed to his beloved Rabbi, “My Master, I love you.”

“You say you love me,” the Rabbi replied. “Do you know what hurts me?”
“But Master,” the student responded, “how can I know what hurts you?’

“If you do not know what hurts me,” the Rabbi concluded, “you cannot love me.”

What hurts me? The failure or refusal by so many to acknowledge the reality of history’s lessons and the danger of anti-Semitism today hurt me very much.

The renowned Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, of blessed memory, said it best. For nearly 2000 years the classical Christian message was that Christianity was the only valid religion, and that Judaism was an illegitimate faith.

Because of that belief, Christian governments told Jews in place after place, “You cannot live here as Jews.” And in country after country Christian authorities forced us to convert.

Time went on, and often the message became,“You cannot live here.” And Christian and Muslim authorities expelled us from their lands.

Hitler took the message a step further. He simply told us: “You cannot live.”

Because of him one out of every three Jews alive in the world in 1935 had perished by 1945. In Europe it was two out of every three.

Yes, I am indeed concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

I wish I had the cure for this disease, but I don’t. I hope, though, and I pray that being vocal about the lessons of the past and being vigilant each time anti-Semitism raises its ugly head will hopefully keep this scourge from once again raging out of control.

Why I am Going to Germany

In a recent meeting the head of Germany’s United Jewish Appeal, Nathan Norman Gelbart, said in his address that the German Jewish community is scared “because these are things that have not occurred since 1933.”

Random attacks on Jews and Jewish groups in Europe testify that anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe as my wife Vickie and I prepare to embark September 14 on a ten-week stay in Germany to work in synagogues, schools, and Lutheran churches to promote greater understanding and mutual respect.

The emotional highlight of the visit will doubtless come on November 9 when I speak at the annual Kristallnacht—known in Germany as Pogromnacht—commemoration at the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the magnificent church where Martin Luther once preached and where Johann Sebastian Bach served as organist and choirmaster from 1723 until he died in 1750.

My father Leo Fuchs was arrested on Kristallnacht, an event that has both haunted and inspired me since I first learned about it in 1969. When my son, Leo Fuchs—a school principal named for my father–heard that I would speak there, he immediately made arrangements to fly to Leipzig from his home in San Francisco for the occasion. My cousin Irene is also coming from London.

This will be my third visit to the city where my father was born, grew up and where (as three sterling dishes that I treasure attest) he won citywide doubles championships in table tennis in 1929, 30 and 33, the year Hitler came to power.

My first two visits could not have been more different. In 1982 I was turned away at the East German border crossing, Oebisfelde, when I naively told the passport inspector that I was a rabbi on my way to Leipzig to visit the city of my father’s youth. Only after a day long detour Berlin where I reinvented myself as an art teacher eager to visit Leipzig’s famous museums did I receive a visa.

At that time the Jewish communal headquarters in Leipzig was a tiny dusty, hard to find cramped suite of offices that I reached by climbing a creaky, narrow staircase. The head of the community informed me at the time 67 Jews lived in Leipzig. In 1935 there were 18,000, 14,000 of whom perished in the Shoah.

When Vickie and I visited in 20ll, by contrast, we found the spacious Jewish community offices in a lovely refurbished synagogue. The young rabbi of Leipzig’s Jewish community–revitalized by the arrival of hundreds of Russian immigrants—personally guided us to the places where my relatives lived.

Ursula Sieg, regional Pastor for Church-School Relations of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of North Germany, is painstakingly coordinating our upcoming pilgrimage with a packed schedule of sermons, lectures and dialogues. Her motivation is to have Germans learn about Judaism and further Germany’s yeoman efforts to promote mutual understanding and respect. She has enlisted and received moral and financial support from the  Förderverein Judentum in Schleswig-Holstein (Society for Support of Judaism in Schleswig-Holstein), the Progressive Jewish Community of Kiel and the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin and Potsdam for these efforts. We are very grateful to Pastor Sieg and all of those who are contributing to making our visit a reality.

Last winter when Pastor Sieg first proposed the idea to me, it seemed a natural step in the remarkable progress Germany has made to atone for the horrors of the Hitler era. For example in 20ll and 2012 as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I signed papers that helped lead to the establishment of the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. The agreements paved the way for the formal arrangements for the German government to fully fund the new institute, which offers B.A. and M.A. programs to students from Germany and beyond, including those studying to be rabbis and cantors. I Iook forward eagerly to returning to Potsdam to lecture and interact with students and faculty at the school.

With recent developments, though, the entire timbre of my visit has changed. Now my joyful anticipation is tempered by the reality that anti-Semitism in Europe –and even in Germany where anti-Jewish demonstrations are barred by law—is surfacing once again.

“Why are you going there,” people have asked? “You will do as much good as one bailing water from a rising river with a teaspoon.” Their challenge makes me toss and turn at night. I certainly do not believe I can cure the world, Europe or specific Germans of anti-Semitism. But I am also heartened by the way the German government—beginning with Chancellor Angela Merkel–and most of the German people officially and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism.

Still I am wary. The current war in Israel and Gaza—and the world’s reaction to Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens from the terror of Hamas whose very existence is predicated on Israel’s destruction—gives credence once again to the notion that we Jews are, as the Moabite seer Balaam proclaimed long ago, “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9)

But still I will go. I will go with joy and gratitude for the people that invited me. I will go with the knowledge that many in Germany are eager to learn about the faith and way of life that gave birth to Christianity.

On my first visit to Leipzig, I had to visit the city zoo because on Kristallnacht the Jews of the city were rounded up and made to stand in the stream that flows through it. There, former neighbors and friends spat on them, jeered them and threw mud on them. In 1982 I stood on a bridge that straddles that stream weeping inside as I imagined my father standing in the water on that horrible night in 1938.

But as I was leaving the zoo I walked past a den of timber wolves where a cub was nursing in peaceful bliss at his mother’s breast. That scene etched itself into my heart as a symbol of the harmony that God wants us to strive for in this world.

I don’t expect anti-Semitism to disappear because I will spend ten weeks in Germany, but I feel that destiny is calling me to do my best. If enough people pick up their teaspoons and join the effort we can stop the rising waters of anti-Semitism from overflowing.