Mahatma Ghandi famously said: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Ghandi’s life was of course the living embodiment of the pacifist tradition. He preached against taking up arms and called others to turn away from seeking the revenge that the Torah’s words imply. Ghandi, and the vast majority of commentators, however misunderstand the Bible’s intent.
This week’s portion states: “But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:23)
Scholars suggest that an eye for an eye is a poetic way of expressing the idea, also enshrined in American law, that the punishment must fit the crime. The punishment should not be too lenient, namely a tooth for an eye, or too harsh: a life for an eye. Justice must be served by the punishment. Moses Maimonides writes: “There never was any Rabbi, from the time of Moses until now who ruled, based on an eye for an eye that he who blinds another person should himself be blinded.”
It is not vengeance the Torah urges. Its goal is instead justice. Punishment, or compensation, restores balance. The scales tip towards equity. Society endures.
Thus despite how others might portray it, my tradition does not glorify violence. It does not advocate revenge. Of course as President Obama rightly noted in his recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, all religious traditions can be contorted. They can be twisted so as to distort their true and noble teachings. He said, “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort faith.”
And yet I take exception to some of the President’s remarks. I believe that I can in fact climb on that high horse and say that I have never celebrated violence. I have never contorted my Jewish tradition to say that all who do not share my beliefs should be banished or killed. I have consistently denounced murder, often the most loudly when it was Jews who committed such a crime. I will not allow my faith to be defamed. I also decry yesterday’s murders of my fellow Americans in North Carolina. I will not allow my belief in America’s promise to become tarnished.
The President as well reminds us about Christianity’s past evils, of in particular the Crusades. And yet I have observed Christian leaders openly discussing their faith’s hand in antisemitism. The Catholic Church issued the following words in the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965: “Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of antisemitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” Although I wish that Christian leaders were bolder, I recognize that this is an extraordinary reckoning for a church that as the historian Jules Isaac argued stood guilty of the teaching of contempt.
President Obama however appears to think that past atrocities prevent us from speaking against present day evils, that each and every one of us bears the stain of past wrongs. He suggests that moral clarity eludes us today because of yesterday’s dark clouds. History is instructive. The past, however, must never be used as excuse against present day action. We are called to forcefully criticize today’s wrongs.
Humility is not what our present reality demands. We require clarity. The world faces a menacing evil. It comes from within Islam. I have no doubt that Islam is a beautiful tradition. I recall the gifts of mathematics, philosophy and poetry that medieval Muslim thinkers bequeathed to the world. I also know that Islam’s nobility is obscured by the evil done in its name. I yearn for more Moslems to speak against this defamation, to decry the horrific acts done by their brethren. Far too many terrorists openly declare their Muslim faith as their motivation. Is this not sufficient evidence?
The President does not serve history when he stands aloof from present day evils, when he offers lessons in historical wrongs and speaks about the evils found within the heart rather than giving us the moral clarity the present desperately requires. Name today’s enemy. It is radical Islam. Now tell us how we are going to achieve victory over this menace. I am certain it is not going to be found by a reckoning with my history and a reconciliation with my evil inclination. I am convinced it begins my naming our enemy clearly and unequivocally.
Unlike my more conservative friends I do not attribute the President’s failure to some grand conspiracy. I see it instead as a result of his worldview. I reject this view. There are some things that are battles within. There are others that are external. I do not require my President to guide me through internal struggles. I desperately need the President of the United States to protect me against those who have declared me their enemy. That begins by openly and forcefully declaring who it is that rise up to do us harm. Generalities will not suffice. “No God condones terror.” is inadequate.
History might indeed be humbling. The present however demands unwavering clarity. Radical evil calls us to be decisive.