It is devastating that another week is passing without a ceasefire in Gaza. It feels impossible not to write to you about it. The scale of destruction and starvation is worse than anything we have known since World War II. I want to invite you to take 10 minutes to listen to the personal story of Dr. Tariq Haddad, who has lost more than 100 family members. He is a Cardiologist who grew up in Gaza and recently declined an invitation to meet with Secretary of State Blinken.
My desperate desire for a lasting peace brought me back to a question that Israeli Journalist Gideon Levy asked in an interview in January. He sits on the editorial board of the newspaper Ha’aretz. On January 17, he asked:
“The question which bothers me more than anything else…having said what happened on the 7th, as barbaric as it was…Does this give us Israelis the right to do anything we want after the 7th forever, without any limits, no legal limits, no moral limits? We can just go and kill and destroy and destruct as much as we wish? That’s the main question right now.”
There are many ways that I have heard Jews and Israelis justify the mass destruction of Gaza. For some it is about safety, for others settlement. But what scares me the most, is the desire for revenge.
Gideon Levy’s question raises an ethical question about retaliation. The earliest version of this question is begged in this week's parsha, Mishpatim. Quite (in)famously Exodus 21:23-24 asserts a vision of retributive justice known in shorthand as “an eye for an eye”,
וְאִם־אָסוֹן יִהְיֶה וְנָתַתָּה נֶפֶשׁ תַּחַת נָפֶשׁ׃
However if there is a fatal injury, you shall take a life for a life.
עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן יָד תַּחַת יָד רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל׃
an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.
It is always dissonant to read a section of Torah that we decidedly think is unethical or unjust. Most of us were taught from a young age that two wrongs do not make a right. That we do not take an eye for an eye, nevermind a life for a life. And certainly not 30,000 Palestinian lives for 1,200 Israeli lives. Of course we can’t because each human life is irredeemably holy and unique. Because the value of one’s eye or one’s hand cannot be equated. What is the value of a painter’s hand or a bus driver’s eyes?
But it's not surprising that the far right wing settler movement is so focused on corporal revenge. Lest we forget they read the bible as both Divine prophecy and instruction manual. Just as I do not believe in a life for a life, I also do not believe that gay sex is an abomination or that we are called to embody the teachings of the book of Joshua and resettle Judea and Samaria.
While I have deep love and reverence for Torah, we are the descendents of rabbinic Judaism. For nearly 2,000 years we have understood that when the Torah says take an eye for an eye, what it means is to compensate the person for what they have lost. Try to make them feel whole again. Post-temple Judaism does not believe in revenge wars.
The reason I feel so able to wholeheartedly read this passage of Torah, and so many others, is because we are empowered to update it. The rabbis made clear that there are five ways to determine Jewish law. Of course one of them is, “Because it says so in the Torah!” But there is in fact something more powerful, our Svara. Svara is our informed moral intuition and it actually takes precedence over the words of the written Torah because it is a means of making Torah more just.
In every generation we are called to make Torah more ethical and more whole. To ensure all its paths are paths of peace
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.