Reading Torah in Context & Problematic Verses


an-eye-for-an-eye-233x300Every now and then, an email or meme mocks words from the Torah, preying on the unlearned.  Sometimes, the writer shows themselves to be extremely unlearned as in the case of the alleged letter to Dr. Laura.  Other cases include witticisms like, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”  This was actually a question that led me on a religions search in the first place.  I asked myself, “If it’s so obviously true that there are so many silly things in religion, how could my great-grandparents, who were smart people, believe in it? ”  Today, I’d add that given that half the world’s population is living in societies based on the Torah’s guidance, it can’t be that simple as to be so obviously false.

If a person wants to scoff at anything, there’s always a way to scoff, and it’s not to those people that I address this article.  As King Solomon said, “Do not reprimand a leitz [clown / mocker] lest he hate you” (Mishlei 9:8).  I would, however, like to post explanations to a few words from the Torah which people have challenged me with and for which … there are answers.

An Eye for an Eye

Taken out of context, Vayikra [Leviticus] 24 reads:

. 19 And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely,] יט. וְאִישׁ כִּי יִתֵּן מוּם בַּעֲמִיתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כֵּן יֵעָשֶׂה לּוֹ:
 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him. כ. שֶׁבֶר תַּחַת שֶׁבֶר עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן כַּאֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מוּם בָּאָדָם כֵּן יִנָּתֶן בּוֹ:

The Talmud actually discusses whether it means literally that we take out someone’s eye (Bava Kamma, page 83b-84a), because, well, the Talmud discusses just about everything.  You can find an analysis about it over here by Nechama Leibowitz.  I’d rather not rehash what the Talmud has to say about it, but rather, put into practice something I learned very early on from Rabbi Tuvia Singer; if you see something in the Torah being read for something that it probably shouldn’t mean, look a few verses backwards and forwards and it will probably make sense:

18 And one who slays an animal shall pay for it  a life for the life [he took]. יח. וּמַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בְּהֵמָה יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה נֶפֶשׁ תַּחַת נָפֶשׁ:

That is, just one verse prior, it is written yishalmena, from the room “shalem”, to pay money.  Even in modern Hebrew, one might say, “Ani yishalem 10 sheklim”, meaning “I pay 10 shekels.”  Though “pay” was not repeated later, from the context, it’s seems clear that “life for a life” is referring to payment of money … that is, the worth of the life that was killed, whether that life be killed by your animal or self.

(The literal translation is also more clearly translated as, “eye under an eye”.)

A Bride for One Night

Recently, someone showed me the book, “A Bride for One Night” by Ruth Calderon.  This is a book which seeks to sell itself by sensationalizing a few lines from the 2800+ page Talmud.  This is the line in question, removed from the context it is trying to present:

When Rav visited the town of Darshis he would announce: Who wants to be my wife for a day? – Yoma 18b

While Calderon proceeds to develop a whole narrative out of this, much as a sports announcer does from a new weighted random statistic about an athlete, she neglects to provide any context to the statement or any description of how the Talmud works.  While admitting that “I don’t know how one learns a story like this in yeshiva” because she never asked, she throws out such gems as let’s read this “in the spirit of the 1960s” and spends pages suggesting how this is just an example of women being oppressed.

An anthropologist, she is not.  One doesn’t read a different time and place into someone’s life.  Comparing 3rd century Babylonia to 1960s American hippies is like comparing crickets to rubidium.  Even the line of the text itself doesn’t support her assertion.  It says not a thing about any woman being oppressed, forced, or without choice in the matter.  This does not stop her from building an entire feminist narrative out of a false premise, doing a disservice to feminism by standing on the back of fluff and feathers.

The text in Yevamos 37b (which she does not quote) repeats Rav’s statement, but clearly states in direct response:

“A Tanna taught: R. Eliezer b. Jacob said: A man must not marry a woman if it is his intention to divorce her, for it is written, Devise not evil against your neighbor, seeing he dwell securely by you.”

A “Tanna” is an earlier and more authoritative source which remains unchallenged, here, in the Talmud.  This throws Calderon’s “free love” assertions out the window but she chooses to ignore the obvious.  Any interpretation of Rav’s statement needs to fit within this context to make any sense.

Read a little closer, the text only says “who wants to be my wife.” Calderon has enough intellectual honestly to praise the Talmud for not hiding anything, but neglects to mention that the strongest arguments are posited.  I’m not a major scholar, but Yevomos 37b is discussing the problem of marrying women in other towns and children marrying their siblings by accident.  Rav’s statement is then used to try and say that can’t be, because Rav said “who wants to be my wife…”.  Wouldn’t the stronger argument be, “Rav went to Darshis and married so and so for a day.”  Yet, it does not say that, so a better assumption, and one which fits with the text, is that Rav did not actually marry any woman for a day because the Talmud would then have used such an act to argue better.

So why did Rav go to Darshis and make this statement?  The Talmud doesn’t tell us, but one reason may be to show that even get Rabbis have sexual needs and desires which control us.  By having no possible outlet, one is more likely to “do it wrong”, and in the Torah, that is a big, big problem.  Just by knowing that there is a possible outlet available to you, you’ll be more able to control yourself psychologically, even if you never use that outlet.  It may prevent you from doing the harm in the first place – compare to Rambam and The Art of War which both say that when you are conquering an army, leave a way out for them to retreat because if you back someone into a corner, they’ll come out swinging at you like a superman, with no other choice.  (Here, we want to keep superman in the pocket…)  A woman might very well would have wanted to marry, or at least be there for such a great Rabbi … and this may well have been acceptable in such a society which was both extremely moral and lacking in the public repression of today’s society.  Cauldron would rather read into this her 1960’s societal experience which is the polar opposite in sexual morality and comfortableness with one self.  No wonder she doesn’t get it.

I did some further reading and decided one can take this even further to show that Rav did nothing of the sort.  Why not say, as the Talmud normally says, “Rav holds X is the law” or such a statement.  Rather, it says, “Rav went to Darshis and called out…”  Why mention the place and his actions?  Telling us the name of a place is a strange thing to do if we’re setting out a law.  There is teaching message here which has nothing to do with the face value of the words.  This seems to be a lesson for the people in the town on the importance of marriage, and not to wait to do so.   It’s a statement to shock the town into moving forward with their lives and getting married, much as one might walk into the museum of tolerance and say, “I hate you all!” to shock people out of their complacency with their own bigotry.

In fact, others discuss this and have also posited such answers: See Daas Torah and The Talmud Blog.

Stuck with the Rapist

This allegation comes in various forms.  Here’s one I found based on quick Googling:

Deuteronomy 22:28-29
NLT) If a man is caught in the act of raping a
young woman who is not engaged, he must
pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then
he must marry the young woman because he
violated her, and he will never be allowed to
divorce her.

Put into present day western connotations of man-woman relationships, that sounds pretty bad.  Except for one thing – if there is a law for your benefit, you can waive such a law.  As the Talmud tells us in Bava Kamma and Kiddushin, one can say “I do not care for the enactment of the sages (for my benefit)”.  In this case, it’s a Torah law in the written text and not a later enactment, but Kesubos 39a is clear that the same principle applies … the rapist is required to marry the woman, and that is who is being spoken about.  The woman, however, has no such obligation nor do the words say that she does.

So why would a woman ever want to marry her rapist?  Simple – the man is also required to support her.  It is a deterrent to tell a man that if you rape someone, you might just be stuck with her the rest of your life and have to take care of her, and further, in a system of relationships that doesn’t hold of alimony (only lump sum payment) and the woman might never get remarried, the woman could choose to extract financial payment from this man for the rest of their lives.  While being supported, which in a time and place where that’s very valuable to her (which is almost all times and places), she is not required (in Jewish law) to ever have relations with him during this ‘marriage’.

Let Us Make Man in Our Image

This comes from the description of creation of man …

Then G_d said, “Let us make mankind in our image …  – Bereshis [Genesis] 1:26

Who is G_d talking to?  This one is easy – the angels.  There is a midrash about this as explained by Rashi that this teaches us to always consult with others.  The entire first book of the Torah is about relationships, which comes before most of everything else.  Even in the act of creation, G_d is teaching us by example – here’s a partnership in creation itself.  As Rashi tells us, Moshe [Moshes] questioned this because people will make a mistake and think there’s more than one Creator.  G_d said something like, “write it properly.  Those who want to read it improperly will do so, and those who want to read it properly will do so.”

We can Quote the Bible Too


Under the file name “gays strike back” this meme claims the Torah says that a marriage is valid only if the wife is a virgin, otherwise she should be executed.  Obvious question: the sign has two versus but the alleged reference has nine verses.  Answer: the Torah doesn’t say that at all.

Here’s a link to read what it really says.  The gist of the nine verses is that if a man accuses a woman of lying about her past relations, if he’s found to be wrong, he’s fined and has to support his wife.  If she’s actually married already, well, that’s bad but the case is nothing like what the sign says.


If you take any document thousands of pages long and want to mock it, you can take a sentence here and there out of context and/or into your own worldview which is inconsistent with that of the document itself.  Almost always, it shows ignorance and an inability to look beyond one’s own viewpoint.  However, sensical answers are there for a person who is open minded.  When the document in question is the basis for the societal organizaiton of half the population of the planet (or more), a thinking person will take a deeper look.


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4 Responses

  1. Yoni says:

    I find this post pretty pointless. Not because of any inaccuracies, but because it is without doubt that the Torah speaks in a moral paradigm that is way off from that of the modern western world.

    -According to Torah law an adulterer / adulteress is punished by death (if found guilty in court).
    -Same for a violator of Shabbos – simply picking out a bit of grit from your chulent is enough to warrant a death penalty.
    etc. etc.

    The list is pretty long and includes all sorts of inequalities, xenophobia etc. by modern societies standards.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the moral compass of Torah is by any means incorrect, I am merely pointing out that it is entirely incompatible with what the western world considers as acceptable.

    As such, I find it fairly pointless to try to show how certain verses are taken out of context. In fact I find it pretty amusing how the people you have quoted have specifically chosen verses that are actually pretty harmless even in the face of western viewpoints, however that does not change the fact that other verses / laws are less so.

    As an aside, it is pretty interesting that almost all of the parts of the Torah that would be most offensive to western sensibilities are actually not applicable nowadays (death penalty, malkus, korbanos, choshen mishpat applied to non-jews, etc.). I wonder to what extent these not being practiced has actually led to the changing western mind-set over the past millennia.

    • tostien says:

      Okay, I can respect your viewpoint. I think, however, by delving into challenges presented (even if some of them are silly) it helps us understand better what’s going on and what the Torah viewpoint really is. Ultimately, I want to understand what is the truth and counter falsehood that is spread by those to whom the post refers.

  2. Dov says:

    >>That is, just one verse prior, it is written yishalmena, from the room “shalem”, to pay money. Even in modern Hebrew, one might say, “Ani yishalem 10 sheklim”, meaning “I pay 10 shekels.” Though “pay” was not repeated later, from the context, it’s seems clear that “life for a life” is referring to payment of money … that is, the worth of the life that was killed, whether that life be killed by your animal or self.

    You cannot bring modern Hebrew to prove what biblical Hebrew means with precision, because usages change over decades; never mind thousands of years.

    Analyzing the word יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה by its root, שלם (complete), seems to indicate that at base the word means “he shall make it whole,” not “he shall pay for it.”

    If you’re looking for a plausible explanation, in context, here’s one: In the morality of the literal Torah, the punishment is perfectly equal to the crime. If you ruin someone’s property, a convenient punishment is to give your property to that person, since the punishment exactly fits the crime and that person’s void is filled. But the void being filled is secondary; that is not the primary object of the punishment, which is to render unto you what you rendered unto him. Thus, if you kill a person, you are killed – not because killing you gives anything back to the dead person, but because the punishment of death exactly fits the crime, which was causing someone’s death. Similarly, if you gouge someone’s eye, the appropriate punishment is to gouge your eye, since that is the only punishment that exactly fits the crime. This is why the Torah only uses the term יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה (he shall make whole) with regard to damaging someone’s property: because the only time you can have both things; the punishment perfectly fitting the crime as well as the other fellow’s void being filled, is with property.

    Thus, there is nothing in the context that says עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן is not meant literally. On the contrary, a strictly literal reading, without any regard to later writings or to more recent views of morality, makes most sense when reading עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן literally.

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