On a gray Wednesday afternoon in a quiet corner of southeast London, the unthinkable happened. Two Islamic terrorists – Nigerian-born convert to Islam, Michael Adeboloja, and an accomplice – brutally murdered a British soldier in broad daylight. They hacked at his body with knives and machetes, dragged his disfigured corpse into the street, then shouted jihadist messages as they posed for pictures. When the police arrived, the pair charged at them with meat cleavers, until police marksmen shot them.
The attack happened within hours of a confrontation with another alleged jihadist in Florida. Ibrahim Todashev, an associate of the Boston Marathon bombers, was shot and killed by FBI agents after he allegedly attacked them during questioning.
Terrorism experts are warning of a dangerous new threat: "self-radicalized" fanatic who comes to violence not by being recruited by a formal terrorist group, but independently. After reading and hearing extreme views – usually portraying international Islam as a battered, beleaguered identity, beset by enemies on all sides and in urgent need of violent defense – lone actors increasingly find online support in the form of a virtual community, and even instructions for how to plan assaults.
While it's too soon to know specifics of the London attackers, they were captured on video telling passers-by: "We swear by the almighty Allah." And while clutching a bloody knife, one terrorist shouted: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!"
Not the Literal Meaning
This formula found in the Hebrew Bible – "an eye for an eye" (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:15) – is shocking to hear invoked by a vicious terrorist. Can these words really be used to justify violence?
In fact, the idea of "an eye for an eye" has long been used by Christians to paint the “Old Testament” – and by extension Jews and Judaism – as somehow bloodthirsty and harsh, more concerned with the letter-of-the-law than with mercy or compassion.
The truth is that the London attackers got it completely wrong, twisting this Jewish teaching on every level. And in doing so, they ironically showed how much the Jewish ideal of justice has to teach our violent, angry world today.
“Eye for an eye" refers to monetary compensation, commensurate with the value of what was lost.
In Jewish law, "eye for an eye" refers to monetary compensation, commensurate with the value of what was lost. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 84b) explains that when one has caused someone irreparable harm, one is obliged to reimburse – paying for their pain, their suffering, their medical bills, and for time lost to work.
During the times when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, this law was applied by courts (not by individuals or vigilantes), and the system was transparent: everyone understood how much was being paid and why.
Yet today, the literal rendering of "Eye for an eye" has become enshrined in some systems of “justice.” For example, a court in Saudi Arabia recently sentenced one man who'd injured another to be paralyzed himself.
Yet if "eye for an eye" simply denotes monetary compensation, why does the Torah phrase it in such a provocative way? Why include language that's not meant to be interpreted literally?
The answer, as explained by the 20th century sage the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avrohom Karelitz), is that many of the laws concerning criminal cases in ancient Israel are meant to teach core Jewish values of compassion and empathy. By equating monetary compensation to an actual injury, the Torah tells us that not everything can be easily undone. Even when we are obligated to repay the harm, we still have to understand the other person's pain and sense of loss.
This is a powerful lesson in the wake of the horrific London attack. For in contrast to the killer’s boast of an "eye for an eye," the true lesson of this phrase is the very opposite: to have more compassion and sensitivity to other people. Thus "eye for an eye" teaches how we must counter the darkness in London – with compassion, not hate.