by jane davis ©1998

The following OP-ED piece was published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (Faith & Values section) on Saturday 2/7/98 ©. The following writing may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any way including electronically, without the prior written consent of the author.

Using the terms "Old Testament" and an "eye for an eye" is showing profound disrespect for people who are Jewish and their teachings. I made this point while speaking at a conference in Chevy Chase, Md. recently that brought together 500 religious and spiritual leaders to address the death penalty.

The implication that the Torah, the five books of Moses, that many people refer to as the "Old Testament," is old and brings with it a hateful, vengeful God is insulting to any enlightened Jew. Most people don't mean to be offensive. But, just as in a court of law, ignorance is no defense. I think it's time for all of us to get educated.

For many years, I have worked with inmates on death row. I have witnessed an execution, spent the last hours before execution with another man, and travel the country ministering. Because God, religion and faith play such an important role behind prison walls, I was forced to learn more about Christianity and Judaism. There seems to be a gross difference, I think, between what the religions teach and what individuals practice.

Christians learn by the word, Jews through interpretation. And I believe the literal translation of an "eye for an eye" diffuses the deeper spiritual meaning taught in the Torah. The "Old Testament," to many, has become synonymous with "Jew," the implication being that Jews are old and Christians with their "New Testament" are the enlightened, forgiving and loving ones.

The term "eye for an eye" being attributed to the "Old," barbaric ways is a grievous misuse of the term. An eye for an eye, according to Jewish law teaches a deeper, spiritual message, establishing the ruling that punishment for an action should never exceed the harm done. The Torah legislates that monetary compensation be paid victims, rather than suggesting physical punishment for perpetrators. It teaches that there are no two eyes alike thus nullifying the way it is applied today.

The message is clear: Of paramount importance is the sanctity of all life.

Death sentences were rarely handed down by Jewish courts because the Torah and other Jewish teachings insist that hundreds of checks and balances must be in place, including two eye witnesses who are not related by birth or marriage who warn the perpetrator of the consequences of his actions. The perpetrator, in turn, must acknowledge his understanding and say he is going to carry out the crime anyway.

Making it so difficult to actually execute someone captures the Judaic belief that all life is sacred. So pervasive was this idea in ancient times that if a court sentenced a man to death once in seven years it was considered a "killer" court.

According to Judaic law murder is only one of a number of criminal acts that drew the death penalty. Other capital crimes included adultery and being disrespectul to one's parents. The Torah, as usual, was making a spiritual point, that being disrespectful or improperly sexual was just as serious and horrific a crime as taking a life.

I hear people leaping to the use of an "eye for eye" in murder cases, but these same people are strangely quiet in cases involving adultery or people showing disrespect to their parents. Why pick just one piece of the lesson?

Each time a person, Jew or Christian, atheist or agnostic, uses an "eye for an eye" or the reminder that these teachings come from the "Old Testament," they are demeaning and desecrating a holy, wondrous and spiritual people and teaching.

Perhaps the time is here for us all to get educated about what Judaism and the Torah really teach Jews and Gentiles alike. Let's learn the message . . . together.

back to Articles