When people fight, and they strike a pregnant woman so that her child comes out, but no injury appears, he shall pay what the woman's husband imposes and he will give it by the judges. But if there is injury, you shall give life in place of life, eye in place of eye, tooth in place of tooth, hand in place of hand, foot in place of foot, burn in place of burn, wound in place of wound, bruise in place of bruise.
For centuries, commentators have used these verses as evidence that the Torah does not regard the abortion of a fetus to be murder. Where abortion is proscribed in Jewish tradition, it is regarded as a crime of shedding blood, not the taking of life. Also, based in part on this passage, Jewish law actually demands that a fetus be aborted if it poses a threat to the life of the mother.
And what of the logic of "an eye in place of an eye, a tooth in place of a tooth"? Won't that, as the saying goes, leave everyone blind and toothless? Jewish tradition holds that these verses, and others like them, should be interpreted to refer to monetary damages. A person who is responsible for causing another person to lose sight in an eye should pay compensation to that person according to the value of an eye, not by having his own eye put out.
Contemporary biblical scholars find this passage about a pregnant woman to be uncommonly difficult to untangle. There are so many unanswered and unanswerable questions. Does the woman miscarry, or does she give birth prematurely? Is the "eye-for-an-eye" injury suffered by the fetus, or is it the mother? Can a law about an accidental injury be applied meaningfully to an intentional abortion, or is that a flawed comparison?
There is something about the way both traditional commentators and modern scholars look at this passage that troubles me. There is a coldness to the parsing and analyzing of the text. This is a passage that is laden with powerful emotions that should not be ignored when we try to fit the words to our contemporary issues and controversies.
A pregnant woman has been pushed aside and hurt while others quarreled, perhaps to the extent that she has miscarried. How could we imagine that there might be "no injury" in such a situation? Her husband has the right to demand payment for damages incurred. Damages to whom? To the unborn child? To the mother? Or, perhaps, to the man himself? The law seem uncaring to the woman. What might she rightfully demand in this situation? What about her grief over the loss of the child? Is it fair to settle such a matter with the exchange of coins?
This may be the reason the text talks in this story about "life in place of life." (The Hebrew could also be translated as "a soul in place of a soul"). This is a story in which one life touches upon so many other lives. The unborn child. The mother. The father. The assailant. Even the judges. Everyone becomes part of a tangle of lives standing in the place of other lives in a heartbreaking situation … and all because people let things get out of hand when they were fighting and quarreling. We too easily forget how easily one life can affect many other lives when our emotions spill over into violence.
We can reclaim that pregnant woman and give her loss new meaning by looking at the text again with new eyes, so to speak. "A life in place of a life" reminds us to place ourselves into the situation of others, to allow our compassion to inform the choices we make, before we hurt someone. We are commanded to see ourselves in each other — a life in place of a life.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Rape, Abortion and Judaism
Tazria-Metzora: The Torah of Reproductive Health Care