Sitting in my study one night, racking my brain to find something new about the Parsha, the Torah Reading—it wasn’t easy. After the drama of the Theophany, the Appearance of God on Mt. Sinai, complete amid a Coming of Angels, Heavenly Light, smoke-and-thunder, one turns the page, to find—a fairly detailed and abstruse listing of Civil Law, circa 15th Century BCE, ranging from Hebrew Slavery, through murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, property damage (ravaging oxen, brushfires, etc.), mistreatment of foreigners (Egyptians are singled out for gentle treatment), the prohibition against cooking meat with milk—
A harsh rap at the door interrupted my musings. I rose, stepped over a dozing Kirby, my Shih Tzu, and opened it, to find a tall, thin man, dressed in grave but decent attire; a dark suit, like a country parson’s; pointed shoes, long arms, hands, and fingers. He smiled, revealing a set of snow-white, polished teeth, as broad as a shark’s.
“If you please, Rabbi,” he said, “I am a Student of Religion. I have been studying the Holy Scriptures for years now, and have several questions. It happens that I have been recently studying Exodus; specifically, chapters 21-24….”
“The very ones I have been reading, just now,” I said, surprised.
“A coincidence,” he smiled, and I thought, no, surely imagined, that he clashed his teeth, “would it be any trouble, any difficulty, if I were to come in, and share a few Questions?”
I nodded, and fetched him a chair. He settled back, and took a well-worn Scriptures from his bag, and offered it to me. I opened it to the Frontispiece, which read
The Holy Bible
Containing the Old and New Testaments
Translated out of the Original Tongues
And with the Former Translations Diligently
Compared and Revised
King James Version
Opposite this impressive page was a watercolor, 1920s style, showing a calm, but determined-looking David in shepherd garb, standing in ankle-deep water, about to sling a smooth stone against a dangerously-advancing Goliath, who wore a gold-toned, brazen breastplate and matching shin-greaves, along with a soul patch on his chin—sort of an Arrow Collar man decked out for war. Four Philistine warriors stood casually in the background, waiting for their boy to make short work of the upstart Hebrew teen. The painting was signed “W.H. MARGETSON” at the bottom. I gingerly closed the volume, and handed it back to my guest, who snatched at it eagerly, and hugged it to his bosom like an old friend. Then, he plunked it into his lap, and began riffling through its pages.
“Let’s start!” cried my Visitor. His Bible opened immediately to the intended page; he had many bookmarks, “Exodus 21:23—the laws following the men fighting—‘…Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.’ Well, Rabbi? How do you explain away this law? Why can’t we punish our wrongdoers as they have hurt others?”
“Uppance. My name is Colm Uppance.”
“Mr. Uppance. The Rabbis in the Talmud were horrified by this statement, and so, early on, legislated that it meant, not the actual limb itself, but the value of the lost limb. Otherwise, as Tevye says in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ‘The entire world will end up blind and toothless.’ The two parties, the striker and the victim, go to court, which determines the value of the lost limb. A jeweler, for example, would have a higher value placed on his eye, than a ditchdigger. There would also be compensation for time lost from work, pain and suffering, having to wear, say, an eyepatch or glass eye for the remainder of one’s life, medications, and so on.”
“Hmph,” said Mr. Uppance. He clearly wasn’t buying it, but that was the mitigating influence of the Talmud, which surrounds and softens the harsh-appearing dicta of the Torah She’bich’tav, the Written Law, or the Five Books of Moses. He turned to his Bible, once again.
“Well, what about this?” he asked.
“We have time for, perhaps, one more,” I said, as gently as I could.
“Well then: I’ll make it a good, big one. Exodus 22:17: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’” he said, smacking his lips over each word, and grinning at me with that shark’s mouth of teeth when he was done. His eyes were gleaming, and I could not help but remember all my readings in history, all the thousands of innocent women, in America and Europe, who had gone to their deaths on the trumped-up charge of witchcraft. And who was to speak for their unfortunate sisters of today, still suffering in silence, being excluded, punished, tortured, or executed, in societies where men had the major advantage, simply by dint of their being men?
“The Rabbis in the Talmud—most of whom, I admit, were no champions of what we would, today, call Women’s Rights—nonetheless, were astonished and disgusted by this verse,” I said, hoping to drive that Death’s-Head grin from his bony skull. “They took the literal meaning of the verse, and interpreted it to mean, “’Do not let a woman make her living by means of sorcery or witchcraft’—in other words, teach or train her in another profession, so that she will be able to support herself and her family in a respectable and socially-acceptable way.”
“No witchcraft?” asked my Visitor. He seemed even more disappointed about this reply than by the one concerning the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye.”
“Right. No witchcraft.”
“Well, then, I must go,” he said, huffing and puffing in a most disappointed manner, “Thank you, Rabbi. You have been—very helpful,” he gulped, as if having a difficult time getting the words out. He pulled an enormous, nickle-plated watch, out of a pocket in his rusty-black vest, and squinted at it. “And I must be getting on. It’s late, and I have to—to—relieve my boys at their work. Yes. That is what I must do….” We both rose, and walked downstairs together. I was beginning to feel relieved at his imminent departure. Kirby wagged his tail.
“Can this guy leave now, Dave? I mean, fast. He gives me the willies,” he seemed to be asking me.
“What sort of work do you do, Mr. Uppance?” I asked, holding the door of my house open, as he took a step out, distracted, into the clear, cool Florida night air.
“I? I work—in minerals; yes, minerals—Underground,” he said, and vanished, in a cloud of smoke, leaving nothing but the pungent smell of sulfur behind him.