The teachings of the Oral Torah have always been clear that the karmic statement, “an eye for an eye”, was never meant to be taken as a literal decree allowing or codifying barbaric forms of punishment. Contrary to persistent misconceptions, it has always been understood as a requirement for fair and equitable financial compensation in cases of legal damages.
Far from being a barbaric statement, the rule was actually just the opposite. Its intent and its effect was to curb much of the cruelty allowed by other ancient legal systems, where terrible retribution could often be inflicted for minor offenses, and lawbreakers with ‘connections’ could often get off scot-free. In other words, the Torah’s insistence on “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was God’s command that all punishment would henceforward have to fit the crime – it could not be too lenient (which would be unfair to victims and would accomplish nothing useful for the perpetrator’s own evolving soul), and it could not be too severe, too out-of-proportion to the offense.
The motivation behind the rule was the moral requirement that we must always treat our fellow human beings with fairness, respect and decency, even in times of adversity, even while holding each other – or ourselves – fully accountable.