How Hammurabi Got Under the Skin of One Orthodox Talmudist

Why Did Babylonian King Have Same Teachings as Torah?

Eye for an Eye: The Code of Hammurabi, created by the Babylonian king in ancient Iraq, and some Torah laws share stunning similarities.
Eye for an Eye: The Code of Hammurabi, created by the Babylonian king in ancient Iraq, and some Torah laws share stunning similarities.

By Ruchama King Feuerman

Published May 11, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.
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But I knew my time was running out. I blurted something about my awful dates, and his eyes clouded with zayde-like sorrow. Just before I left, I managed to nab a blessing, even though he apparently wasn’t your typical blessing-giver rebbe. Dang, I thought on the way home — I’d forgotten to ask about the Canaanite slaves and other things. Still, I felt a certain relief, as if I’d already received answers. After all, if rabbinic sages had grappled with some of my issues way before I had, maybe I could relax a little. Surely, the integrity of the Torah didn’t rest on my bony shoulders.

As the days passed, I felt my spiritual migraine lifting. What was it about the rebbe? So he had studied with me, tried to give answers. Well, so had the dean, and, come to think of it, the dean’s answers were better. But I could still feel the warmth of the rebbe’s blessing. There in his dining room, I’d sensed holiness buzzing like some bee in the air between us. His tremble spoke of someone who lived in the presence of God. He gave me not just words or ideas, but also a feeling of love, as we bent over ancient texts: A feeling that Torah and God mattered, and that I mattered even more, or at least enough for him to fob off those Hasidic bouncers.

Over the next few months, I still researched the Canaanite slave question, but minus my former angst. Gradually the Code of Hammurabi loosened its hold over me. I imagine a true intellectual would have pursued the answers to the very end, but I guess I wasn’t a true intellectual. The problem was, I felt happier in my life. I’d started seeing a therapist, and dating again, too. If I were a self-helpy sort, I’d say the love I experienced at the rebbe’s gave me the strength to — forgive me — do the next right thing.

We like to imagine that our beliefs inhabit hermetically sealed compartments, entirely separate from our emotional states, when in truth, these two worlds leak into each other all the time. Belief systems are entwined with the people we meet and experience. A rupture in a relationship can cause a tear in the fabric of belief. When Horrible Haim dumped me, I became vulnerable to the seductions of the Hammurabi.

Ruchama King Feuerman’s new novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist,” was just published by New York Review Books as a paperback original.

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