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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What sort of damages are environmental damages? What sort of restitution is necessary to put them right? This is a foundational question for environmental theory and practice. We will argue that Talmudic thought provides a very useful set of tools and concepts for thinking about the question.

The main means of compensation for environmental damage is money. Yet we instinctively feel that monetary compensation, though necessary, is not always sufficient.

Part 2: (For Part 1, Click Here)

Perek Ha’hovel

Chapter Eight of Tractate Bava Kamma, Ha’hovel, deals with physical damages against the person. The central dilemma in the chapter is whether restitution for physical damage to people can be adequately expressed in monetary terms.

It is clear from the Mishnah that physical damage must be compensated with money. One who assaults his fellow is liable to pay five categories of compensation: physical damage, pain, medical expenses, unemployment and shame.

But our chapter is also concerned to articulate the difficulties, incongruities and failures involved in paying monetary compensation for physical damage. It opens with a discussion of whether monetary damage or capital punishment is the more appropriate paradigm for considering physical damage, continues by elucidating the problems of placing a price tag on a human limb, or on such irreducibly subjective experiences as pain and humiliation. The chapter concludes by specifying what an assailant must do to make restitution for his damage, even after he has made all of the requisite monetary payments.  

The Talmud apparently wishes to impress upon us that although financial compensation is a necessary act of reparation for a physical attack, it is in no way sufficient. There are social, psychological and spiritual consequences of the assault that money cannot make good.  The German word for reparations, wiedergutmachen is, to the gemara, a misnomer. Monetary payment must be made, but it does not “make good again.”9 Full reparation must also take place at a very different level.

This chapter should be of particular interest to anyone interested in Jewish environmental ethics, because it contains the longest Talmud discussion of Ba’al Taschit. Many writers on the subject have identified Ba’al Taschit,the prohibition on wanton destruction of property or natural resources, as a particularly promising source of Jewish environmental wisdom.  Others have expressed a certain disappointment with ba’al taschit as a source of usable environmental teaching, arguing that it is too human-centered a criterion. 

We consider the discussion of ba’al taschit in its context of Perek Ha’hovel. Examining why ba’al tashchit is placed in this chapter of Bava Kamma, and how it partakes in the chapter’s central problematic will give us a renewed understanding of the usefulness and potential relevance of the concept for environmentalists.

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