Book Review: An Eye For An Eye

An Eye For An Eye:  A Rabbi Daniel Winter Mystery, by Joseph Teluskhin

I am somewhat familiar with the author’s writing about Jewish legal interpretation [1] and the problem of anti-semitism, but until I read this novel I was unaware the writer also was responsible for a generally entertaining and enjoyable mystery series.  But he is.  As someone who appreciates mystery novels that include religious elements, this book provided at least the second example of a mystery-solving rabbi that I have read, and it is a book that is one I can warmly recommend to those who appreciate the boundary between justice and mercy and the interaction of faith and contemporary life with people who are deeply flawed and imperfect but also very easy to identify with.  This book struck me as very Nathanish, in that its hero was someone who was not a courtier and who was inventive and creative in his interpretations of the Bible and also interested in interfaith communication and debate with others.  For some, this mystery is going to seem a bit bookish and arcane in its debating points relating to Jewish law and practice, but for me, this sort of mystery is definitely a good one.

The novel itself has several layers of interconnected issues.  A trial of a murderer defended by a very irreligious and immoral Jewish attorney ends in a way that leads the murder victim’s father to take justice into his own hands and enforce lex talionis.  While the local Jewish community is roiled by this, the lawyer is found dead and the victim’s father is viewed as the obvious suspect, especially when the lawyer’s blood is found in his car.  Rabbi Winter, though, thinks he is innocent, and even if his own life and his synagogue’s efforts at constructing a new community center are highly complicated by the negative publicity his rather fierce thoughts on lex talionis receive, he is determined to get to the bottom of the story.  Meanwhile, the ex-wife of the lawyer is trying to get a get so that she may remarry a novelist who happens to be writing about a stabbing, and the wife of a mobster tries to escape the retribution she fears is coming as a result of her cheating with the lawyer while her husband was in the slammer.  The novel keeps its various complexities going all the way to the end, with a compelling and dramatic twist that allows the rabbi to be triumphant in his understanding of the character of his congregation and provides a chance for both mercy and justice of a sort.

This novel exists on at least three levels.  On the surface level, it is a compelling murder mystery with a variety of appealing and well-crafted characters engaged in a complex and richly rewarding plot.  In addition, the play deals with some major issues of interest to Jewish law, such as the boundary between traditional interpretations of law and contemporary practice.  How, for example, may the fate of women bound to husbands who refuse to release them be improved?  The author suggests, through his conservative rabbi protagonist, that pre-marital agreements as part of the marriage contract may help this out, and that seems a reasonable solution, if not a fully moral one.  How can the tension between the Jewish requirement for justice and the highly unjust practice of American criminal law be reconciled in a way that does not lead to increased recourse to vigilante justice?  This book presents a lot of thoughtful problems both in terms of practice within the story and also in terms of scholarship and midrashic and mishnaic interpretation of the Jewish law, and if there are no easy answers, the questions are worth exploring and the story is enjoyable as well even for those without an interest in halakah.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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