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Justice And Compassion

Shakespeare is expressing the medieval stereotype of Christian mercy (Portia) as against Jewish justice (Shylock).
Portia and Shylock

Portia and Shylock

As Moses begins his great closing addresses to the next generation, he turns to a subject that dominates the last of the Mosaic books, namely justice:

“I instructed your judges at that time as follows: ‘Listen to your fellow men, and decide justly [tzedek] between each man and his brother or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment. Listen to great and small alike. Fear no one, for judgment belongs to God. Any matter that is too difficult for you, bring to me and I will hear it’ ” (Deut. 1:16-17).

Tzedek (justice) is a key word in the book of Devarim – most famously in the verse “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (16: 20).

The distribution of the word tzedek and its derivate tzedakah in the Five Books of Moses is anything but random. It is overwhelmingly concentrated on the first and last books, Genesis (where it appears 16 times) and Deuteronomy (18 times). In Exodus it occurs only four times and in Leviticus five. In Numbers, the word does not appear at all.

This distribution is one of many chiastic structures – a literary unit of the form ABCBA – in Chumash. The structure is this:

A: Genesis – the prehistory of Israel (the distant past)

B: Exodus – the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai

C: Leviticus – the code of holiness

B: Numbers – the journey from Mount Sinai to the banks of the Jordan

A: Deuteronomy – the post-history of Israel (the distant future)

The leitmotiv of tzedek/tzedakah appears at the key points of this structure – the two outer books of Genesis and Deuteronomy, and the central chapter of the work as a whole, Leviticus 19. Clearly the word is a dominant theme of the Mosaic books as a whole.

Tzedek/tzedakah is almost impossible to translate, because of its many shadings of meaning: justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence. It certainly means more than strictly legal justice, for which the Bible uses words like mishpat and din. One example illustrates the point:

“If a man is poor, you may not go to sleep holding his security. Return it to him at sundown, so that he will be able to sleep in his garment and bless you. To you it will be reckoned as tzedakah before the Lord your God” (Deut. 24: 12-13).

Tzedakah cannot mean legal justice in this verse. It speaks of a situation in which a poor person has only a single cloak or covering, which he has handed over to the lender as security against a loan. The lender has a legal right to keep the cloak until the loan has been repaid. However, acting on the basis of this right is simply not the right thing to do. It ignores the human situation of the poor person, who has nothing else with which to keep warm on a cold night. The point becomes even clearer when we examine the parallel passage in Exodus 22, which states:

“If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Ex. 22: 25-26).

The same situation which in Deuteronomy is described as tzedakah, in Exodus is termed compassion or grace (chanun). The late Aryeh Kaplan translated tzedakah in Deut. 24 as “charitable merit.” It is best rendered as “the right and decent thing to do” or “justice tempered by compassion.”

In Judaism, justice – tzedekas opposed to mishpat – must be tempered by compassion. Hence the terrible, tragic irony of Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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