But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea…
Shakespeare is here expressing the medieval stereotype of Christian mercy (Portia) as against Jewish justice (Shylock). He entirely fails to realize that “justice” and “mercy” are not opposites in Hebrew but are bonded together in a single word, tzedek or tzedakah. To add to the irony, the very language and imagery of Portia’s speech (“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”) is taken from Deuteronomy:
“May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like gentle rain upon the tender grass, and like showers upon the herb…. The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32: 2-4).
The false contrast between Jew and Christian in The Merchant of Venice is eloquent testimony to the cruel misrepresentation of Judaism in Christian theology until recent times.
Why then is justice so central to Judaism? Because it is impartial. Law as envisaged by the Torah makes no distinction between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, home born or stranger. Equality before the law is the translation into human terms of equality before God. Time and again the Torah insists that justice is not a human artifact: “Fear no one, for judgment belongs to God.” Because it belongs to God, it must never be compromised – by fear, bribery, or favoritism. It is an inescapable duty, an inalienable right.
Judaism is a religion of love: You shall love the Lord your God; you shall love your neighbor as yourself; you shall love the stranger. But it is also a religion of justice, for without justice, love corrupts (who would not bend the rules, if he could, to favor those he loves?). It is also a religion of compassion, for without compassion law itself can generate inequity. Justice plus compassion equals tzedek, the first precondition of a decent society.
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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