What “The Merchant of Venice” Gets Wrong about Divine Mercy

Some readers of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice have noted the parallel between the heroine Portia’s speech to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and the opening of Moses’ valedictory song in Deuteronomy, which is read in synagogues tomorrow. Thus Portia opens with “The quality of mercy is not strained./ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” and Moses with “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;/ Let the earth hear the words I utter!/ May my discourse come down as the rain,/ My speech distill as the dew.” But despite this biblical resonance, Kate Rozansky argues, Portia’s claims here diverge greatly from the biblical notion of mercy—at least the way Jews have understood it:

She says the “quality” of mercy is not “strained”—that is, constrained. Portia argues that your mercy should flow freely from you, like rain from the sky. If someone were forcing you to be merciful, it would sully the purity of your mercy. If I give you $100 because I owe you, I’m just doing what I have to do. If I give you 100 dollars for no reason, I’m extraordinary. Godlike, even.

When Jews entreat God’s mercy, in our sliḥot [penitential prayers], and in our prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we reminded God over and over and over again that God MUST be merciful to us. We remind God of the promises God has made to us over the generations. Remember the covenant. Remember that we are your people. Remember the merit of our ancestors.

God’s mercy does not flow from His infinite power or His infinite freedom, but from God’s relationship with us. God’s choice whether or not to grant mercy is constrained by His own promises. The God of the Torah is an obligated God, and the Jews owe our continued existence as a people—and perhaps the existence of the whole world, to this fact.

Portia was wrong. For Jews, the quality of mercy is constrained. Our acts of mercy are not acts of superfluity that make us extraordinary. They are obligations that force us to be our truest selves.

Read more at Google Docs

More about: Deuteronomy, Judaism, Repentance, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare

Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship