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.

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

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship