When Mercy Seasons Justice

A Daniel come to judgement! yea, a Daniel!
The Merchant of Venice, IV.i.218

Shylock’s triumphant interjection is an overt, if ironic, reference to Belshazzar’s Feast in Daniel 5. Posing as “Balthazar,” the young doctor of laws, Portia shares the biblical Daniel’s piety and discernment, but Shylock – like the Babylonian king – fails to see the writing on the wall.

Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin (Numbered Numbered Weighed Divided):

At first blush, the so-called “court scene” in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice appears to be an allegorical study in contrasts, pitting the rigors of Old Testament justice against Christian mercy. But, from the moment Shylock assures “Balthazar” that ‘there is no power in the tongue of man to alter me’ (IV.i.237-8), he effectively sets his own trap in this legal game of cat-and-mouse. Portia, the shrewd lady of Belmont – a boy actor playing a woman disguised as a boy – furnishes the fantasy that will literally bring the Jew to his knees, divesting him of his religion and property – that is, of all but his name.

The theater, a performative medium, poses the challenge of negotiating spectacle and truth – appearance and essence. The Bible’s largely elliptical and often enigmatic narrative style does the same; the distinction, however, is between the peshat (plain sense) and derash (homiletic interpretation).

See that I am placing before you today a blessing and a curse.’ (Deut. 11:26)

How fitting that we should usher in the month of Elul with Moses’ exhortation to see, rather than hear. Though lost in the English translation, the singular imperative mood of the verb serves to admonish each and every one present – individually and as a nation. And, coupled as it is with the immediacy of “today,”  the pronouncement that opens this Torah portion, Re’eh, the Vilna Gaon explains, is more than a stark choice between opposites. It is a perpetual, daily choice.

By its very definition, choice is a mode of seeing – of training one’s sights on a desired, if not always advisable, result. On this day – today – when Moses seeks to prepare the Israelites for their transition from the miraculous to the mundane, from nomadic flock to sovereign nation, “see” is a call for discernment – for insight.

From time immemorial, questions of national allegiance and identity have coincided with a growing need for security and self-definition. For the Israelites, at the cusp of nationhood, this entails one’s departure from “whatsoever is right in his own eyes (Deut. 12:8) and an adherence to God’s law. But, in Shakespeare’s court of justice, the burgeoning commercial republic collapses into a microcosm of political, economic, social and racial tensions that bear most heavily on aliens and women. Here, Shylock’s accounting is of debt and ducats, rather than an accounting of the soul. Here, Portia’s penetrating speech on the quality of mercy articulates Elizabethan notions of the role and power of kingship in language befitting a ‘wise and upright judge.’ Yet, her appeal is, in fact, a moral, rather than a legal, argument –

                                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. (IV.i.193-8)

Each cuts to the core of the play’s cultural and philosophical questions of identity and “otherness”. Shylock cannot be prevailed upon to season justice with mercy because, in both a nationalist and religious sense, he is “a Jew without Judaism.” And Portia/Balthazar – the other “other” – must appropriate the masculinist knowledge and discourse to exact her version of Christian justice and ultimately orchestrate his ruin. But, before the new covenant supplants the old, before baptism supplants circumcision, the image of a vengeful sword-wielding God is all the more profound as we watch Shylock earnestly whetting his knife.

At the threshold to the Days of Awe – days of atonement, mercy and forgiveness – the exhortation, re’eh, which ushered in the month of Elul, reverberates from the first day to the last. In his final testament – an impassioned closing argument, directed to the hearts of the Israelites – Moses concludes:

Today, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life…. (Deut. 30-19)

Every choice we make is a life choice – for ourselves and our community. Choosing life is the difference between living purposefully and merely taking up space. So, as we reflect on the year that was and look forward to the year ahead, may we all choose life daily, deliberately …and gratefully.

שנה טובה

Copyright © 2016 Timna M. Hurwich. All rights reserved.

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