Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Discusses The Merchant of Venice, Modern-Day Anti-Semitism 

Hundreds gathered on the morning of November 30 to hear Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik in a conversation on Torah, law and literature titled “The Merchant of Venice: A Jewish and British Reflection.” The event was the second one of the year hosted by Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, and marked Sacks’ second visit as a Straus Center guest.

Chief Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Soloveichik discuss The Merchant of Venice at YU’s Straus Center event.

Sacks and Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center, began their discussion focusing on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In the play, Shylock’s obsession with justice is juxtaposed with Portia’s compassion, epitomized by her line: “The quality of mercy is not strained,” and continuing: “Therefore Jew, though justice be thy plea…we [Christians] do pray for mercy.”

“Shakespeare here is expressing the medieval stereotype of Christian mercy against Jewish justice,” said Sacks. “[However,] justice and mercy are not opposites. The false contrast between Judaism and Christianity in The Merchant of Venice is testimony to the cruel misrepresentation of Judaism in Christian theology until recently.”

Sacks pointed out that Portia’s speech alludes to Moses’ words in Parashat Ha’azinu, as well as to the 13 attributes of God’s mercy found in Exodus. Sacks noted another striking parallel: Jesus’ “most Jewish” quote, “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do,” is essentially a paraphrase of Numbers 15:26, which Jews recite numerous times on Yom Kippur. Further, the Jewish Bible stresses loving the stranger, in addition to one’s neighbor. “The whole concept of love and forgiveness comes to Christianity through Judaism,” said Sacks.

However, Judaism mandates that love is not enough; justice is also critical. “One theme of Bereishit [Genesis] is the inadequacy of love for the foundation of society,” said Sacks, noting the Jacob-Esau conflict resulting from Isaac’s and Rebecca’s love for different sons, the pain caused by Jacob’s loving Rachel over Leah and the tragic sale of Joseph following Jacob’s paternal favoritism. “Bereishit has as a general theme that love generates conflict,” said Sacks. “How do you resolve that? Only by creating a society…tempered by justice.”

“The mitzvot are G-d’s expression of love for us,” continued Sacks. “Clearly law here goes hand in hand with love, and it is designed to create fairness in society.”

Sacks also discussed different anti-Semitic expressions, such as anti-Israel interruptions during the Habima Theater’s performance of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe during the International Shakespeare Festival earlier this year. “Anti-Semitism does not die, because it is a virus and it mutates,” said Sacks.

Threats to Jewish observance have included recent attempts to ban circumcision in some European countries. “I don’t hold back [on this issue]…I believe in long-term planning on this,” said Sacks, who has communicated to European leaders that circumcision is non-negotiable for Jews.

Sacks said he believes that the biggest miracle in Jewish history is that Jews as a nation never internalized the negative self-image in response to their persecution. “We defined ourselves in reference to our reflection in the face of Hakadosh Barukh Hu [G-d],” explained Sacks, who said that the assimilationist streak of the 19th century was among the Jewish people’s worst tragedies. “You don’t see any negative self-perception in literature in the Middle Ages. All the conversation is between us and G-d… Just look at Hakadosh Barukh Hu and you will see him smiling back.”

In his opening remarks, Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel emphasized the common mission of much of Sacks’s and YU’s work: “sharing our values with the world.” Sacks will serve as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth for one more year until his term ends.