Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Shylock, Lex Talionis, and Parshat Emor

In Uncategorized on May 11, 2011 at 8:39 am

During the time William Shakespeare lived, it was hard to find a Jew in England. In fact, Jews had not been allowed to live there for several hundred years. Nevertheless, the archetype of the nefarious infidel Jew was alive and well in Christopher Marlowe’s, The Jew of Malta, and more notably in Shakespeare’s own Merchant of Venice. Mostly for worse, and not for better, Shylock does not only represent himself, but symbolizes the qualities that required a virtuous English monarchy to expel the Jews from her shores hundreds of years before Shakespeare lived; presumably, because their very presence corrupted the moral fabric of Christian England.

The idea of the Jew, lived in English imaginations long after Jews were no longer there, and was personified in Shakespeare’s Shylock. Just as most Americans know very little about Islam, my assumption is that the English rabble knew even less about Jewish tradition.  Some, however, may have known pieces of the Hebrew Bible. For instance, the principle of lex talionis, the law of retribution that is articulated as a general principle in this week’s parsha may have been known to many.

“…fracture in exchange for fracture, eye in exchange for eye, tooth in exchange for tooth.” (Leviticus 24:20)

I have translated the Hebrew word Tachat as “in exchange for” instead of merely “for”, because tachat is primarily used in a financial context. The rabbis when strongly reading this word, understood that this meant there would have to be some payment for the wound, and not that there would be a similar maiming of the perpetrator. The money reflects atonement more than financial compensation and the graphic language reflects the fact that the offender should see his payment as if he is giving his proverbial eye. This ruling dates back to at least the time of the Mishnah (200 CE) and most probably earlier.  The fascinating Talmudic discussion on this Mishnah uses quotes from the Mishnaic period as well.

It is often asserted that when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, he was critiquing what he perceived as the Jewish practice of his time:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38–39NRSV)

Given the fact that the Gospel of Matthew was written around the time of the Tanaim (first or second century), and that the Mishnah itself reflects discussion of earlier generations, at the very least, this understanding  displays ignorance of how the verse was interpreted by the Pharisee establishment. The tradition as recorded, never allowed for “an eye for an eye” to be taken literally. When one sees what is written in Baba Kama 83b, one is struck by how each tanna offers a unique way of learning that “an eye for an eye” refers to payment. It is clear that what is in dispute is how one derives this understanding but not the understanding itself. This indicates that the Mishnah reflects an undisputed practice that had been in effect for many generations prior to the codification of the Mishnah.

The Book of Matthew’s unvarnished rendering of the verse embedded in Christian consciousness that the Jew was obsessed by law and retribution, while Christianity was all about love and charity. It could also be that the Sermon on the Mount required a mastery of the pithy aphorism, and that accuracy was sacrificed for a more robust rhetorical punch. If Jesus would have said,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye which requires financial compensation and not actual maiming. But I say to you…”—he may have lost his audience right then and there.

Maimonides asserts that payment was the original and only intent of the verses, and even in the court of Moses himself an eye was never taken in exchange for an eye. He calls it a halacha leMoshe M’Sinai , an oral tradition that was given at the time the Torah was received by Moses at Sinai.  The maiming of individuals by a Jewish court was inconceivable to him because he saw the exegetical exercises of the Sages as unsatisfactory, and so therefore assumed that this tradition was not based on any Talmudic interpretation, but was the original intent of the verse. The Sages later merely justified this tradition by creatively parsing the verses with midrashic pyrotechnics.

Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, the original editor of the “Encyclopedia Talmudit” wrote an article about whether Shylock’s claim of a pound of flesh would hold up in a Jewish court.  He felt it was important to see whether Shylock was acting according to Jewish values or whether he was influenced by the English courts of his time. Would such a claim have any validity in Jewish tradition?

R. Zevin argues that a Jewish court would have thrown out the case because Antonio was only the steward of the collateral offered, and not the owner. The pound of flesh did not belong to him, but to the Almighty. God, Him/Herself, would have had to have been the guarantor. Just as a person cannot commit suicide because the One who gives life is the One who may take it away, so, too, one cannot offer a pound of “his own” flesh in payment. He never had the right to offer something that was never his.  To allow this possibility was maybe a Venitian, but more likely a Shakespearian mishugas, and not a Jewish one. In a Beit Din Shylock would have not have been allowed to make this condition.

He ends the article by quoting a famous liturgical poem that is in every selichot service most famously prayed during the ten days of penitence: The soul is Yours (God’s) , and the body is Yours (God’s), have mercy on Your labor.

In 1994, I was invited to the Palace of Saint James for a launch of an international translation series sponsored by Edgar Bronfman, and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, among others.  My translation of Gates of Light, a thirteenth century Kabbalistic lexicon, was one of six books from which people of various faiths were going to read. The Archbishop who was going to read from my work shared with me the selection he had chosen.  Although the book had scores of pages that gave serious reflections on prayer, tzedaka, wisdom, compassion, and love, he chose two pages where the word justice appeared at least twenty times.  In the most collegial, and amicable fashion, I felt that he was demonstrating what he most admired about the Jewish tradition, but also what he felt was a serious omission that only Christianity could provide.  Namely Jews are obsessed with getting theirs, but selfless love was something of which only a practitioner of Christianity is capable.

The argument of an “eye for an eye” versus “turn the other cheek”, unfairly framed as it was, is still alive and kicking (us).

This was a piece commissioned by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships Alumni Network


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