Proving that students can, in President’s Joel’s words, “show their faces at 9:30 in the morning on a Friday,” Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik convened in Weissberg Commons before an audience of over 150 as part of the second installment of the Straus Center’s “Great Conversation” series. The “Great Conversations” feature discourses between Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, and other prominent public thinkers. This year, the conversations spotlight the intersection of faith and law.
Entitled “Merchant of Venice: A Jewish and British Reflection,” Rabbi Sacks’s visit centered on the trial at the heart of Shakespeare’s famous tragic comedy. In the play, the Jewish money-lender, Shylock, demands a “pound of flesh” from Antonio, the “Merchant of Venice,” when Antonio fails to repay Shylock’s loan. In her defense of Antonio in court, the heiress Portia pits “Jewish Justice” against “Christian Mercy” with her famous words: “Therefore Jew, though justice be thy plea…we do pray for mercy.” For Rabbi Sacks, Portia’s argument does not merely present a false dichotomy—Judaism unites justice and mercy in the concept of Tzedek—but also marks “the cruel misrepresentation of Judaism in Christian theology until recent times.” Shakespeare was himself not anti-Semitic, Rabbi Sacks argued, but his play is an anti-Semitic work—a powerful proof that stereotypes impaired even the “greats.”
In light of Portia’s prayer for mercy, Rabbi Soloveichik then asked if love, which, in the Christian worldview is placed on “a pedestal,” represents as supreme a value in Jewish thought. Rabbi Sacks maintained that the conflicts recounted in Sefer Bereishis (Book of Genesis) underscore the “inadequacy of love as a foundation for a society.” In the absence of justice, Rabbi Sacks contended, “love corrupts.” Judaism’s synthesis of love and law, by contrast, is highlighted by the Mitzvot, which are, in Rabbi Sacks’s words, “the expression of G-d’s love to us.”
The “Great Conversation” then turned to the performance of The Merchant of Venice this summer at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre by Habimah, the national theatre of Israel. The play, which was performed in Hebrew, sparked vehement, pro-Palestinian protest and was roundly denounced by notable members of Britain’s theatre community. That the story of Shylock is yet a lightning-rod for anti-Semitism is a painful reminder, as Rabbi Sacks put it, that “anti-Semitism does not die because it is a virus and it mutates.” Rabbi Sacks, who attended the play, called “the persistence of anti-Semitism within living memory of the Holocaust…one of the most shocking things of my lifetime.”
In the face of this centuries-old anti-Semitism, asked Rabbi Soloveichik, “how did we not become like Shylock?” How did we not internalize the hate with which we were treated? “Chabibi (My friend),” Rabbi Sacks replied, “let me explain something to you. This is one of most remarkable phenomena of history… the biggest miracle in my mind from Churban Bayit Sheni (destruction of the second Temple) to Tkemut Hamedinah (establishment of the State of Israel) is the fact that we never internalized that self-image…because we defined ourselves by reference to our reflection in the face of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.” This awareness that “we are the people loved by G-d” proved impervious to “the insults and injuries of the Gentiles.” Rabbi Sacks stressed that “we must never lose” this sense of identity before G-d, for the knowledge that G-d is “smiling back at us” is “the source of our inner peace.” Stern Student Tova Kay (’15) relayed after the event that Rabbi Sacks’s words “rang true” and that his “powerful insights about the history of the Jews and about our role as a people really struck me.”
Judaism, Rabbi Sacks declared as part of his concluding message, “is the principal defeat of tragedy in the name of hope.” Rabbi Sacks’s inimitably eloquent celebration of Judaism on the world stage is itself a wellspring of hope not just for the students who ventured to Weissberg in the face of Friday-morning-fatigue but for Jews the world over privileged to call him one of their own.