Parshat Behar, 5759
The Merchant of Jerusalem and
"If your brother becomes impoverished and he begins to falter, close to you, you shall strengthen him, the convert or the righteous gentile, so that he can live with you. Do not take from him interest or additional payment - in fear of G-d! - so that your brother might live with you. Do not lend your money to him at interest, and do not lend him food on condition of additional payment. I am the L-rd your G-d Who took you out of the Land of Egypt, to give to you the Land of Canaan - to be your G-d."
We see here that the Jew is not allowed to lend to fellow Jews or "righteous gentiles" money or food, or anything else, for that matter, at interest. One traditional explanation for why lending at interest is forbidden is that it results in a loss of reliance upon G-d on the part of the lender because, by virtue of his interest payment, he is assured of a steady income, and need not pray to G-d for favorable wind and rain, sun and dew, and all other "external" factors influencing one's livelihood. However, in Devarim 23:21, the Torah tells us "You may lend to the non-Jew at interest! "
The "Pound of Flesh"
In Shakespeare's play, "The Merchant of Venice," the plot revolves around a Jewish money-lender named Shylock. In this work, Shakespeare betrays his ambivalent feelings about Jews. On one hand, he puts in Shylock's mouth numerous arguments designed to show that the Jew is also (sic) a feeling human being, "Doth not a Jew bleed?, etc" But in the end, his role in the play is essentially that of a villain, concerned only with extracting his "pound of flesh" as interest.
What is the basis for the historic misunderstanding that lies behind this age-old canard thrown at the Jew?
First of all, it should be noted that the Jews were not allowed to own or work the land, or engage in many crafts, but were forced into a limited number of undesirable professions, most notably money-lending and tax-collecting, by decree of the Catholic Church and its Popes for hundreds of years in Christian Europe! The purpose of this was to degrade the Jews and to tarnish their image in the eyes of the ignorant peasants, by making the Jews act as their oppressors.
However, the fact remains that while the Torah does prohibit one from charging interest when one lends to Jews, it permits lending at interest to non-Jews! One might and, indeed, should ask, "if the taking of interest is wrong, why does the Torah permit it in dealing with the outside world?"
It seems that a reasonable response is the following: Lending at interest is, even if not totally desirable, because of its effect on the lender's spiritual makeup, still a legitimate business practice associated with the profession of money-lending. However, the Torah does give the direct reason for the prohibition as "that your brother might live with you." if one lends to his brother, would he, or should he, even consider charging him interest? Of course not! And that is what the Torah wants to emphasize, that all Jews and righteous gentiles are to be considered "brothers!"
So that, if a Jew is forced into the money-lending business, then, if his customer is a non-Jew, a Creature fashioned in the Divine Image, indeed, but not his brother, he is permitted by the Torah to lend the money under such conditions which would allow him a non-exorbitant profit.
And in general, the Jew is never permitted to cheat, lie to, mislead or misrepresent business or product information, to a non-Jewish individual or government, minimally to prevent Desecration of G-d's Name, but more correctly, to enhance and contribute to the Sanctification of G-d's Name in the World. And this is probably equivalent to what is known in Jewish Law as "Darkei Shalom," "Ways of Peace," or "Ways of G-d," because "Shalom," in addition to meaning "Peace," is also one of the Names of G-d.
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU