Behar – 5764
The Merchant of Jerusalem and “The
Merchant of Venice"
In the first of this week's Parashiyot,
Behar, we find the following instruction by G-d to the Jewish People
concerning how to deal with poverty in society (Vayikra 25: 35-38):
"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