Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Re-ligion" in the Month of Elul

Yesterday was the first day of Elul, so the countdown to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, begins. Because I work with adolescents, I always wonder about their mindset at this time. When I was a teenager, I think I dreaded the High Holy Days as much as many of my peers, at the same time appreciating on some level the opportunity to contemplate where I was spiritually and psychologically and planning ways I hoped to improve. As an adult, I've come to appreciate more and more the power of the chagim, and, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentions, Judaism's belief that a person can change and evolve in a positive way.

This year my contemplations on the High Holidays are coalescing with a unit I hope to complete with my tenth grade students as we learn Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The play's climactic scene is, of course, Act IV, when Shylock tries to obtain literally the pound of flesh owed him by the Christian Antonio, who is also the Jew's long-standing nemesis.

Shylock takes great pleasure in Antonio's being bound to him and relishes the prospect of having his pound of flesh:

The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; 'tis mine and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it? (IV.1)

This act in the play is famous for Shylock's insistence on the law, which is made out to be by the Christians, and is, a cruel and twisted application of it. The Christians attempt to convince the Jew to employ Christian mercy, with Portia's famous "The quality of mercy is not strained" speech being the apex of that appeal. Shylock is unmoved; so bound is he to the terms of the contract he made with Antonio, he even refuses to have a doctor called to tend to Antonio once his flesh is cut, because doing so wasn't a stipulation in the bond. Shylock's adherence to law is violently extreme.

And in this Shakespeare was playing out a caricature of the Jew that had precedent and that was to be played out over and over again in realms both fictional and actual. Here's a good summary of the issue from the blog First Things:

At each point where the question of the Law arises in the Gospels, early Christian writers subordinate the Law to something else, whether “gentleness and mercy,” “healing,” “deliverance,” or “love.” Christianity rejects the Jewish law as a way of ordering Christian life. As Gregory the Great put it centuries later, the gospel teaches us sine lege legaliter vivere—“to live according to the Law without the Law.”

One reason Christians appear anti-Jewish is that they have a quarrel with the Jews about the Law. Christians thought it was possible to have compassion or love and justice without the Law. It is not that Jews had no place for compassion or justice or love, or that Christians did not develop a system of law to regulate Christian life and behavior, but that each by starting at a different point subordinated the one to the other. Once Christians dispensed with the authority of the Law, it was inevitable that Jews, who continued to live by the Law, would be the object of criticism. By insisting on obedience to the “letter” of the Law, Jews, so Christians claimed, did not discern the deeper meaning of the Law.

It's clear that this is the contrast being made between Judaism and Christianity in Act IV of The Merchant of Venice (whether Shakespeare is being stereotypically anti-semitic in the play is the topic of another conversation), and it's also clear that this perspective of how Jews view and enact Law is deeply unsettling to us. It hasn't helped that even post-Enlightenment, when the world became much less religio-centered, Bible critics such as Julius Wellhausen entered the fray, with Wellhausen calling law "a symptom of spiritual desiccation" (Levenson 2). 

For Jews, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Levenson, in his book Sinai and Zion, which focuses on the importance of the two eponymous mountains on shaping Jewish identity, mentions how the Ten Commandments adopt the formula of a suzerain-vassal treaty, which include:

1. Preamble (Identification of the Covenant Giver)
2. An Historical Prologue
3. Stipulations
4. Provision for Deposit and Public Reading
5. A Listing of Treaty Witnesses
6. Blessings and Curses
7. A Ratification Ceremony

8. Imposition of the Curses

Shmot and Devarim use the language of these suzerain-vassal treaties, which were popular in the ancient Near East, with the Ten Commandments being a prime example of the Torah's employing this type of contractual terminology. At the beginning of the Ten Commandments, the treaty "Preamble" and "Historical Prologue," God identifies Himself as the maker of the Covenant, who took B'nei Yisrael out of Egypt. 

Why is this Historical Prologue important? Levenson writes:

History is the arena in which Israel has met and come to know the [God] who now becomes her suzerain. The past is a preparation for the present moment of destiny; the present is the consummation of the past, the assurance that it can continue. History is not simply one's personal past. It has a collective dimension. It is the past of the whole people Israel which grounds the obligation of the individual Israelite of any generation . . . . History is not only rendered contemporary; it is internalized. One's people's history becomes one's personal history. (38-39)

Levenson considers this crucial to an understanding of Judaism:

Meaning for [Jews] is derived not from introspection, but from a consideration of the public testimony to God. . . . One looks out from the self to find out who one is meant to be. One does not discover one's identity, and one certainly does not forge it oneself. He appropriates an identity that is a matter of public knowledge. Israel affirms the given.

The given that is affirmed in the covenant ceremony is not a principle; it is not an idea or an aphorism or an ideal. Instead . . . Israel accepts her place in the suzerain-vassal relationship. (38-39)

Once Israel understood the momentous import of the way God had worked in history for the nation, then she could accept the Stipulations of the covenant God was establishing with her, and these Stipulations are not only the Ten Commandments, but all the mitzvoth, or, in other words, laws. The parshiyot of the past few weeks are reminders of how central law is to our relationship with God. Here is Devarim 4:1:

א  וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁמַע אֶל-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם, לַעֲשׂוֹת--לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ, וּבָאתֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם, נֹתֵן לָכֶם.1 And now, O Israel, hearken unto the statutes and unto the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, giveth you.

And Devarim 5:1, which is then followed by the Ten Commandments:

א  וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם; וּלְמַדְתֶּם אֹתָם, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם לַעֲשֹׂתָם.1 And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and observe to do them.

The Israelites' acceptance of the Covenant, of the Ten Commandments and of the laws and commandments of the Torah, before they entered a land, has important implications:

Israel was a sacral state before she was a political state, she had her law . . . before she raised up a king, and what is perhaps unparalleled in human history, she survived the destruction of her state and even dispersion into the four corners of the world without the loss of that essential identity conferred at Sinai. She was "a kingdom of priests and a holy people" both before and after she was a kingdom of a more mundane kind." (75)

These observations are important for students for many reasons: one is the way they explain the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity that one needs to grasp in order to understand the debate about the two religions being enacted in Merchant. Students in a Jewish day school will, of course, realize that the Judaism they practice is much different from the one being presented in the play, but laying out why in this clear fashion might make them appreciate the religion they normally take for granted.

Another opportunity for discussion that Levenson provides is his observation that Judaism isn't about finding a unique place in the world or in discovering one's identity, an idea that is at odds with contemporary, secular society's emphasis on the self and the gratification of one's desires. The uniqueness of the individual has become more and more important since the Enlightenment and the Romantic era, when suddenly the Western world unmoored itself from tradition and reshaped it so that every person could have "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (whatever that last phrase means). 

The freedoms the Western world has enjoyed and benefitted from are not to be taken for granted, but they make it hard for the average Jewish teenager to understand perhaps the import of what she has been asked to undertake by her people. Law may look stern and dry compared to the seemingly more lush offerings of the secular world. It also becomes harder to instill a respect for religious authority in a hacker generation, one which is constantly throwing out the rule book in various arenas and re-making hierarchies and social structures.

However, God doesn't only relate to us as King/Suzerain and Lawmaker; at the core of the Covenant treaty is also the language of love. God wants us to love Him and obey His commands. What's fascinating about the Torah is this conception of law: "It is not a question of law or love, but law conceived in love, love expressed in law" (77). Now again, this is a radical departure from Christianity, with its presentation of Christ as the one who sacrifices for mankind out of love and who obviates the need for law as a result of this loving offer.

For Jews, "[r]edemption is not 'liberation' from law."  Rather, it "involves the "gracious offer to Israel to reenter the legal/[love] relationship and the renewed willingness of Israel to do so." (79)

So important is this Jewish conception of law that we are reminded of it every day as Jewish men don tefillin: They recite a blessing in which they use the language of love, engaging themselves to God eternally in a legal and love relationship. As they wrap the tefillin around their fingers, like an engagement ring, they recite from Hosea 2:21-22:

כא  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.21 And I will betroth thee unto Me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion.
כב  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-יְהוָה.  {פ}22 And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness; and thou shalt know the LORD.

Then comes the blessing in which God is praised for sanctifying the Jewish people with His commandments, and then the Shema is recited, which is an affirmation of the things central to Judaism: the importance of loving God and of performing His commandments. 

In this way Jews are reminded on a daily basis of the etymology of the word, religion, which comes from the Latin verb ligare, "to bind" or "to tie." "'Re-ligion,' 'to tie again or 'to tie back,' is to restore the bond, to tie oneself to the root that nourishes. In Judaism, the bond or band that ties man to God is a covenant. The Jew wakes each day to an old love affair beckoning to be renewed." (79-80)

It's interesting to compare these ideas with the motifs found in The Merchant of Venice. The bond motif, which is probably the most famous one in the play, was our starting point for this discussion on Judaism and Christianity, which clearly view Law in such different manners. But another motif is the ring, that symbol of faithfulness in love (and lack thereof!) that different characters show to each other. The seeming lack of commitment to the serious ties that should connect one to family and spouse is central to the play's humor, suggesting that Shakespeare is taking to task the careless Venetian society that appears glamorous but is vacuous. In fact, the play ends with a double entendre, a dirty joke about a ring that Elizabethans would have recognized. The joke is said by a character who is described early on in the drama as one who speaks "an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice" (I.1).

Yet a third motif in the play is the casket, which binds Portia, the heroine, to the terms of her dead father's will. He has stipulated that the only way she can marry is if a suitor guesses in which casket -- a gold, silver, or lead one -- her portrait appears. "So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father," Portia laments in Act I, showing how chained she feels by her father's decree, which as a woman, she cannot transgress. She spends the next part of the scene joking with her lady-in-waiting about how she will circumvent her father's "law" if she doesn't like who is playing his guessing game, and in Act IV she succeeds in outdoing Shylock in his insistence on the law, so that Antonio, her fellow Christian, triumphs, and not the Jew. Therefore, Portia breaks free from the confines in which she finds herself at the start of the play, skillfully using (manipulating?) law to her advantage.

Shakespeare's comedies all deal with often serious matters in a light and lively way, and The Merchant of Venice is no exception. It asks us to consider what is fair in love and law, all the while presenting to us and making fun of various characters who break the law and love commitments. 

Now is not a time of year when Judaism is engaged in that same light-heartedness (though in fact Merchant is considered a Problem Play, since even early playgoers found Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock too tragic for a comedy); we'll have to wait for Purim to really unpack the comic motifs in Megillat Esther and see how they compare with the Bard's. Instead, considering Merchant has made me think seriously about my "re-ligion," how I want to restore, renew, and celebrate the bonds of law and love I have with my God and my people and how the Days of Awe provide the perfect opportunity to do so: the Rabbis early on saw the connection between this time of year as a time to renew the loving relationship we have with God by saying Elul was an acronym for "ani l'dodi v'dodi li," "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me."

My work over the summer has given me not only a new appreciation for my religion, but it's helping me to enter the coming school year committed to sharing my excitement about Judaism with my students, so that they see our religion's laws not as a burden but as a privilege, as a holy, loving gift given by a most awesome and precious Giver. 

Work Cited:

Levenson, Jon D. Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.


  1. Nice post. Another illustration that contrasts the Christian dichotomy of Love vs. Law with the Jewish view of expressing Love through Law is the Hebrew word for Love, אהבה which comes from the root הב which means to give. Fundamentally, the Jewish concept of loving someone is to give to someone. One shows one's love for one's spouse by doing things for him/her. This is the essence of a healthy relationship. One gives for the sake of giving without expecting anything in return. Likewise, the way we express our Love to God is by "giving" to him which would be by following his commandments. We follow the Law because we Love God. There is no dichotomy between Law and Love in Judaism. One naturally leads to the other.

  2. Thanks for your response, Tzvi. It makes me think of RealSchool's latest blog post about intrinsic motivation and that today's students WANT to give and contribute, that people in general want to feel like what they had has value and meaning on a larger scale. I think building that sense of giving into the curriculum is important.