Hath Not a Jew Tensions?

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published July 14, 2010, issue of July 23, 2010.
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And here, yet again, a new production of “The Merchant of Venice,” this time at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park. And, to decidedly mixed reviews, starring Al Pacino. (The Times loved him; The New Yorker not.)

“The Merchant” is, of course, an exceedingly difficult play to pull off in our time. No matter how sympathetically the principal star seeks to depict the merchant himself, Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic penumbra lingers.

Yet I have always had a soft spot for Shylock, for the serious dilemmas he reflects and represents. Here, for example, is perhaps Shylock’s best-known soliloquy: “Hath not a Jew hands? Hath not a Jew organs, senses, dimensions, passions? Fed with the same food, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a Christian is? When you tickle us, do we not laugh? When you prick us, do we not bleed? When you poison us, do we not die?” In brief, in all the ways that matter, we are the same as you. Has there ever been a more eloquent statement of our essential humanity, of universalism?

But this same Shylock, much earlier in the “Merchant” drama, replies to Bassanio’s invitation to dine by saying, “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” So: There are limits, there are boundaries — and the boundaries are perilous. The hazards of separatism: Can you, in fact, refuse to eat, drink and pray with another and still expect that other to want to walk, talk, buy and sell with you? And the hazards of assimilation: Can you walk, talk, buy and sell with people and not eventually come to eat, drink and pray with them?

For centuries in the course of our dispersion, the issue of boundaries did not arise — or, more precisely, the boundaries that separated us from others were fixed by those others. Balancing the claims of universalism and particularism was very far from the ongoing concerns of the Jews and even farther from their sway. We were not invited to demonstrate our universal values, nor even permitted to. Defending our particular interests was the most we could attempt, and even at that we too often failed.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Who knows whether, during the many centuries of our dispersion, Hillel’s maxim was known to virtually every Jew, as it surely is today, ad tedium. But for all its familiarity, it is a tough-minded instruction. We speak the sentences in the only way we can, sequentially. But they are surely meant to be heard simultaneously, a stereophonic call to the intersection of the particular and the universal. Nor will it do to be caught between the two, unable to move, for there is, of course, the third line: “And if not now, when?”

Hillel’s is the song that plays in our heads but that we often find hard to sing. For in the real world, there are tides. Suddenly, a bomb, and the tide shifts; suddenly, a windfall, and the tide shifts again. There are times that events crowd out consideration of the Other; there are times when then the plight of the Other is so awful that our hearts have room for little else.

But most days, most times, a balancing is possible. The blunt fact, too often neglected, is that Judaism does not ask that we resolve the tension between universalism and particularism; it suggests that we learn to live with that tension, suggests even that the tension is a source of wisdom and perhaps even of decency.

More than anywhere else in the Jewish experience, America has been hospitable to the tension. For here more than anywhere Jewish interests and Jewish values have, for the most part, been consonant. A people particular in structure while universal in ideology has been able to retain its particularity and pursue its ideology. Indeed, there are those who contend (I count myself among them) that for us, at our best (we are not, it should be obvious, always at our best), the particular is the training ground for the universal. Kindness to the stranger? Of course: Were we not strangers in the Land of Egypt?

That is less a lesson we learn from Shylock than from life. Shylock, as at the Delacorte directed by Daniel Sullivan, has something different — and disturbing — to say. As Ben Brantley observes in his Times review, “[I]t suddenly hits you that Shakespeare’s vengeance-addled Jew is neither merely the victim nor the villain of this piece; he is instead the very soul of the money-drunk society he serves and despises…. Yes, it would seem Sullivan has given us a ‘Merchant’ for the age of Wall Street bubble boomers.”

So Shylock illuminates something not only about ourselves, but, as Brantley argues, something about our larger world. Which, for those who take Hillel seriously, might be thought a call to action.

Note: I am informed by the estimable David Teutsch, past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and editor-in-chief of “Kol Haneshamah,” the Siddur of the Reconstructionist movement, that I was mistaken in my June 11 column when I cited what I’d been led to believe was the Reconstructionist version of the Kiddush. In fact, in place of the traditional “you chose us from all the nations,” the Reconstructionist Siddur says, “ki eleynu karata ve’otanu kidashta la’avodatecha” — “For you have called to us and set us apart to serve you.”

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