Tradition Today: The quality of mercy

The assertion that Judaism and its God represents harshness and vengeance – while Christianity represents mercy and love – has become part of the heritage of Western civilization.

David Brooks and PBS staff at rehearsal for PBS Newshour in 2012 (photo credit: PBS NEWSHOUR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
David Brooks and PBS staff at rehearsal for PBS Newshour in 2012
David Brooks is a respected New York Times columnist. He is also a synagogue-affiliated Jew, proud of his Jewishness.
Nevertheless, in a recent column, berating Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz for lacking “what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace,” Brooks contrasted this with “the dictionary definition of pharisaism: an overzealous application of the letter of the law in a way that violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy.”
Unwittingly, Brooks thus perpetuates the ancient canard against Judaism that says it is, in contrast to Christianity, a religion that teaches stringent law rather than fairness, and strictness rather than mercy.
Who were these Pharisees he maligns? They were the dominant religious leadership of Judaism during the period of the Second Temple. Hillel was a Pharisee, so was Yohanan ben Zakai. Is that an accurate description of these great teachers of Judaism? Although the Pharisees disappeared as an organized group after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the sages who then led Judaism and created what we call “rabbinic Judaism” followed the teachings and methods of Pharisaism.
The negative image of the Pharisees originated in the writings of early Christianity as part of its struggle with Judaism, asserting that the teachings of Jesus were superior to anything that Judaism had previously taught. Therefore, they portrayed the Pharisees in a negative way, as strict legalists lacking compassion.
The assertion that Judaism and its God represents harshness and vengeance – while Christianity represents mercy and love – has become part of the heritage of Western civilization to the extent that even Brooks has assimilated it – and he is certainly not the only one.
Even using the terms “Old Testament” as opposed to “New Testament” perpetuates the anti-Jewish attitude inherent in Christianity since it is an assertion that our Bible is an old, antiquated and superseded covenant has been replaced with a new one. Jews should use the terms “Hebrew Bible” or “Jewish Scriptures” instead.
One can and should respect other religions without belittling Judaism.
I am reminded of the time many years ago when I was a rabbi in a synagogue in the United States and the general community was observing a day to promote the United Way – the city’s general charity organization.
All the churches and synagogues were given brochures to distribute. The ones for churches featured the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The ones for synagogues had “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
When I inquired why the difference, I was told that they were afraid that synagogues would not want a verse from the New Testament. They were shocked to hear that “Love your neighbor” was found in Leviticus and that when it appeared in the Christian Bible, it was merely a quotation from the Torah.
Shakespeare’s depiction of the Jew Shylock as the cruel person who demands strict justice is an unfortunate instance of a continuation of this negative image. How ironic it is that the great speech in the play lauding mercy – “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.... It is an attribute of God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice” – is given to Portia, the Christian, speaking against the Jew, when really the quality of mercy is the very essence of Judaism.
Have there been, and are there, Jewish teachers who preferred strict law to love and mercy? Unfortunately, every religion has its share of these who prefer unwavering strictness and unnecessary prohibitions to tolerance and understanding. Judaism is no exception, but this is not the way advocated by our tradition, and it certainly does not define Judaism, as our detractors would like to argue.
Unfortunately, we see all too many examples in Israel, especially within the official state-sponsored rabbinical establishment. There are those who have tried to cancel conversions, for example, or those who make it difficult or impossible to prove one’s Jewishness, to say nothing of the way in which divorce has been mishandled, resulting in all too many agunot, or “chained women.”
All of these are caused by rabbis who, having been given too much power, take advantage of it and apply stringencies that Jewish law does not require. They, however, are not true representatives of Judaism.
They are ignoring the basic teachings of the Torah and of the rabbis who, time and time again, emphasize the importance of love and mercy.
The Torah itself teaches not only love of neighbor, but love of the stranger. It depicts God as passionately advocating the rights of the poor, the widow and the orphan. It speaks of God as “merciful and compassionate,” as well as forgiving of sin.
The early prophet Micah taught: “What does the Lord require of you – only to do justice, love mercy and walk modestly with your God” (6:8). Hillel, who lived before Christianity, taught that the essence of Judaism was “do not do to others what you would not want to have done to you,” which was his interpretation of “Love your neighbor.” He also taught that one should “love all humankind.” Akiva, a few generations later, followed in his way, teaching that “love your neighbor” was the fundamental principle on which the entire Torah was based, that “humans are beloved” and are all created in the Divine image.
The Talmud teaches:“We should follow the attributes of God. As God clothed the naked, so should you clothe the naked. As God visited the sick, you should visit the sick. As God comforted the mourners, you should comfort the mourners.”
Rabbi Simlai taught: “The Torah begins with an act of loving-kindness and ends with an act of loving- kindness. It begins with God making garments for Adam and Eve, and ends with God burying Moses” (Sota 14a). Loving-kindness, acts of mercy and compassion are the very essence of Jewish conduct.
Pope Francis has just written a book titled The Name of God is Mercy, and has proclaimed this as “a Holy Year of Mercy.” In his book, he chastises “scholars of the law who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries.” He does not identify these scholars as Jews or Pharisees; he is talking about scholars in his own Church.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a longtime Jerusalem Post columnist, is a prominent lecturer and author who twice received the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society).