Shylock and Beyonce's Lemonade: Mercy, Feminism, and Jewish Law
“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
So says Portia, dressed in disguise as a male lawyer in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” when arguing against the infamous Shylock the Jew in court. Portia elegantly argues for mercy to be valued above justice, while Shylock argues for justice.
Portia would be proud of Beyonce and her visual album Lemonade, released earlier this week. Beyonce’s newest work takes audiences through a narrative of infidelity, from the discovery of an affair in a relationship, through feelings of betrayal and anger, and eventually to forgiveness and reconciliation. By the end of the album, the main character (who may or may not be Beyonce herself; we’re not sure how autobiographical the album is) chooses to forgive the lover who cheated on her. The marriage remains intact, and everyone lives happily ever after.
I say, feh.
While mercy and forgiveness are incredibly important values in life and in love, I question whether these values get foisted upon women more than other people.
A part of me longs for the alternate ending to Beyonce’s album, one where the main character gets to have more gevurah than chesed. After the betrayal is revealed, maybe the relationship can’t be fixed. Maybe it doesn’t need to be. Our heroine could find solace in her friends and family and community, and she could be alone at the end of the album. Where are our strong femme role models who show us that we don’t need to be in monogamous romantic relationships to be happy?
We don’t necessarily find our strong femme role models in Jewish marital law and Talmud tractates.
Our traditions on infidelity guide us towards different precedents of marital “justice” based upon when and where our communities were writing down rules.
In the Torah, if a wife is suspected of cheating on a husband, the community makes her drink a weird potion. If she doesn’t get horrifyingly sick, it means she’s innocent, and the marriage can continue on as though nothing happened. (I don’t think I’d appreciate a marriage after such an ordeal, but that’s just me.) As for men and other women? Men could have multiple wives.
The Talmud has discussions of when a man can divorce his wife. Some people say he can divorce her if she’s unfaithful, others say he can divorce her if she burns dinner. There’s no process for a woman to give a husband a get.
Where are the guidelines on forgiveness for men? When are women encouraged to seek justice?
I want to build a Judaism that encourages both justice and forgiveness in people of all genders, a Judaism that recognizes that human beings and relationships are complicated and seeks to give guidance and solace to those who need it. I want a Judaism that provides a thick, loving community to support all kinds of individuals and relationships; I want a Judaism that celebrates people who choose to be single, people who choose to be in monogamous relationships, and people who choose to be in honest and respectful polyamorous relationships. In my Judaism there is room for discussion, and there is enough love for everyone.