Imagine being charged an exorbitant amount of interest on a loan. This situation is commonly called usury, or the illegal practice of lending money at unreasonably high-interest rates. Usury is seen throughout history in many civilizations. William Shakespeare writes about usury in his play The Merchant of Venice through the character Shylock; Shylock is a Jewish moneylender and charges usury. Another character, Antonio, is a Christian money lender, but he does not charge usury because he is Christian. In this research paper, the differences between Judaism and Christianity as they pertain to money lending and usury will be explored.
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There are many differences between Jews and Christians. One significant difference is how each is permitted to lend money. Jews considered non-Jews to be less risky to lend to than to members of a Jew’s own tribe; therefore, usury was allowed. Additionally, for a Jew to lend to his/her own tribe, he/she would not charge an interest rate because lending to one’s tribe was supposed to be free and generous (Geisst 61). The following quote from the book Beggar thy Neighbor summarizes how Jews were able to lend money:
In its simplest form, interest charged on a loan for consumption purposes was considered unjust, presumably because the person borrowing the money did not have the means to live without borrowing. Any usury in this case was considered exploitative. This notion is the oldest and can be found in the Old Testament. Most ancient and medieval commentators and writers used Deuteronomy as their main source for condemnations of usury. It stated, “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of anything that is upon usury” (23:19). Continuing, it stated, “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury, that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it” (23:30). “Brother” was not meant to be a general term, however; it was much more specific. A brother was a member of one’s own tribe. In other words, Jews could lend to gentiles and collect usury but could not do the same to fellow Jews. (14)
This quote provides ample information on how and to whom Jews could charge usury.
Christians have many reasons why they have historically not charged usury. One teaching of the Church states that every man should treat every other person like that person is his brother, unlike the Jews who interpret “brother” as meaning part of one’s tribe. A person would not lend money to his/her brother and charge him excessive interest; consequently, a good Christian would not charge interest, as all interest was considered usury. An encyclical by Pope Benedict XIV states that “The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract. This financial contract between consenting parties demands, by its very nature, that one return to another only as much as he has received. The sin rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given. Therefore, he contends some gain is owed him beyond that which he loaned, but any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious.” This teaching means that a Christian can receive only as much money from a borrower as the amount of money borrowed.
Usury is seen in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice in Act I, Scene iii. In this scene, Shylock ensures a bond of one pound of Antonio’s flesh if Antonio cannot repay the loan of three thousand ducats from Shylock (Crowther 36). This one pound of flesh cut from Antonio would cost Antonio more than just that pound; it would likely cause him to die of blood loss or by a disease resulting from him being exposed and without flesh. If Antonio does not die, he would lose his dignity. For Antonio to lose his dignity, his life, and his flesh is worth more than the three thousand ducats entitled in the loan; this imbalance of worth lent versus worth expected to be repaid is excessive in the latter. Shylock is practicing usury by expecting Antonio’s flesh should Antonio not repay Shylock’s loan.
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Also in Act I, Scene iii, Antonio and Shylcok have an argument about how Antonio, as a Christian, does not charge usury to those he lends to whereas Shylock, as a Jew, does charge usury to those he lends to (Crowther 32). Because Antonio is a Christian and Shylock is a Jew, Shylock is able to make a loan and charge usury to Antonio. If this scene took place in a modern setting, the argument would likely not happen. As the teaching of the church has progressed throughout history, church teaching has changed. Usury referring to excessive or illustrious interest is still considered a sin; however, normal rates of interest and interest used for business type ventures is entirely acceptable (Seabourne 1). Judaism has also changed throughout the years. Judaism is understanding of the fact that a very business-minded society is predominant and has adjusted so that Jews can lend and borrow money, sometimes with other Jews (Encyclopedia Judaica).
In summation, Jews can traditionally only charge usury to non-Jews and Christians traditionally cannot charge usury at all; however, the teachings of both religions have become more lenient and have adapted to the modern world. Usury is practiced by the Jewish merchant Shylock against Antonio, the Christian moneylender, for a pound of Antonio’s flesh in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.
- “Encyclopedia Judaica: Moneylending.” Moneylending, Encyclopedia Judaica, 2008, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moneylending.
- Geisst, Charles R. “Beggar Thy Neighbor.” Google Books, 2018, books.google.com/books?id=hYHKGgxIM9IC&printsec=frontcover&dq=beggar%2Bthy%2Bneighbor&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjf_I2Mn4biAhUGna0KHQ9vArEQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=beggar%20thy%20neighbor&f=false.
- Pacino, Al. “In Search of Shakespeare.” PBS, 2004.
- Pope Benedict XIV. “Vix Pervenit.” Papal Encyclicals, 27 Apr. 2017, www.papalencyclicals.net/Ben14/b14vixpe.htm.
- Seabourne, Gwen, et al. “When and Why Did the Christian Church Stop Viewing Usury as a Sin?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2011, www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-1030,00.html.
- Shakespeare, William, and John Crowther. No Fear Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice. SparkNotes, 2003.
- “Usury.” Wikipedia, 5 May 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usury#Judaism.
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