‘You shall not wrong a stranger’

Israel does not need vigilante groups to work outside the law to keep us safe and untainted by the “strangers” in our midst.

February 18, 2011 15:58
4 minute read.
Ultra-kosher for ultra-Orthodox.

haredim kosher food 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Many organizations have been getting into the business of giving socalled kashrut certificates that deal not with the ritual aspects of kashrut but with ethical concerns. The Rabbinical Assembly in America now has a Magen Tzedek certificate it issues to indicate that the kosher food is produced in ways that meet the business ethics of Judaism so that the food is ethically as well as ritually pure. Other rabbinical associations have followed suit.

Here in Israel there is a group that issues certificates to firms indicating they follow ethical business practices. All of this only emphasizes that Judaism is more than a set of rituals, it is also an ethical way of living.

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I was shocked recently, however, to see a newspaper report recently that there is a Jewish organization here that is planning to give “kashrut certificates” to stores and companies that can prove that they do not employ “enemies of Israel,” which the head of the group explained means Arabs. My immediate reaction was to say that any business displaying such a sign would be one I would absolutely refuse to patronize.

The most disturbing part of the report was that this certificate was being sought after by many places in the haredi areas of Jerusalem. What evil spirit is getting into such groups that would offer such a thing and want to display it? Is it even legal in the State of Israel to discriminate against any group in employment on the basis of race or religion? After all, Arab citizens are guaranteed freedom and equality by our Declaration of Independence. It states quite clearly, “The State of Israel will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.”

It would be well for us to remember both our history, for centuries Jews were denied employment in so many fields, and our tradition which forbids us to discriminate against non-Jews.

That religious Jews should do that is particularly disturbing because the Torah goes out of its way to prohibit discrimination and persecution of “the stranger.” The Torah takes it for granted that when Israel inhabits its own land there will be non-Israelites who will dwell there with them and makes provision to protect them. This is analogous to the fact that non-Jews, Arabs, dwell in the modern State of Israel.

The Torah is emphatic in emphasizing that these strangers must be treated well and fairly. In the very first of the Torah’s legal codes it is stated, “You shall not wrong a stranger [ger] or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). This is repeated again even more explicitly in the very next chapter: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (23:9).

The holiness code in Leviticus reiterates this and equates the stranger to the native, i.e. the Israelite: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).

When the theme of the stranger is taken up by Deuteronomy it requires the judicial system to protect the rights of the stranger: “...decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger” (1:16). “For the Lord your God... upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:17-19).

They were easy victims of economic exploitation, the deprivation of property or denial of legal rights. Therefore the Torah provides for their protection and it is God who upholds their cause.

Yes, we were “strangers” not only in Egypt, but in Spain, in France, in Germany, in Morocco, in England and so many other places. We know and understand what that means and therefore should be ultrasensitive to how we treat others. Israel has sufficient laws to protect us against traitors and enemies, internal as well as external. It does not need vigilante groups to work outside the law to keep us safe and untainted by the “strangers” in our midst.

The writer was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. A twotime winner of the National Jewish Book Award, his latest book is Entering Torah.

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