Ask the Rabbi: A plea for the stranger among us

One mitzva that takes real faith – and real courage – is to honor the oft-repeated command to treat the stranger with dignity and compassion and fairness.

June 4, 2015 16:29
4 minute read.
Volunteering in Israel

A volunteer distributes food at a soup kitchen.. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

‘I hope you’re raped until you’re dead.” That was one of the violent, sex-addled and now removed comments on the Facebook page of an event held Monday night called “Kamoch: A Jewish Response to Asylum-Seekers.” The comment was aimed at one of our female organizers.

At this writing, the event is a few days away. But by press time, the event will have passed – hopefully as planned, with teachers, speakers and music – including talmudist Avital Hochstein, haredi activist Tali Farkash, Israel Prize winner and world-renowned Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer and singer Alma Zohar. They represent varied voices and ways of being Jewish, all engaging in a meaningful, scholarly, intuitive, passionate and reasoned discussion about the issue.

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The public Jewish response to asylum-seekers in Israel varies. Some, but too few in my opinion, want to do our utmost to follow God’s command to “treat them as a citizen among you.” Others do their utmost to uphold Pharaoh’s decree to “deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass that when there is war, they will join our enemies and fight against us…” And there are the Jews from the “Pharaoh camp,” like our Facebook commenter, who attack those from the divine commandment camp. If that has happened in reverse, I have not witnessed it.

But most frustrating and confounding to me are those who claim to care deeply about mitzvot and at the same time oppress the stranger, defying God’s most insistent command: “If a stranger (ger) lives among you in your land, you shall not wrong him. A stranger who lives among you will be like a citizen, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt; I am Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

I have heard attempts to justify this: “Oh, ‘ger’ means ‘ger tzedek,’ a convert!” Wait, you mean, we were converts in the land of Egypt? That’s a stretch, at best.

So why, when it comes to mitzvot about love and empathy for the stranger, do some halachic Jews feel it is within their purview and power to adjust the understanding, even the straightforward meaning, of a biblical text? Can we alter the text’s plain meaning in order to decrease our obligation to other human beings? But when it comes to mitzvot like “Do not lie with a man,” we must cling fiercely to it?

In order to increase shame and alienation and pain in others, we ossify God’s dictate? When a pasuk detracts from a human being’s ability to have love and family, deprives them of an ezer k’negdo – a loving partner in navigating life – we “have no other choice”?

In other words, we can reinterpret biblical text to decrease dignity, empathy and love, but not to increase it? I do not believe in the ossification of Torah or rabbinic texts; I believe in a living Torah. Many years ago, at our minyan in Newton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, I stood in the hall outside the sanctuary. I held my son, Adar, just a year old, in my arms. It had only been three months since I had gone to Ethiopia to bring him home to Newton, where we joined his new Abba and big sisters.

A friend emerged from the sanctuary and saw me standing there, looking a little wistful, wanting to join the service but not sure I should bring my little noisemaker in. She slowed as she passed, smiled and tugged on Adar’s little foot, saying, “You know, he’s a Torah, too.”

The world is Torah. Our relationships and experiences and intuitions are Torah. And Torah itself can be used to justify pikuah nefesh (the principle of human life overriding almost any other religious dictate), and can be used to justify murder. What do we choose to strengthen in the scroll of Torah and in God’s world of Torah? Because that is up to us.

The government’s paid religious authorities use their energy to control kashrut, Shabbat, holy places and their own pockets. And overall, as a Jewish society within Israel, we let that stand. But we should not be fooled into thinking they’ve got us covered religiously. For that is a desperate, narrow and cowardly interpretation of Jewish obligation and society.

For there is nothing there – granting hashgaha (kosher certification), preventing buses from running on Shabbat, denying women a Torah at the Kotel, using civil law to limit liberal Judaism – that takes any courage or faith in God. It’s all greedy and self-serving. That’s the opposite of courage. The opposite of brit (covenant).

Being a champion for one’s own political power is not admirable. It is not brave or exemplary or illuminating. It is pathetic, frankly, when it means preservation of empty ritual – empty because it does not serve to bolster humanity or honor God.

One mitzva that takes real faith – and real courage – is to honor the oft-repeated command to treat the stranger with dignity and compassion and fairness. Because it is frightening. Because we might imagine ourselves as more vulnerable. Because we may not like it.

Because of those hesitations, we see that the mitzva demands courage and faith. And so we must develop that courage and that faith.

The writer is a rabbi who lives in Jerusalem with her husband and five children. She is co-author of Jewish Family and Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today’s Parents and Children (Golden Books), founder of and active on behalf of asylum-seekers and Jewish pluralism. Twitter: @justadopt and @rabbasusan

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