Parshat Behar: Strangers in our midst

"And for thy cattle, and for the beasts that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be for food."

Nature 370 (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
Nature 370
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ([email protected]) http://artfram)
“If your brother becomes impoverished and his support is faltering when he is with you, you must strengthen him, the stranger and resident [ger vetoshav], so that his life may be preserved with you.”
(Leviticus 25:35)
Now that after 2,000 years of exile we have returned to our homeland and become a nation-state, we are faced with new challenges for which we must find solutions. These solutions must accord with the compassionate righteousness and moral justice which is Israel’s mission to teach to the world, without compromising our security. One of these new challenges is our relationship to the Arab minority that lives in our midst. Our millennia-old Bible and our talmudic tradition certainly contain meaningful directions for meeting this challenge.
There are many places in the Bible where the term ger, usually translated either as “stranger” or “convert,” appears. The key to the most proper translation of this word is the directive that emerged directly from the Exodus: “You shall love the ger, because you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” We were total strangers to the Egyptians, who therefore dehumanized us and enslaved us. We are enjoined to treat the “other” or the stranger – clearly in this context the non-Jew – with love rather than discrimination and persecution.
Undoubtedly there are biblical verses in which ger means “convert,” and there are cases in which ger means “stranger.” In the context cited above, the verse enjoins us to help the “ger vetoshav,” the stranger who is also a resident, thereby creating a new category, the resident alien. Maimonides defines this category in his great Jewish law compendium Mishne Torah (Laws of Forbidden Relationships 14:7-8) as follows: “Who is a ger toshav? He is an idolater who accepts upon himself no longer to serve idols and to keep the other commandments which were commanded to the Noahides [not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to eat the blood or limb of a living animal, not to blaspheme God and to establish law courts]. This individual is not circumcised and has not ritually immersed himself, but he is accepted as one of the pious of the nations of the world. And why is he called a resident ger? Because he is permitted to live among us in the Land of Israel.”
Since the rabbis were speaking of a situation like today, when the majority of Israel’s residents are Jews, this discussion refers to a minority group of non-Jewish residents. We may allow them residence here as long as they keep the fundamental laws of ethics and morality which protect the inviolability of every human being and certainly of the Jewish majority among whom they are living. It is interesting to note that Maimonides grants them permission to live “among us.” This is based on a verse in Deuteronomy (23:16-17): “You may not return a runaway slave [clearly a gentile] to his master if he has sought refuge with you. He must dwell with you, in your midst, in the place of his choice, in any of your gates which is good for him; you shall not oppress him.” These verses were written 4,000 years ago.
In the 1896 American Supreme Court case of Plessy vs Ferguson, it was decided that Blacks in America could live separately as long as they lived equally. This meant they could be barred from White schools, White neighborhoods, and White sections of the bus. It was not until 1954, in the Brown v. Board of Education case, that the Supreme Court overturned the earlier decision and ruled that separate was not equal. Our Torah understood 4,000 years ago that not entitling a resident to live anywhere he chooses (as long as he can afford it) constitutes an act of oppression.
The verses that we cited from this week’s biblical portion go even further. The Ramban (Nahmanides), in his comments on Maimonides’s Book of Commandments (Positive Commandment 16), writes the following: “We are commanded to preserve the life of a resident alien, and to save him from evil. If he is drowning in a river or a heap of stones has fallen on him, we must labor with all our strength in order to save him, and if he is sick, we must engage in his healing... and this is considered to be for them [the resident aliens] a matter of preserving a life, which pushes aside Shabbat restrictions. And this is what the Bible teaches: ‘If your brother becomes impoverished and his support is faltering when he is with you, you must strengthen him, the stranger and resident (ger vetoshav), so that his life may be preserved with you.’”
What is most significant about these biblical verses is that the resident alien, who is uncircumcised and has not ritually immersed – and is therefore not at all Jewish, in fact or in potential – is nevertheless referred to as “our brother.” I believe this is an excellent start to the way we must treat minorities who are completely moral, ethical residents of the State of Israel.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.