Thursday, February 23, 2017

Parsha Mishpatim: A Jewish Obligation to Help the Stranger, the Refugee, and the Immigrant

It is a rare occasion when I mix Torah and politics, but this is one of those times. Donald Trump has only been President of the United States for about a month, and he has already gone for a refugee ban, a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, and expanding the pool for those who qualify for deportation. Needless to say, it has not been a stance that has been friendly towards immigrants, refugees, or other foreigners who come on American soil. I hope Trump changes his stance, but until he does, I have to ask: What does the Torah have to say about refugees and the downtrodden? How is a Jew supposed to respond? What is the Jewish perspective that is most based in the sources? This week's Torah portion gives us some insight to that question:

וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים.
And a stranger you shall neither wrong nor oppress because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. -Exodus 22:20

The Hebrew word גר (ger) came to mean "convert" in later rabbinical texts. I don't deny the ability for words to change meaning or take on new meaning, but the word ger in this context is "stranger" (also see Genesis 15:13; Genesis 23:4; Exodus 2:22). The subordinate clause of "because you were strangers in the land of Egypt" makes more sense when the word גר refers to a stranger rather than a convert.

Let's talk about those strangers for a bit. The Hebrew Bible mentions two types of strangers: the alien (גר) and the resident alien (גר תושב; ger toshav). The Hebrew word ger comes from the Hebrew word "to sojourn" (also spelled גר). The word toshav (תושב) means "to reside," which helps us distinguish between the two. We have a similar distinction in secular law, where the resident alien has a more permanent status of residency, such as a green card. Jewish law has a similar view. The ger is one who stays on a more temporary basis. The resident alien had a more permanent status in biblical-era Israelite society. Depending on your view, the resident alien either rejects idolatry or takes on the seven Noahide laws as binding (Avodah Zarah, 64b). When looking at Exodus 22:20, we are not talking about a resident alien specifically, but generally someone who is a stranger. A few interesting things when looking at the passage:

  • In Exodus 22:20, it gives us two negative commandments about what not to do to a stranger. The first is to not wrong them [לא תונה], which Rashi takes as "don't annoy them about their status." The second is to not oppress them [לא תלחצנו], whether that is in the form of not robbing the stranger (Rashi) or putting the stranger into forced labor (Rashbam). The verse makes the point to not take advantage of the stranger in their vulnerable position.
  • The reason that we are not supposed to wrong or oppress the stranger is equally interesting: "because we strangers in the land of Egypt [כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים]." What does this mean? Rashi says if someone vexes you about being a stranger, you can retort by saying that "you too came from strangers." Ramban said that because you were once weak and helpless in Egypt, you cannot oppress the weak without impunity, i.e., G-d hears the cry of the stranger and will exact punishment accordingly. 
  • The common thread is that what the Jew experienced in the land of Egypt was being a stranger, being considered  completely "other." The stigma and marginalization of being considered a stranger did not only lead to physical abuse, but emotional and psychological abuse. 
  • In Exodus 22:22, it says that afflicting the stranger [or any one else in society who is disenfranchised] leads to G-d's anger and wrath. Even more interesting about this verse is that it switches from "you" in the singular to the plural, meaning that if a community treats the stranger poorly, it leads to the whole community suffering punishment (Abraham ben Izra).

Let's go beyond this specific passage and look at it more broadly. When realizing the importance of how we treat the stranger in our midst, we have to remember that it not mentioned just once. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a) says that how we treat the stranger is mentioned in the Torah 36 times! The Torah is a concise text, so it doesn't repeat itself unless the message is important.

But wait, does this mean we have total disregard for national security? No. The land of Israel, even the biblical version, had borders that were protected. If our physical or financial security is at risk, we are not to endanger ourselves (Shulchan Aruch, Chosen Mishpat, 156:7). Ensuring secure borders is the national version of the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), which is to say that we do not capriciously put our lives at risk. When looking at the case with refugees, and less so with undocumented workers, we are not carelessly putting our lives at risk, so these considerations do not apply in our current situation.

Unless there is some sort of excessive burden, we are not meant to turn away from the stranger. Quite the contrary! As R. Ismar Schorsch put it, "the bitter taste of slavery honed Israel's moral sense." Whether we are talking about a stranger, permanent resident, convert, or refugee, the underlining ethical imperative is the same. We are not to inflict that suffering unto others. We are not to stand idly by while it happens. More importantly, we are commanded to love the stranger (Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:19), which is no easy task. It's difficult enough to love your neighbor. Being close to your neighbor in proximity means that you at least have an opportunity to get to know your neighbor. It makes more sense to be kind to a member of your in-group. It helps explain why the Torah mentions 36 times how to treat the stranger: it's more difficult, but still necessary. The stranger is more of an outsider, yet we are meant to love the stranger. Why? Because we know the heart of a stranger (Exodus 23:9), and thus identify with the experience of being a stranger, of being vulnerable, of having no recourse. Also, because G-d loves the stranger, we are to love the stranger as an act of imitatio Dei (Abraham ben Ezra on Deuteronomy 10:19).

No, I haven't suddenly become a liberal or a Social Justice Warrior. While I still identify as libertarian and can see certain libertarian aspects in Judaism, I realize that Torah is neither liberal nor conservative. After all, G-d being Transcendent Oneness means that He also transcends politics, which means the Torah also transcends political ideologies. This is not about where I lie on the political spectrum. As a Jew looking at the traditional sources, I can't help but react in such a manner. Jews have been physically tormented, psychologically abused, ostracized, stigmatized, and murdered because they were strangers. Jews have been treated as less than human beings with basic dignity stripped away. That is what happens to strangers when power is left unchecked or not held to a higher standard. Whether it was being in the land of Egypt, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, or the Holocaust, the Jewish people have a profound understanding of what being treated like a stranger feels like. How strangers and refugees are treated is decidedly a Jewish issue. The Jew has been and is the archetypical stranger, and as such, should stand up for other strangers.

Not only are Jews acutely aware of what being a stranger feels like (Ramban), but we are not to inflict that on others in part because Judaism is not about "might is right" (Abraham ben Izra on Exodus 22:20). How we treat the least powerful and most vulnerable is a great reflection of how we have internalized Jewish values. That idea goes all the way back to the first Jew: Abraham. He treated wayward strangers with the utmost respect. The Talmud (Beitzah 32b) goes as far to say that if a Jew is not compassionate, that individual could not possibly be a descendant of Abraham. If you contrast that to Sodom, Sodom treated outsiders and immigrants with enough discontent where helping the outsider was punishable under the laws of Sodom. What made a Sodomite despicable was not men sleeping with other men, but rather maltreatment of the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49).

While the enslavement of the Israelites as told in the Torah was centuries ago, we are still meant to remember that experience of what it was to be a stranger so we don't let history repeat itself. It is so that when all is said and done, we can remind ourselves that the stranger is not some outsider, but that we are all human beings created in G-d's Image and to be treated as such.

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