Welcoming the Stranger

 

Texts regarding the treatment of the strangers in our midst:

Exodus 22:20-23

Translation Original
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans. [JPS translation]
וְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן: אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה אֹתוֹ כִּי אִם צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ: וְחָרָה אַפִּי וְהָרַגְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בֶּחָרֶב וְהָיוּ נְשֵׁיכֶם אַלְמָנוֹת וּבְנֵיכֶם יְתֹמִים:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. What power dynamics are at play?
3. What does it mean to "oppress"? What does it mean to "wrong" a person?
 


Leviticus 19:9-10

Translation Original

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Adonai your God. [JPS translation]

בְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט: וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1.  What social justice themes emerge from this text?


Leviticus 19:33-34

Translation Original
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. [JPS translation]
וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר בְּאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תוֹנוּ אֹתוֹ: כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. What power dynamics are at play?
3. What are common ways that foreigners are not treated as equals?
 


Deuteronomy 24:19-22

Translation Original
When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow -- in order that Adonai your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. [JPS translation edited for gender-neutrality]
כִּי תִקְצֹר קְצִירְךָ בְשָׂדֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ עֹמֶר בַּשָּׂדֶה לֹא תָשׁוּב לְקַחְתּוֹ לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה יִהְיֶה לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ: כִּי תַחְבֹּט זֵיתְךָ לֹא תְפַאֵר אַחֲרֶיךָ לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה יִהְיֶה: כִּי תִבְצֹר כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל אַחֲרֶיךָ לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה יִהְיֶה: וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה:

1. Now that most of us do not live in agricultural settings, how can we apply these laws to our own gathering of resources?


Deuteronomy 27: 18-19

Translation Original
Cursed be the one who misdirects a blind person on his/her way. -- And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. -- And all the people shall say, Amen. [JPS translationedited for gender-neutrality]
אָרוּר מַשְׁגֶּה עִוֵּר בַּדָּרֶךְ וְאָמַר כָּל הָעָם אָמֵן: אָרוּר מַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט גֵּר יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאָמַר כָּל הָעָם אָמֵן:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who is speaking in this text? What is the significance of "and all the people shall say amen"?
2. What is assumed about the blind person, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow?
3. What effect does the curse have? Is it a deterrent or a punishment or both?
 


Rashi, Exodus 23:9

Translation Original
"Don't oppress a stranger"- You know the feelings of the stranger-how painful it is for him when you oppress him. [Nechama Leibowitz Haggadah]
וגר לא תלחץ - בהרבה מקומות הזהירה תורה על הגר מפני שסורו רע: את נפש הגר - כמה קשה לו כשלוחצים אותו:

Suggested Discussion Questions

[From Nechama Leibowitz Haggadah, citing Leibowitz's "Studies on Shemot"]

The ethical imperative: Nechama pointed out that the Torah cautions us regarding our behavior toward the stranger no less than 36 times, the most repeated injunction in the Torah. Empathy is an outgrowth of experience. Nechama summarized, "We are bidden to put ourselves in the position of the stranger by remembering how it felt when we were strangers in another land."


Emmanuel Levinas (trans., Richard Cohen), Time and the Other (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1990), p. 83

Original
The Other is what I myself am not. The Other is this, not because of the Other’s character or psychology but because of the Other’s very alterity. The Other is, for example, the weak, the poor, ‘the orphan and widow,’ whereas I am the rich or the powerful.

Suggested Discussion Questions

 


"Ger"/Immigrant, Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Original
For the rabbis, themselves living under foreign rule, it may have been inconceivable to imagine a situation in which Jews constituted the majority and non-Jews needed protection. Perhaps for this reason, the rabbis reconstructed the biblical mandate to protect the stranger as a warning not to discriminate against converts to Judaism. Such is the nature of the world: in times of personal struggle, it becomes difficult to look outward. Ultimately, the lesson implicit both in the biblical protections of sojourners, and in the rabbinic re-imagination of the ger as a convert, is that history imposes obligations. For the bible, the experience of not being fully secure in Egypt obligates the Jewish people, now secure in their own land, to care for those who remain perpetually on the outside. Though we may reject the rabbis’ disregard for non-Jews, we can at least learn from the rabbis that our own history of imperfection should prevent us from feeling superior to others. Within the American context, many Jews have reinterpreted the word “ger” as “immigrant.” Here, the idea that history imposes obligations is extended to reminding Jews that our own community once occupied the position now held by newer immigrant groups. [Jewish Funds for Justice, www.jewishjustice.org]

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. How do you respond to Rabbi Jacobs' push "to care for those who remain perpetually on the outside?"
2. How has "Jewish security" in the late 20th and 21st centuries impacted Jewish social justice movements? Has it impacted the Jewish commitment to immigrant rights?
 


Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights, 2006), pp. 116-117.

Original
Jews and the Struggle for Civil Rights Given the great disparity in the socioeconomic levels of the black and Jewish communities, the programs and institutions they share strike some as strange. The phenomenon is even more baffling considering the ongoing disagreement about strategies to bring about greater equality for people of color in American society. While it is true that the Jewish community shares an interest in breaking down legal and social barriers to full social equality in America, that motivation does not explain why thousands of Jews demonstrated, marched, lobbied, and risked their lives to go south during the civil rights movement. That explanation lies much deeper in the psyche of American Jews. It is undoubtedly true that few of the Jewish civil rights activists, with the exception of a handful of rabbis, were motivated by the religious principles of the Torah. Yet the social justice principles that we have identified with the Sinai impulse are often internalized by Jews, whether or not they ever sat at the feet of a Jewish educator. For Jews, the principle of din, justice and fairness, became part of their folk culture, conveyed by parents to their children in the way they saw and experienced the world. Jews who devoted themselves (and in some cases, gave their lives) to the cause of civil rights identified with the outsider status of American blacks because they themselves did not yet fully feel a part of the mainstream of American life. As such, their activism was a manifestation of the Jewish value of ahavat ger (loving the stranger). To the extent that most white Americans were not willing to confront the reality of American racism and discrimination against blacks until the civil rights movement put the issue onto the front pages of American newspapers, activist Jews were among a small minority of whites who were committed “not to stand idly by” while their neighbor’s blood was being shed, the value of lo ta’amod al dam re’echa (Sanhedrin 73a). Few, if any, Jewish activists used this language at the time. Even the rabbis involved in the struggle spoke about their religious witness in the most general of terms. But most American Jews had a personal story in which persecution and oppression were not more than a generation behind them. The appeal to Jews of the struggle for equality on the part of American blacks had little to do with Jewish concerns about discrimination in the workplace. Rather, it had to do with a cultural instinct for acting on a situation that was morally reprehensible and patently unjust. A generation earlier it manifested itself in Jewish involvement in the American labor movement. At the turn of the century in Europe, Jews embraced socialism as a way to affect greater social equality, an ideology later apparent in America as well. Just a few years after the height of the civil rights movement, this passion for justice presented itself in the antiwar movement and the feminist movement. In all of these struggles for social change, Jews played leadership roles far disproportionate to their numbers, a phenomenon best understood as Jews, whether religious or secular, acting on a Sinai consciousness that was passed down through the generations.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Some believe that the alliance between African-Americans and Jews was a generational phenomenon. Do you agree? Do you feel greater affinity for African-Americans and their struggle for equality in American society than for other ethnic groups? Why?
2. Hannah Arendt, an eminent American-Jewish social philosopher, authored a book called "The Jew as Pariah." She suggested that the support of Jews for the underprivileged was motivated by their own status as perpetual outsiders. Do you agree? Do you thing Jews are "outsiders" in American society today?
3. In retrospect, causes such as the labor movement, civil rights and feminism seem to be unambiguously just. It was not so when the debates around those issues raged in American society. What do you think are the causes today that are comparable to those great social justice causes of the past?


Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, “Torah Concept of Empathic Justice Can Bring Peace,” The Jewish Week, (New York, 3 April 1977), p.19

Original
[Empathic justice] seeks to make people identify themselves with each other – with each other’s needs, with each other’s hopes and aspirations, with each other’s defeats and frustrations. Because Jews have known the distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers, we are to project ourselves into their souls and make their plight our own.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What is empathy and what is its role in social activism?
2. How do we make the plight of others our own? To what extent?

 


Gertrude Weil, “What Judaism Means to Me,” late 1960s. North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Original
What is religion? In many people’s code religion is limited to the area of theology: their idea of God, God’s will, obedience or disobedience to His laws, etc. I recall reading recently a criticism of the Rev. W.W. Finletter, of Raleigh, for concerning himself with social conditions. The writer thought a minister should confine himself to matters of “religion”, that is theology, church creed, church attendance, the prospect of heaven or hell. In my definition, religion includes the whole of life: one’s beliefs, one’s attitudes to society, one’s behavior. It is significant that our leaders —...our prophets and priests — enjoined on their people not only a belief (faith) in God, but an ethical code of behavior: strict honesty in commerce, fair treatment of employees, kind consideration of the dependent (the widow, the orphan, and slaves). It even takes care of animals and their humane treatment. One’s religious duty included — and includes — the whole range of life and its activities.... There is a modern tendency to divide life into compartments and to impose different codes of morals in our various relationships. There is a business code, a political code, a family code, a religious code, etc. I am all against such departmentalisation. Life is one and whole. My religion demands the same honesty, fairness, reliability, in all one’s relations.... Our prophets and teachers are absorbed in the idea of righteousness [tzedek] as the ideal. And only through righteous behavior can they obtain blessedness. This is not a mere highflown ideal, but a practical program of behavior, specific in the enumeration of duties — in business dealings (honest weights and measures), in relation to slaves, the widow, the orphan, the stranger among them, even the far off alien (as in Jonah’s responsibility for the Ninevites). Hear the familiar words of Micah (6:6-8): “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?... It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. How does Weil understand religion and religious duty?
2. Why did Weil see religion as relating to working for the human rights of others?
3. Why does Weil understand the Jewish value of tzedek [righteousness] as a “practical program of behavior,” rather than as a “highflown ideal”? How does the quote from Micah illustrate this idea?
4. Do you agree with Weil that religion encompasses the “whole of life: one’s beliefs, one’s attitudes to society, one’s behavior”? What attitudes or practices in your life that aren’t strictly “religious” do you attribute to your Judaism?