Xenophobia and Loving the Ger

The commandment to love the ger has long been the subject of a tug of war between two camps. Traditional Jews understand it the way the Talmud did – as a reference to a righteous convert. Non-halachic Jews have disregarded that understanding, and take it at its face value – an exhortation to embrace the stranger, to remember that we were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Traditional Jews have long found this irritating. Isn’t it a bit disingenuous, they ask, to cite Biblical authority when those same Jews openly admit to not seeing themselves personally bound by any line of the Torah – which they regard as entirely the product of human manufacture? Orthodox Jews who do accept the Torah as the revealed Word of G-d are doubly peeved when those same heterodox Jews interpret those verses in ways completely at odds with the way tradition understood them for millennia.)

In earlier decades when some heterodox rabbis still showed a bit more familiarity with authentic Judaism than today, some of them argued that the Talmud’s halachic interpretation should not deter us from finding meaning in the plain sense of the verse. Interestingly, they can point to an important rabbinic figure of the early twentieth century who seemed to agree.

For quite a while, I have chosen one sefer a year, and each week offered an adaptation of some excerpt on the weekly parshah. (All of them can be found in the archives of the advanced section of Torah.org.) This year’s sefer is HaMedrash V’HaMaaseh, by Rav Yechezkel Libshitz zt”l, the head of Agudas HoRabbonim of Poland till his death in the ‘30’s. In preparing the offering, I was struck by the way he takes the versus about the ger to include the actual stranger, not just the convert. It seemed as if he was speaking to the issue of immigration that divides Americans today! What follows is an excerpt from the excerpt I presented. The translation/adaptation, of course, is all mine, and the author should not be held responsible for my inadequacies.

We see it around us today. In many countries, even among otherwise refined and intelligent people, we see persecution of the outsider, the stranger. We see it as an ideology promoted as a holy obligation of every nation to preserve its own culture and identity, lest it be swallowed up by the outsiders who have arrived within its borders.

Sodom for Sodomites, they seem to be calling! This is not the way of the Torah! Thirty six times it exhorts us to love the ger. The sheer number of times that the Torah stresses this mitzvah says much about its importance; the fine details of how the Torah speaks about it reveals its far-reaching implications, as we shall see.

“When a stranger lives among you [singular] in your [plural] land, do not oppress him. The ger who lives with you [plural] shall be like a native among you. You [singular] shall love him like yourself.”[1] The multiple shifts between singular and plural must be explained.

We will begin by observing that even the National Sodomites have their principles. They don’t appeal to rank xenophobia, but to economics, and to history. They argue that their resources are inadequate to support a population of outsiders. They wish to protect the rights of “natives,” which means people with established legal rights within that country. When these arguments are in place, a protectionist government has two choices. It can choose to deny the newcomer rights of citizenship, leaving the outsider as a second-class non-citizen. If the government is too embarrassed to legislate such a policy, it will not be able to deny equal protection to all. Rather, it will uphold the right of the individual to decide for himself with whom he wishes to do business, or who should be elected to a public position. In other words, the government will see to it that where de jure discrimination is impossible, de facto discrimination nonetheless remains an option.

The Torah prohibits even this gentlemanly rejection of the stranger! This is all hinted at in the pesukim above. “When a stranger lives among you [singular],” i.e. when there are so many of them that each person can legitimately feel that the outsiders are encroaching, and creating a personal burden;” “In your [plural] land,” i.e., in the land in which a large group of people have recognized privileges as full citizens;” “Do not oppress him”…[Do not bar him from attaining rights of citizenship. Rather,] “He shall be like a native among you.” Moreover, don’t think of individually treating him in a discriminatory manner as some sort of pariah. Instead, “You shall love him like yourself.”

Is the author reaching out beyond the grave to instruct us about events in our lives? Is he suggesting what the Torah has to say about relighting Lady Liberty’s torch of welcome to those seeking refuge on our shores? Only to some extent, we quickly realize. He does indeed condemn xenophobia per se, and believes it to be wrong not to share resources with others, even when the “natives” are inconvenienced. But he is speaking of the rumblings against Jews from those riding the crest of nationalist fervor across Europe – those who wished to rid their borders of Jews who just did not belong, although they presented no threat at all to the rest of the population. The plurality of Americans who support the President’s desire for better vetting of immigrants do not for the most part come from the xenophobic roots of a century ago. They cite real concerns about the impact on American society of large numbers of people who were fed contempt and hatred of the West in the school systems in their countries of origin. They may or may not be correct (see one unexpected take on this in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed), but their goal is not to keep strangers out, so much as to ensure that the strangers whom they welcome will not turn against them.

[1] Vayikra 19:33-34

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27 Responses

  1. dr.bill says:

    interesting/insightful article with an important message to some trump supporters; where he stands personally is never clear.

    non-halakhic jews and those denying traditional views of singular Mosaic/God dictated authorship, may still value (many of) the torah’s insights, on occasion read through a non-rabbinic lens; they often profess a Divine element in their composition.  There is no need to denigrate them, particularly given the importance of your overall message.

    • DF says:

      The Torah is an all or nothing proposition. It is disingenuous, and counter-productive, to cite the Bible for support of one idea, and then out of the other side openly reject the same Bible’s clear stance on (e.g.) homosexuality. It makes such people appear, accurately, as nothing but hollow-shelled hypocrites.  It makes their message contemptible, and hence disregardable, before it is even made.  (Lest one raise the tired rejoinder that the fully religious also ignore convenient biblical passages like the 8th Commandment, the difference is obvious. No religious person *rejects* any command of God, they are just transgressed because of human frailties. It is a far cry from arrogant declarations that this verse is moral and this one isn’t. )

  2. joel rich says:

    Would you extend this halachic/hashkafic analysis to mean that a country should accept  any non citizens who desire to live there?  If not,  where do you draw the line ? For example should Economic migrants always be accepted?

    Kol tuv

    • 1) Absolutely not. That was my point in the end. The situation is very, very different today. 2) It is crucial to understand the nature of the sefer. It is drush, in one of its most exquisite forms. It is neither a halachic nor a hashkafic analysis. Drush of this type is often isegesis, not exegesis. It takes a value that the author knows to be true, and associates it with elements of the text or Chazal. It is meant to reinforce ideas that the author thinks are important for the audience to give more thought to. 3) The mechaber was making a point about the tendency of people to reject those who are different – for small-minded reasons, rather than necessity. He does reject the idea that ANY negative economic consequences are sufficient to bar the participation of “the other.” People ought to be more generous than that. He certainly does not offer any guidance on where to draw the line, which is where most Americans are debating the issue, with the exception of the alt-right and the fringes of the lunatic left.

      • lacosta says:

        like the inverted triangle of learners vs workers  that the gemara concluded is unsustainable when it’s ‘rabbim assu’  [ and the analogy to the breakdown in israeli haredi society which was based on a similar unsustainable economic model ] , so to a society  where the minority are productive citizens and the majority live off of the public dole cannot fling open their gates to all  the bedraggled of the world looking for a welfare state— collapsing the Roman empire gets you Huns and Visigoths, and we know how that worked out…

  3. mb says:

    There were reasons for the narrow understanding of the traditional view, and those reasons are surely extant today too, however, the broader view could never have been rejected and clearly is of upmost importance today, especially if we are to maintain our moral and spiritual guidance in an ever increasing hedonistic and atheistic world. Besides, several times the Torah says , paraphrasing according to the narrow interpretation, love the converts because you were converts in Egypt. Does that make sense? Decidedly not.


    • The word “ger” means stranger, generically. The Torah mandates loving the ger. Halacha restricts this to the ger tzedek, the proselyte. It would have us read the commandment roughly this way: You are commanded to love your Jewish brethren. Extend an extra measure of that love to the convert, who in many ways functions as a stranger, an outsider within the community, lacking the support structure available to the insider. You should be sensitive to their needs, because you can remember what it was like to live as a minority member stranger within a larger group of people who spurned and derided you.

  4. Reb Yid says:

    If only those in the frum community knew their history as much as their codes.

    The same exact arguments against immigrants today that are alleged in this article were the ones being used against Jews who wished to come to America 100-150 years ago.

    Ah, but we “know” that most Jews were not like that, right?  Tell that to those who were afraid of these foreigners who were so alien, and who cited Jewish involvement (small in numbers though they were) in the Anarchist, Communist and other “un-American” movements in Europe and America.  Look at the publicity in those times about the number of Jews in urban areas that played a role in gang activities–again, very small to the total number of Jews or the total amount of gang activity.

    Sadly, nativist and xenophobic reasons like these played a key role in the 1923 Immigration Act that severely curtailed immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe all the way through 1965.  This affected many but certainly Jews in disproportionate numbers, with catastrophic results before and during the Holocaust.

    Most immigrants coming to America today are hard working, innovative, decent and moral human beings.  I have many such immigrant students where I teach, including numerous ones from the seven countries affected.  They are among the best students I’ve ever had and are forever grateful for what America represents.

    The folks who are calling in bomb threats to JCCs (seemingly by the week), or vandalizing synagogues, homes and subways with swastikas, or desecrating cemeteries, do not appear to be immigrants or Muslims.  If nothing else, our current President has united more and more Muslims and Jews to work together on resisting by combatting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  To the extent that such individuals have been apprehended, they appear to be white, native born males.


    • mycroft says:

      I remember from my American Jewish History Course from Dr Grinstein A”H comments from NY Police Commissioner about how criminal Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side were, remember Jewish riots .


    • Joseph Adler says:

      If only Reb Yid would open his eyes to what’s actually happening to Jews and Jewish communities in countries that are following the immigration policies that he advocates. (Not to mention the effect on non-Jews, as in the mass New Year’s Eve rapes in Germany). I’m sure your virtue-signaling self-righteous statements make you feel really good about yourself. Meanwhile, From the Huffinton Post:

      “Migrants streaming into Europe from the Middle East are bringing with them virulent anti-Semitism which is erupting from Scandinavia to France to Germany.”

      • Reb Yid says:

        America is a country of immigrants.  Aside from the native Americans, no individual or group in this country is more “authentically” American than any other.  Sort of a secular version of how we on earth are all descendants of Adam.

        The times that Jews have suffered the most, whether it be in America or in other times throughout our history, is when movements have been restricted.  The places that have opened up their doors and allowed Jews (among others) to settle have prospered.

        Mr. Adler–it is Orthodox Jews in particular who have benefited as much from this as anyone.  It is no coincidence that they are to be found in pluralistic societies and especially, in the American context, in states that have been welcoming to a particularly diverse set of immigrants and lifestyles.

        I write as a historian and a sociologist.   Your musar schmooz is misplaced.

      • Raymond says:

        I don’t understand why you seem to have trouble noticing the obvious, namely just what utter terror that the islamoNazi refugees bring to any country that they migrate to in significant numbers.  It is all well and good to feel self-righteous in one’s idealism, but how about living in the world of reality for a change, even for the sake of empathizing with those who have actually been the victims of such terror?

      • Reb Yid says:

        “IslamoNazi refugees”?  Thanks for the Adar guffaw.

        I live in the very real world.  I have taught thousands of students, many of whom are either themselves refugees or children of refugees, just like we ourselves or our ancestors once were.  A significant minority of them are either Arab or Muslim.  America is fortunate to have them.

        Too bad you are blinded by Breitbart or Fox News or Arutz 7 or lord knows what that compels you to believe America is being overrun by “IslamoNazi” refugees who are unleashing “terror” after “terror” act in our country.

        Right now, to the extent any individuals have been apprehended in these various kinds of anti-Semitic acts over the past few months, they most certainly have not been immigrants, Muslims or Arabs.  They have been white males, apparently native born Americans.

        We should absolutely empathize with all such victims of terror, whether it’s folks who have their ancestors gravestones overturned, families with young children who are frightened by bomb threats to JCCs and Jewish schools, children who are shot by gunmen with automatic rifles roaming through their schools, and adults being shot by gunmen in movie theaters, churches and military bases (all examples, by the way, where white Christian males were the perpretrators).


      • Joseph Adler says:

        It would be nice if you would actually address the point of my comment — that in countries which have let in many Islamic refugees, bad things like mass sexual assault and (in the words of the Huffington Post) “virulent anti-Semitism” have ensued as a result. The fact that you’re a historian and sociologist is an irrelevant appeal to authority.

      • Reb Yid says:

        Canada has let in, with open arms, a significant number of Syrian refugees alone.  None of the alleged “bad things” have resulted.

        The key, of course, is the very welcoming attitude of the Canadians, which encourages the refugees to maintain their traditions while still integrating them into mainstream Canadian society.  Some European countries, on the other hand, tend to banish refugees toward isolated suburbs with no desire to integrate them.

      • “None of the alleged “bad things” have resulted.”

        Really? Here are the results of just a few seconds of work:

        A prominent Canadian Jewish pro-Israel activist has accused Canadian Prime Minister and the country’s Islamic community of ignoring blatant anti-Semitic incitement by a radical imam, even as the government wages a broad campaign against what some have dubbed ‘Islamophobia
        Ryerson University has fired a teaching assistant in connection to alleged anti-Semitic remarks made during prayers at a downtown Toronto mosque.
        The move comes after the mosque apologized for prayers made by what it calls a junior employee. The apology was in reference to “an inappropriate supplication that was offensive to those of the Jewish faith” during prayers at Masjid Toronto in 2016.
        The mosque has said it suspended the employee.
        Ayman Elkasrawy confirmed on Wednesday he was suspended by the mosque pending an investigation, and that he was fired by Ryerson, where he had been a teaching assistant.
        Watch online below.
        Canada fights Anti-semitism with much tougher laws than America yet we show how militant Islamic groups, Anti-Hassidic activists, and Anti-Jewish web bloggers still pread Anti-semitism throughout the country and the world.
        The Anti-Semitic Al-Quds Rally Attracts Thousands of Muslims in Toronto
        The 2016 edition of Canada’s largest anti-Semitic fest, the Al-Quds Day, took place in Toronto last Saturday. Named after the Arab word for Jerusalem (Al-Quds), the event has a simple and straightforward message: Jerusalem must be conquered by Muslims to “liberate” the Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount and in the process the whole State of Israel should be wiped out.
        Started years ago by the bloody Ayatollah Khomeini, the Al-Quds Day has grown in popularity. It is odd that such an anti-Semitic event is tolerated by the police and the Provincial Government, while they will go out of their way to condemn any phony anti-Muslim “hate crime” or even legitimate criticism of Muslim extremism. Speakers at the rally have been known for expressing extreme anti-Jewish views. One of them, the Palestine House’s Elias Hazineh, called two years ago for shooting the Jews in Jerusalem, yet Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Attorney General somehow found that acceptable and refused to file hate crime charges.

        In November, 2016, a motion to hold Holocaust Education Week at Ryerson University was deliberately sabotaged by Obaid Ullah, Ryerson Student Union president, who orchestrated a mass walkout, causing a loss of quorum before the motion was put to a vote.

        At Western University in London, Ontario, anti-Semitic flyers targeting the Jewish community were circulated on campus. The flyers, printed by the Canadian National Independence Party (C.N.I.P.), accused Jews for the murder of 6 Muslim worshippers at a mosque in Quebec in late January, blamed “Jewish Zionist terrorists in Israel” for assassination of Muslims in Palestine and demanded that that all Zionists in Canada be tried as terrorists and imprisoned.

      • Reb Yid says:

        To Yitzchok Adlerstein:

        Please explain to me how you see letting in 40,000+ Syrian refugees over the past year+ is resulting in these incidents.

        These refugees are davka fleeing from the extremism; their lives have been made untenable by it.


      • Let it be clear that (although I will take some flak for saying this), I have no problem letting in 40K Muslim refugees, or ten times that number – if they can be vetted properly, and can be supported by private donations, and not on the public tab. That said, I have next to no confidence in the previous administration to do that job adequately. I’m not saying that they couldn’t or didn’t – just that if they said, “Trust us!” – I would laugh.

        What is the connection, you ask? Education. We know enough about the education of several generations of people from the ME, in both public school systems (where they exist and function, like Syria) and in the mosques and community, to know that they (more accurately, many of them) have been brought up for quite some time to hate Christians, Jews and the West. The fact that they have suffered under ISIS means only that they reject ISIS, not necessarily the culture and the forms of Islam prevalent in their points of origin. We do not need to unnecessarily import virulent anti-semitism in the hope that singing kumbaya with them will quickly make them our friends. I do believe, perhaps naively, that we can do the job well (using psychometric evaluation), and find candidates for admission to the US who are appropriate.

  5. Joseph Adler says:

    What about the Wall Street Journal op-ed is unexpected? (If it appeared in the NY Times, THAT would be unexpected).

  6. Raymond says:

    It would seem to me that the criteria for whether countries such as this one or even Israel, should welcome new immigrants, should be based on whether or not the individual in question agrees to adhere to the Seven Laws of Noah.  This is why I feel far more lenient when it comes to the issue of illegal Mexicans as opposed to those whom Donald is hesitating to have come here.   For as far as I can tell, the former group does basically adhere to those Seven Laws, while the latter group apparently considers murder to be a most noble act, worthy of society’s approval.

  7. Shai says:

    Rav Hirsch, in this week’s Parshah Mishpatim, also speaks generally of the importance of a Jewish state having the highest standards in its treatment of non-Jews.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Since many people draw some sort of parallel between past and present immigrants, let me mention a few relevant distinctions to consider:

    1.  Those who enter legally vs. illegally.

    2.  Those who enter for constructive purposes vs. destructive.  An example of the latter is a burning desire to impose one’s own religious views on everyone else at the point of a scimitar.

    3.  Those who intend to abide by the laws of the land vs. those who do not.

    4.  Those who were violent criminals where they came from vs. those who were not.

    The authorities need to work out methods to decide which side of these distinctions a “ger” is on.   Until they have really good methods, they need to err on the side of caution to protect both citizens and previously arrived “gerim”.

    That is, reasonable caution.  It’s wrong to equate valid fears (based on their demonstrated or likely behavior) with invalid (based on your unfounded prejudices.)   Objective reality has its place!





    • Reb Yid says:

      As to your point #1:

      We would never have had a State of Israel if not for “illegal” immigration.  And don’t kid yourself if you think every single Jew who came to America did so legally, either.

      • DF says:

        That comparison is way, way off. The land of Israel is our homeland. Every Jew has the right to live there, and the British had no right to keep us out of our land. There is no comparison, whatsoever, to the United States.

      • Reb Yid says:

        Tell that to the native Americans who were here before anyone else.

  9. DF says:

    Agreed. Unless and until the US turns over half its land to the Indians, it shouldn’t be bleating anything to Israel about the Palestinians.

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