Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Loving the Neighbor/Loving the Stranger
A resource for talking about refugees and immigration in Torah
The Torah doesn't tell us how many refugees to bring in. But it does teach us without ambiguity that it is a grave sin to treat immigrants and refugees -- whatever their documented status may be -- as less than human, as an infestation, to do things to make their lives miserable so that others won't come, to incite racism and hatred.
Torah is also not just a simplistic recapitulation of liberal values. There's so much more to it than that. We like to take the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" as one of the moral foundations of Torah. But the complementary commandment says, "the stranger who sojourns with you...you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Why are there two separate commands to love in Leviticus 19, one to love the friend and one to love the stranger?
1. Lev 19:18: You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; and you shall love your fellow/friend/rei’ekha (usually translated: ‘neighbor’) like yourself/kamokha. I am YHVH.
2. Lev 19:34: Like a native/citizen/ezrach from among you shall be the stranger who sojourns with you / hager hagar itchem for you, and you shall love him as yourself/kamokha; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am YHVH your God.
Let's assume that the Torah is giving us the best possible foundation for a moral and humanistic ethic. What necessitates this doubling of the mitzvah, in which the stranger is both like the neighbor and unlike the neighbor? Why is that a better foundation than just saying "love every fellow human being as yourself"?
The Torah seems to ask us to look inside ourselves to find what we have in common with a stranger whom we do not know: we know what it is like to feel like a stranger. Reflecting on that can enable us to find common ground with almost any person. The Torah requires us to go one level of reflection deeper, beyond how we feel about ourselves, beyond what might be instinctual feelings, to find the level at which we are the same.
In the process of exploring these questions, I put together a text study resource, "Loving the Neighbor/Loving the Stranger", that includes all the verses that mention the stranger. I finished the current version in time for National Refugee Shabbat October 19, 2018, for Lekh L'kha, where Avram declares himself ger v'toshav. The newest version of this text resource includes verses from Prophets (most esp. Jeremiah 7), and reference to all 92 verses in which ger/stranger appears, organized by themes and significance.
The most important sections from Torah come first and are quoted at length (Exodus 22, 23, Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 10, 16. 24, 26). I also sifted through all 40+ Sefaria text study sheets on immigrants to include some of the best examples of the spectrum of rabbinic texts and commentaries.
The week following National Refugee Shabbat, an anti-Semitic madman murdered eleven Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, explicitly in response to National Refugee Shabbat. Now is the time to stick our necks out even further to support refugees and imigrants. This is at the core of the Jewish mission.
Download the pdf or the doc file of "Loving the Neighbor/Loving the Stranger":
This resource makes it easy for anyone to verify that in fact there are many many more than 36 passages that talk about caring for the stranger in Torah. And it carefully distinguishes which texts may deal with the ger tzedek (convert) vs. the ger toshav (immigrant/refugee). I believe it is the most detailed and complete resource on the ger in Tanakh available online. The one thing this resource does not have is the Hebrew. Most folks will probably use it in a synagogue setting where they will have chumashim or Tanakhs that include Hebrew. (A version with Hebrew would be a future goal.) You can download the resource and change/add whatever you like. Please include title, author, and url for the original resource, then share it in whatever manner works for you.
This resource will be invaluable if you're a rabbi or educator, or anyone who wants guidance for developing a text study class. It's also an excellent resource for anyone simply wanting to understand the wide range of Jewish texts dealing with issues related to refugees and immigrants.
One thing about the Torah's treatment of the stranger is painfully clear: any policies or politicians that label refugees, immigrants, or asylum seekers as interlopers, criminals, or even worse "an infestation" (as some Israeli politicians have labeled African asylum seekers) are in direct opposition to Torah and to what Judaism teaches.
There is room to debate about specific policies, but not to debate about people's humanity. Anyone disagreeing with that has no right to claim that they speak for Judaism, the Bible, or the Jewish people, or for what is justice or God's will. I'm looking at you Franklin Graham, who shamed his father Rev. Billy Graham when when he lied extravagantly about the Torah and claimed it had nothing to say about immigration. Even Franklin had enough of a heart to come out in opposition to separating children from their parents at the border. Those children still number in the hundreds and thousands, despite lies to the contrary by the current US administration.
I hope you will find this resource on "Loving the Neighbor/Loving the Stranger" to be a treasure.