Emma Lazarus’ (1849-1887), a Sephardic Jewess, concerned about the plight of disenfranchised immigrants and the persecution of Jews abroad, wrote a poem helped make the Statue of Liberty a symbol of immigration. Sadly, she died at the tender age of 38.
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
This idea of taking care of the weakest members of society is a cornerstone of the Torah. The Torah has special rules regarding four categories of people: the poor, the widow and orphan, the Levite, and the stranger. In fact, there is a special law in the Torah (Deuteronomy 16:14) dealing with festivals: “You shall rejoice on your festival — you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow that are within your gates.” Maimonides states that the law of rejoicing on a festival can only be fulfilled by taking care of the four categories of people that tend to be poor and despondent: “the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Yom Tov 6:18).
The Torah has special laws for the “stranger”:
- “Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
- “When a stranger dwells among you in your land, you are not to maltreat him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you; you shall love him like yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34)
- “If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters beside you, you shall strengthen him, whether he is a stranger or a native, so that he can live with you.” (Leviticus 25: 35)
- “The Lord protects strangers, the orphan and the widow He upholds, but the way of the wicked He makes tortuous.” (Psalms 146: 9)
The general Golden Rule – “but you shall love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19: 18) – is stated in the Torah only a few verses before the Golden Rule for the Stranger cited above. The Golden Rule for the stranger is repeated again in Deuteronomy (10:19): “You shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah dictates the love of God (Deuteronomy 6: 5), but not nearly as many times as it dictates kindness and concern for the stranger. God Himself declares that he loves the stranger and provides them with food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10: 18-19).
In Hebrew, ger refers to strangers, foreigners, and converts, people who tend to be outsiders and not part of the in-group. To appreciate how unique the biblical concern for the welfare of strangers was in the ancient world one has only to contrast it with the stance of the ancient Greeks who referred to the entire non-Greek world as “barbaroi”, meaning stranger or foreigner, from which the word barbarian is derived. The Nazis proclaimed that Aryans constituted a superior “master race” and that all non-Aryans were inferior. They murdered millions of men, women and children solely on the grounds that they were of an inferior race.
Who is the Stranger?
The Torah states (Exodus 23:9): “Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” To counter the natural inclination to feel justified in the maltreatment of the immigrant or foreigner, the Torah repeatedly engraves the Israelites’ own history of maltreatment at the hands of the natives of another land on the national consciousness. Strangers are often identified by names that clearly identify one as not being from the dominant culture. Indeed, the middle name of President Barack Hussein Obama has been used to undermine him.
The Torah (Genesis 19) depicts the hatred of the inhabitants of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah for strangers and the punishment that God visited upon them. When the citizens of Sodom learned that Lot, nephew of Abraham, was hosting two strangers, “young to old” Sodomites converged on his house, demanding that Lot hand over the strangers to them so that they could “know,” i.e. rape, them (Genesis 19). Foreigners are often identified by their names and indeed this is sometimes used to discriminate against them in the workplace. When President Obama first ran for office, there were numerous attacks against him claiming that he was not an authentic Christian and that he was born outside of the United States. His middle name – Hussein – was often used as the basis of these attacks.
Members of another Race
Racism is another tool used to hate the “stranger,” especially if the stranger has a different skin color. Malachi (2: 10) stated that all of humankind has “one Father” so it is morally wrong to look down on anyone simply because they are of a different race. Indeed, the idea of the brotherhood and unity of all humankind derives directly from the verse in Genesis (1: 27) in the story of the creation of Adam and Eve: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.” If all of humankind is molded in God’s image and has a common ancestor, then a believer cannot make the claim that any race is superior.
The Person Wearing Unusual Garb
One of the precepts of the Torah deals with wearing tzitzit (fringes) at each end of a 4-cornered garment. It certainly guaranteed that Jews would stand out as a people because of this distinctive garb. There have been numerous cases where Jewish men wearing kippahs (yarmulkes), Sikhs wearing turbans, and Jewish and Moslem women wearing headscarves were discriminated against. In Europe, there are bans in some countries on wearing facial veils (niqab). Christians have also been discriminated against for wearing crosses and crucifixes.
The Person from a Different Religious Sect Religious wars are among the worst types of wars. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Catholics and Protestants wreaked havoc with Central Europe; as many as 11 million people perished. It has been noted by scholars that relatively small differences between people often provoke greater animosity and violence than large ones. This is why civil wars are more violent and have much stronger and long-lasting consequences than wars between different countries. The ‘stranger’ does not have to be someone who is that different, small differences are enough to incite others to violence. People like to point out that many people died during religious conflicts. Actually, wars fought over ideologies have resulted in many more deaths. Communism was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Stalin and Mao were responsible for the deaths of 60 million people, almost as many as the 66 million deaths that can be attributed to Hitler (see Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things). If we learn to love the stranger, we can then learn to love people with different values and ideologies.
The Handicapped and the Unattractive
The Torah makes it clear that handicaps are not impediments to greatness; Moses, the greatest prophet and Jewish leader of all times, probably had a speech handicap (Exodus 4: 10). He told God that he was “heavy of speech and heavy of tongue” and hence unsuited to confront Pharaoh. Nevertheless, it was precisely this man with a speech disability who was divinely chosen to lead the nation and to receive the Torah at Sinai. Skin color is not the only “strangeness” that serves as the basis of discrimination. This may not be explicitly in the Torah but there is a prevailing bias against what is considered “normal” weight. Researchers have found that overweight men and very thin women did much better financially in the workplace than skinny men or plump women. Good looks are also important when it comes to being hired and making a good salary. There is no question that being attractive is a big plus in the job market.
One of its most important lessons of the Torah is the importance of taking care of the disadvantaged and, in particular, the stranger. The ger is often included with the widow, orphan, and the indigent. Researchers are finding that there is a great deal of hatred for the poor in our society. Needless to say, compassion for the ger, the underprivileged, or people who have any kind of handicap is a core value of the Torah. There are even special laws about showing respect for the elderly (Leviticus 19:32).
A core value of all Abrahamic religions is to be truly concerned about the plight of the disadvantaged members of society and not exploit the weak. Abraham (Genesis 18), an elderly man, personally attended to the needs of three strangers who were passing by his tent. In fact, he was the waiter and stood by his guests. He offered them a morsel of bread but provided them with a sumptuous meal consisting of tender calf and cakes. Clearly, hospitality to strangers was important to him. Moses tells the Israelites numerous times (Deuteronomy 5:15, 15: 15, 16:12, 24:18, 24:22): “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” The best way to ensure that one does not take advantage of the weak is to learn humility, constantly remembering one’s own past, and to care for the downtrodden. Mistreating the stranger should be difficult once one realizes that in God’s eyes, we are all “strangers.” God declares (Leviticus 25: 23): “the land is mine; for you are strangers and settlers with Me.”
Pope Francis, in his first “apostolic exhortation” condemned modern capitalism that results in a “covetous heart” combined with a “feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures” so that “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.” If a society wants to thrive, it has to open its doors, welcome the stranger, and show compassion for the poor. There is no question that the United States became great because it opened its doors to immigrants from many different countries.