Recent events in Israel force us all to question what true religiosity means. Is it measured by the degree to which we separate ourselves from larger society, by the stringencies we adopt, or by how fervently we pray? Or does how we treat other human beings, how we relate to those at the margins, play a large part in how we measure it? Do we see a religious mandate to welcome and treat as equal the LGBT person, the person with disabilities, or the single parent? A lot can be learned from the mitzvah in this week’s parasha to love the ger: “Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Devarim, 10:19).
At the pshat level, the ger of the Torah is the resident alien, a person who is not a citizen but resides in our land. Because she lives among us we are responsible for ensuring that she be given equal protection under the law, and we must protect her from possible abuse. The ger is an outsider, someone vulnerable and easily excluded, but because she is among us, we must treat her as one of our own.
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the Torah’s ger as a convert, not as a resident alien. Living as they did after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews no longer had sovereignty, the categories of identity were based on religious affiliation rather than citizenship or geography. The ger was someone who came from outside our religion but, having converted, was now one of us. With this understanding, it became our duty to ensure that she was not mistreated because of whence she came.
The mitzvot regarding the ger – whether the prohibitions against afflicting and oppressing her or the mitzvah to love her – are all reasoned on the fact that we too were once strangers, strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot, 22:20 and 23:9; Vayikra, 19:34). We knew what it meant to be marginalized when we were powerless, to be outsiders. We cannot allow ourselves to forget those in similar circumstances when we have power. Such people can easily become invisible; our historical memory must compel us to see such people and to ensure that they are treated as full equals.
These principles are readily applicable to people with disabilities; gays, lesbians, or transgender individuals; or those who for one reason or another don’t fit within the boundaries of the community as we have come to define it. Such people are indeed part of our community, but they are easily marginalized and overlooked by those with power, those making the decisions and setting communal priorities.
It is not always easy to evoke the empathy called for by the Torah. If it is not possible to draw upon a shared history, we can always call upon a shared future. For example, we teach our students that the world is not divided into those with disabilities and those without; it is divided into those with disabilities and those who do not yet have disabilities. As we grow old, we start to lose some of our physical abilities: We might be the person who is wheelchair bound and needs a ramp. We might be the person with failing eyesight who needs a large print siddur. And I often wonder how people’s position regarding LGBT individuals might change if they had a gay son or daughter.
I find that I must remind myself of this message. When I am standing in line at the supermarket and the elderly woman ahead of me is taking forever to find the correct change and I start getting all worked up – I can’t believe how long she is taking! I need to get out of here. I can’t wait this long! – I must remember that in twenty years that person could be me. What would I hope from the people standing behind me in line if I were that person? And you know what? That little bit of empathy completely changes my perspective. That little bit of empathy is to remember that we all will be strangers in the land of Egypt.
But that is not the whole story, for in this week’s parasha the Torah gives another reason for this mitzvah:
For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who regards not persons, nor takes any reward. He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Devarim, 10:17-19).
We must have concern for the ger, the Torah is telling us, because God loves the ger. If we are to strive to be like God, to live a Godly life, then we must love the stranger; we must care for the orphan and the widow.
The theological point implicit in these verses is spelled out at the end of Megillah (31a):
Rabbi Yochanan said: Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is God of gods….the great, the mighty and awe-inspiring God…” And it is written afterwards: “He upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.”
God’s greatness, Rabbi Yochanan is telling us, is not expressed by God’s total otherness or by God’s withdrawal from this world. God’s greatness is in paying attention to each individual, to the unnoticed, the small and forgotten.
There is a profound lesson here regarding the meaning of true religiosity. For so many people, being more religious means acting in ways that are particularistic, that are ritual-focused, and that serve to distinguish one from the surrounding society. According to this reckoning, heightened scrupulousness about kashrut or wearing distinctive clothing makes a person more frum; being upright in business, being honest, or working at a homeless shelter only makes a person more ethical, not more religious.
This is of course nothing new. Isaiah calls out to the people, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Lord….Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah, 1: 11, 17). And the problem continues to plague us today. It manifests itself when people rationalize their immoral acts on the basis of being so scrupulous in ritual matters. It also manifests itself in the issuing of halakhic rulings which set unnecessarily high bars for ritual performance and participation, seeing these – and not the demand for inclusion, the protection of those most easily rejected and marginalized – as the religious realms that need to be most protected.
It is not hard to guess at the reason for this. Ritual, particularistic acts make a person feel different, singled out, special. In very real and visible ways, a person engaged in such acts stands out from society. She can tell herself that she is better than those who act and look like everyone else. More to the point, this creates a distinct identity. There is nothing special about acting ethically: That’s universal. Even non-Jews do that. To act and dress differently, so the thought goes, that’s what makes one Jewish. What else is holy, what else is being like God, if not to be separate and different from the world?
Rabbi Yochanan tells us that if this is how we are thinking, then we’ve missed the boat. Without a doubt, the ritual, particularistic laws are a core part of our obligations and religious life. But if we really want to be like God we would do well to look at the passage about the ger, for God’s expression of God’s greatness and complete otherness is in God’s ability to take care of those forgotten individuals, to do those basic ethical deeds that everyone else is too important to attend to. To live a Godly life is to live a life with exquisite attention to the poor, the disenfranchised, and the suffering.
Rav Moshe Feinstein says this better than I ever could. According to one opinion in the Talmud by which we rule, a ger cannot serve in a position of authority. Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked if, given this, a ger could serve as a Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Moshe responds:
However, in practice you should know that the mitzvah of “and you shall love the ger” requires us to bring them [converts] close and to be lenient regarding all these things. Therefore, after great thought, it appears that we need not consider such appointments in our time like appointments of authority (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 4:26).
Rav Moshe concludes that this is not a position of authority since a Rosh Yeshiva’s power comes from an agreement between parties (the students’ parents and the school) and is not imposed perforce from above. The key point, however, is this: When faced with a conflict between the mandate of caring for the ger and the rule excluding her from certain roles, Rav Moshe, while never compromising on the rigorous application of halakha, states in no uncertain terms that it is the mitzvah to love the ger that must guide us and that we must be most strict about. This is what it means to be like God and to live a Godly life.