Ger vi’toshav anokhi imakhem, “A sojourner and a resident am I in your midst” (Gen. 23:4). Avraham’s description of his status in the land of Canaan – as both someone living among the inhabitants of the land, and yet not fully one of them – powerfully captures the experience of immigrants in general, and that of Jews in America starting from the first wave of major immigration in 19th century, in particular. As Jews, we have been quite successful in America, and – as distinct from our status in so many other countries – we were recognized as fully equal citizens under the law, and protected by the freedoms of the Bill of Rights, including, of course, the free worship of religion. We were, in one sense, fully toshavim, residents, citizens, in our new land. And yet, for a long time, we were acutely aware of our otherness. While anti-Semitism has always been significantly less prevalent in America than in Europe, for many generations American Jews suffered from discrimination, sometimes even of a systemic nature. There were firms who would not hire Jews, quotas on Jewish enrollment in colleges, and exclusion from social clubs and from purchasing property in certain neighborhoods. Thankfully, these phenomena are now a thing of the past. We have moved in recent years from the ger to the toshav. That “otherness” is no longer a displacing one; we now see ourselves as – not just legally, but in the fullest sense of the word –as citizens of the land, with a full sense of belonging and equality.
Some of this sense of security was shattered this last Shabbat, when a man on an anti-Semitic rage broke into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, and gunned down 11 people, Jews, who had come to pray. The condemnation of this act and shows of solidarity and support was swift, reassuring and comforting, not least of which because it came from all quarters – Government officials and police, religious leaders, and people of all faiths, colors, and creeds. And yet, this horrific murderous act, palpably reminds us that there is still anti-Semitism in America, that it has been on the rise in recent years, that as much as we are truly toshavim, full citizens, of this land, we remain in the eyes of some as gerim, as sojourners, as the “other.”
This is an attitude, a hatred, that often is not limited to Jews, that extends to immigrants and “foreigners” in general, to anyone who is a ger vi’toshav. It was not only anti-Semitism that fueled the murderous act last Shabbat, but also nativism, a hatred from immigrants and their presence in the country. In a posting that the murderer made just hours before the attack, he condemned HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – for bringing immigrants into America. There was more than just anti-Semitism here, and one of our responses to this tragedy must certainly be a renewed commitment to help all those who have immigrated from other countries to achieve the same level of equality and belonging that we as Jews have achieved. As Jews, however, we experience this as intensely personal. We are acutely sensitive to the old evil of anti-Semitism that is again rearing its head, and to those who would insist on seeing us as the other, no matter how much we would like to believe that that is fully a thing of the past.
In this regard, I would like to present here a letter and a teshuva, responsum, from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Rabbi Feinstein came to America in 1937, fleeing from Soviet Russia where life as a religious Jew had become unlivable. He was profoundly aware of what it meant to be an American citizen, with the full rights, protections and privileges that that entailed. Rav Moshe made it a point to speak to the members of the Orthodox community about the obligation of hakarat ha’tov, gratitude, that we owe America and about the need to see ourselves not as the other, but as citizens, to live up to our civic responsibilities, and to be model citizens for others.
We start with a letter that he penned in 1984, in response to a voter registration campaign by the Jewish Community Relations Council of NY. He wrote:
On reaching the shores of the United States, Jews found a safe haven. The rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety.
A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras ha’tov — recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent on each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote.
Therefore, I urge all members of the Jewish community to fulfill their obligations by registering as soon as possible, and by voting. By this, we can express our appreciation and contribute to the continued security of our community.
In this letter, he takes for granted that our identity is not just that of being Jews, but of being citizens of the land, and he emphasizes how the obligation of hakaras ha’tov must translate into action, into living up to our civic responsibilities and fully participating in the democratic system. This is a timely message: with an election just days away, we should take his words to heart and make it our business, now and at every election, to get out and vote.
The themes found in this letter echo those found in a teshuvah of his that he wrote years earlier for the purpose of opposing, in no uncertain terms, the practice of some yeshivot to misrepresent their enrollment numbers, or to engage in other dishonest activity or use of political influence, in order to get more government funding than they were entitled to. He writes (Iggrot Moshe HM 2:29):
Regarding the acts of kindness that our country, the United States of America, that God, in His great compassion on the remnant that escaped from the all of the countries in Europe and the remnant of the Torah giants and their students, has brought us here and has allowed us to establish yeshivot, both old and new. This government of goodness, whose entire purpose is to do good for all the inhabitants (toshavim) of the country, has created a number of programs to aid students in all of the country’s schools, to help them learn and grow in their learning. Even Torah institutions receive significant funding for their students. Certainly, all of the heads of the yeshivot and the administrators and the students recognize all the good (hakaras ha’tov) that this country does for them, and offer blessings for the well-being of the country and its leaders.
In this opening paragraph, Rav Moshe identifies the benefits that the Jews have received from America, in stark contrast to what was often their experience in other countries in the past, and the obligation of hakaras ha’tov that this places upon us. He then proceeds to outline why we are prohibited, halakhically and ethically, from taking more funding than we are entitled to, even for the purpose of learning Torah. He concludes by a reflection on the purpose of Torah learning and on our role as citizens:
… [To take more funds than one is entitled to] would be against the entire purpose of the yeshivot and the learning that is done there, which is to ensure that the students are truly God-fearing, and that they are exceptionally scrupulous in all monetary matters…
All who are particularly scrupulous in these matters [of government funding] shall be blessed with all good things, and they shall be successful in their Torah institutions to have many students who are God-fearing, which will be a great blessing to the country as well. For it is widely known to all that the yeshiva students are among the best – thank God – of the citizens of the land, in their character and in their good actions.
Significantly, in this closing, Rav Moshe speaks not just to the halakhic and moral obligations to be scrupulous in these matters, but also to our responsibility as citizens. It is not just one to live up to the laws of the land, but also to be model citizens for all, to show that a life of Torah translates into not only a moral life, but one that lives up to the ideals of what it means to be a citizen of the country that we are in and in which we have been recognized and treated as equals.
Let us continue to give each other strength as we continue to recover from the horrific acts of this last week, and let us work to create a country that allows us, and all its citizens and inhabitants, to know that even if we were once gerim, we are now, truly and fully, toshavim.