Strong Borders and Compassionate Hearts: Jewish Views on Immigration, Refugees and Asylum Seekers

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Rabbi Isaac Kook, one of the most important rabbis of the early 20th century, insisted that in order to truly love Israel, we must love, respect and honor all of humanity. Rav Kook taught that the nation of Israel, unlike any other nation, has the ability to provide everyone, not just Jews, with “a life filled with joy.” His belief reflects core Jewish values that have been part of our tradition for centuries. The Torah teaches:
When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

The Torah demands that if one turns to us for refuge we provide them with a safe haven:

Don’t turn in a slave to his master, when he flees to you from his master. Let him dwell with you in your midst, in the place he chooses in one of your gates as suits him; don’t oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:16)

The obligation to care for, love and shelter everyone is so central to Judaism that anyone who harms those in need faces the wrath of God: “Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Judaism’s insistence that we welcome anyone in need with open arms has encouraged us, as a people, to support the rights of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Over the centuries, as we have fled from those who have tried to destroy us, we have been blessed by those who were willing to let us in and give us a new beginning. At the same time, we have been turned away and suffered tremendously because of this. As Americans, we are blessed to live in a nation that shares our desire to protect those less fortunate than we are.

As the world continues to be shattered by terror committed by Islamic extremists, most recently in France, Israel and just this morning in Mali, many in the United States are struggling with how to help those seeking refuge without putting ourselves in danger. While we are familiar with Judaism’s insistence that we help the stranger, we fail to realize that, despite our ancestors being slaves in Egypt, our tradition teaches us not to be foolish and naïve. There are dangerous people out there who want to do us harm. This is why Rashi, the great medieval Jewish scholar, teaches us that:

The mighty men of Israel would dwell in the border towns and lock the frontier so no enemies could enter; it was as if it (the border) were closed with locks and bars of iron and brass.

The Shulchan Arukh, written in the 16th century and remaining one of the most widely consulted Jewish legal codes, warns that enemies lurk out there who seek to cross our borders and undermine our society. Because of this, the Shulchan Arukh insists that those who live in a city on a border are obligated to violate Shabbat in order to defend the border from outsiders who seek to “take over the city and proceed from there to conquer the land.” For Jewish communities outside the land of Israel, it’s not possible to defend actual borders. In an effort to protect the wellbeing of their communities over the centuries, some Jewish leaders developed the now obsolete concept of chezkat hayishuv, a residence permit that was required by anyone who sought to live within a specific Jewish community. Communities that required residency permits had the power to deny entry to anyone who had the potential to cause them harm. In the State of Israel today, guarding Israel’s borders and closely monitoring who enters the country is paramount to the Jewish State’s survival.
As American Jews, we know that many of us would not be here today were it not for this country’s willingness to welcome immigrants and refugees. Our nation’s desire to welcome those who truly want and need to come to our shores and our Jewish obligation to help the stranger urge us to speak up in favor of welcoming refugees from Syria. At the same time, however, we can’t overlook our tradition’s reminder that not everyone who seeks to cross our borders has good intentions. Judaism pleads with us to open our borders to those who truly need us while, at the same time, doing everything in our power to ensure that the “locks and bars of iron and brass” that Rashi referred to centuries ago continue to be in place to protect us from those who seek “to conquer the land.” This is no easy task. May our national leaders find a way to balance the scales, staying true to the welcoming nature of our country while protecting us from those who seek our demise.

May this Shabbat bring much needed peace to the world. Shabbat Shalom to each of you.

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