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 give everyone, not just Jews, “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. And, we have been turned away and suffered tremendously because of this. One simply needs to remember how the S.S. St. Louis, a German ship filled with Jewish passengers seeking a safe haven, was turned away from our own shores.
Jewish tradition is not foolish nor naïve when it comes to matters of immigration. From our earliest days, we learned firsthand that there are dangerous people out there who want to do us harm. Rashi, the great medieval Jewish scholar, teaches us that as our ancestors began to build Israel in the biblical era, they did not hesitate to “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, a 16th century Jewish legal code, warns the Jewish people that enemies are out there that seek to cross our borders and undermine our society. Because of this, the Shulchan Arukh insists that those who live in a border city 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.” In an effort to protect the wellbeing of their communities, some medieval Jewish communities 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 these 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. Thankfully, Israel has, for the most part, been very successful at keeping her borders secure. When she does so, it’s often messy and usually attracts international attention, scorn and bias – as we’ve seen with the ongoing situation on the border with Gaza. At times, however, Israel’s determination to protect her borders leads to actions that fly in the face of Jewish values – just look at the recent Israeli government decision refusing to recognize the conversion of Ugandan Jews for the purposes of immigration.
Theodor Herzl, the visionary behind Zionism, taught that we must build our home “in such a way that a stranger may feel happy” in our midst. This is no easy task, especially when you consider how important the “locks and bars of iron and brass” that Rashi referred to still are today. However, I believe that we can remain true to our Jewish values if we hold on to Herzl’s insistence that we go about building our homes, our country, in such a way that ensures the happiness of strangers. This applies to Israel and the United States. Turning away Ugandan Jews was a slap in the face to Jewish brothers and sisters, an act that transformed these brothers and sisters into unwanted strangers. Separating children from their parents as they attempted to enter our country was cruel and unnecessary. Laws are laws. But a nation that does not strive to do everything in its power to ensure the happiness of strangers denies these strangers a fundamental “unalienable right” and in doing so, shows that she has lost her way.
I’m glad that steps were taken in our own country this week to slowly correct our errors. Clearly, the outrage many of us felt about this issue transcended politics and hit our moral core. We must continue to speak up for the strangers who seek to become our neighbors and pursue a life of happiness along with us.