Who is the Stranger today?
This weeks’ dvar Torah from Uri l’Tzedek offers us a return to the universalism of Hermann Cohen. Paam, once upon a time Herman Cnohen was an accepted part of a Rabbinic education, Mosad Harav Kook kashered him up and translated him, Akiva Simon and Harold Fisch debated which verses to use for Jewish universalism and Rav Soloveitchik did his degree on him. (And we get chief rabbis Sacks quoting him without citation.)
Samuel Fleischacker a professor at the University of Illinois offers us an expanded definition that seeks to overcome ethnocentrism. Hermann Cohen taught that we should judge a person’s ethics by how we relate to the economically and socially downtrodden. It is easy to pride ourselves on our ethic of helping our own community and building one’s own enclave. But what of those not part of the community, especially those who work for us or we live among?
This week we are commanded to love the “stranger.” (10:19) Who is this stranger? Halakha tells us that it is the convert. This is disappointing, if we are looking in the Torah for signs of concern for humanity in general, and it seems a clear stretch of the verse. For what 10:19 tells us, more precisely, is to love the stranger “because you were strangers in Egypt.” This echoes two verses in Mishpatim (Ex 22:20 and 23:9), which warn us against oppressing the stranger and note that we “know the soul of the stranger” from our experience in Egypt. We were, however, certainly not converts in Egypt. Rather, in knowing the soul of the stranger from our experience in Egypt, we know a generally human kind of suffering. P’shat in these verses would seem to demand that we not oppress non-Jews, should we ever rule over them as the Egyptians did over us.
And that supreme Being presumably cares about all sorts of strangers, not just converts to Judaism. Verses 18-19 indicate that we are to emulate this sort of love, to care about all humanity as God does.
Indeed, the Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen suggested that it is only in loving the stranger that we fully express our monotheism. We understand God as truly the ruler of the entire universe, creator and guardian of all humankind, only when we recognize Him as the God of the stranger and not just of our kin. Loving the stranger is the most difficult of loves, the greatest challenge to our inclination to limit our concerns to the people and social system we know. But to care just about what we know is to worship ourselves, and to limit God to a being who takes care of the Jews is idolatry. True monotheism, a true recognition of God as source of or ruler over the entire universe, requires us to see God in the unfamiliar, the alien, as well as the familiar — in the complete outsider and not just in our neighbors.
In practice this means, for Jews in Israel, seeing God in the Palestinians, and for Jews here in America, seeing God in the Latina/os and other immigrants who work in our restaurants and stores and homes.
The God of gods… stands with all these people against their oppressors just as He stood with us in Egypt, cares for them as He does for us, and is ready to deliver them, as he does col adam, from one who is stronger than them, even when that stronger person is a Jew.
We were not delivered from Egypt to set up another ethnocentric system that oppresses outsiders. We were delivered, instead, precisely to spread the message that the true God cares for all humanity (that is how we become a “holy nation”). And that requires that we understand “love the stranger” broadly and richly: not just in legal terms but in the expansive terms that allow us to mirror God’s own love, and help bring about God’s own justice.
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