“My Neighbor/Myself: Thoughts on a Jewish Ethic of Immigration” by Amy Eilberg

Reference: Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility

My heart tells me there is only one authentically Jewish response to the immigration debate raging in our country. The story of the immigrant, the stranger, the “other,” is our own story. As Jews, we can do nothing less than champion the needs of the immigrants in our midst with the full force of our spiritual and political power.

Do not oppress the stranger; you know the soul of the stranger, for you were slaves in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me . . . . (Exodus 22:21-4)

My father was a fugitive Aramean . . . (Deut. 26:5)

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love her as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus, 19:33-34)

More often than any other mitzvah in the Torah, we are commanded to champion the needs of the vulnerable in society, including the “stranger,” the immigrant, and the foreigner, for we know deep in our collective being what it is to be the persecuted minority, the outsider subject to prejudice and oppression.

Our story as a people began when our homeland was beset by famine and economic hardship. We migrated to the land of Egypt, where skillful governance had created more prosperity. Like the desperate immigrants of today, we were willing to suffer the loss of home and dignity, to risk everything by crossing into a foreign land, for our lives and the lives of our children depended on it.

The Torah commands us with resounding power not to turn our backs on these formative experiences. Rather, we are called to live out our empathy with the immigrants and strangers of the times and places in which we live.

Of course, our experience as a nation of immigrants did not end with our exodus from Egypt, but came to characterize much of our history. History relentlessly reinforced the lesson that God had commanded: We know the soul of the oppressed, the vulnerable, the “other.” This call to champion the needs of the victimized is central to who we are as Jews.

More broadly, a Jewish response to immigration must take account of Jewish sources on the central verse of the Torah, “Ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha,” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Our exegetical tradition contains different views on the scope of this commandment. According to one view, the verse applies only to one’s fellow Jews. But the strand of the tradition that resonates most deeply in today’s global reality declares with persuasive clarity that we are to love all people as our neighbors and fellow travelers on this earth.

Similarly, some commentators see the Torah’s command, “Do not hate your brother in your heart,” (Leviticus 19:17) as applying only to the Jewish family. In today’s world, many of us understand that the sacred call is to embrace every member of the human family as our own kin. Thus, the Torah expressly forbids the kind of hatred, prejudice, and racism that too often enliven the punitive voices in the immigration debate.

Surely, good people can and will disagree about how to translate the Torah’s broad ethical principles into wise contemporary public policy. Yet for me, the core truth of Jewish teaching is clear, as articulated in this remarkable midrash:

God gathered the dust [of the first human] from the four corners of the world — red, black, white, and green. Red is for the blood; black is for the innards; and green is for the body. Why from the four corners of the earth? So that if one comes from the East to the West as he nears the end of his life, it will not be said to him, “This land is not the dust of your body; it’s of mine. Go back to where you were created.” Rather, every place that a person walks, from there he was created and from there he will return. (Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 1:13)


Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (shma.com), Vol. 52, No. 672.