Friday, February 17, 2012

Torah Thoughts: Immigration and Jewish values-Parashat Mishpatim

Parashat Mishpatim
On this Shabbat we embark upon an experimental idea to enhance our congregation’s Shabbat Morning experience. Tomorrow morning we inaugurate the Hot Topics Shabbat. Besides the fellowship of a little nosh and an abbreviated worship service, we intend to engage our congregants in a different kind of study and discussion. Rather than diving into the sea of commentaries, we will use the Torah portion as a jumping off point to discuss provocative and challenging issues in the public domain.  Can Torah values enlighten our understanding about controversial topics today?  Do contemporary politics determine our religious values or do our religious values inform our view of society’s most vexing problems?
Tomorrow morning we shall address the immigration issue in light of the Torah’s views on the stranger. “You shall not wrong the stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).Given that God commands us to be kind to the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, how do we reconcile that moral imperative with our response to both legal and illegal immigration issues that have received so much attention? The Torah teaches us to be kind to the stranger regardless o f the legal status. It creates a bedrock value for Jews over history to welcome the stranger. This value also impacts Israel today with the influx of illegal immigrants from Asia, Africa and China.
We Jews understand the importance of immigration to our spiritual heritage. Quite a few within our own congregation are immigrants arriving here during the period of Nazism.  Other congregants come from Israel and the Former Soviet Union. The experience of being an immigrant is part and parcel of our spiritual DNA as any value can be embedded into our consciousness. Yet, since most of us are second and third generation Americans is our perspective towards non-Jewish and illegal new arrivals different than how we view Jewish immigration? My own belief is that before we make a decision on people who are poor and who are illegal immigrants we should familiarize ourselves with Jewish history and ethos regarding our own values towards treating the stranger in our midst.
We have witnessed a movement in our country to modify and restrict illegal immigration in states like Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina. We have witnessed the President and the Congress over the last two administrations attempt and fail at enacting comprehensive Immigration Reform. Lots of debate and accusations all the way around with regard to the legislation and the debate as to how best to protect our borders and differentiate between legal and illegal immigration. Certainly we have seen the depth of bad will that spreads when these issues are stoked by pending state legislation as well as by the intended and unintended consequences of an unstable and volatile economy. These factors pull apart the social fabric of our country.
Of course we are not the only nation that struggles with these kinds of issues. It is even more ironic to watch Israel, which like America, is a nation of immigrants. The idea of settling new Jewish immigrants is part and parcel of Israel’s mission and its strength for the future. But the Israelis have problems with non-Jews who come from far flung nations such as the Philippines, Somalia, China and other nations. These people who yearn for a livelihood come to Israel’s prosperous economy. Here Israel must face its own Jewish past when we were illegal immigrants to Israel in light of the British mandate let alone to so many other countries during the period leading up to World War Two. Now Israel struggles with what policy to adopt that is consistent with Jewish values of respecting the stranger in our midst and at the same time does not threaten the economy or Israel’s ongoing security issues and the Jewish character of Israel.
How do we react to the millions of illegal immigrants who have crossed our borders? They use our social services which we pay for and their children born in this country become citizens. Should we support state government efforts to close our borders and severely restrict potential illegal immigration? They are our landscapers and our dish washers and our agricultural labor and our apartment maintenance people etc. In an economy of so many unemployed can we really count upon the idea, as some presidential candidates have intoned, of self deportation? There are so many citizens who need a job. Must we act to rid our country of illegal immigrants so that we can return these manual labor jobs to the unemployed in our midst? Is that policy realistic? Is it right?
The Hebrew word for stranger is ger which derives from the root to sojourn or dwell. It refers to a person who has come to dwell in our nation who is not a member of that nation. In the ancient land the stranger would come to the nation because of famine or many other political or economic hardships. The Torah narrates the stories of Abraham and Isaac who both left Canaan to Egypt because of famine. Of course Jacob and his clan went down to Egypt under Joseph’s protection. In that situation we came in as legal immigrants but were then declared illegal and cast into a 400 year slavery.
The Bible tells us that the stranger must be accepted into our community. In fact they too were expected to observe the Sabbath as the Israelites. By reading the books of Chronicles which details much of Israelite history, we see how the Israelite kings used foreign immigrants for public work projects.
“David commanded to gather together the strangers that were in the Land of Israel, and he set masons to hew wrought stones to build the house of God. Solomon numbered all the strangers that were in the Land of Israel, numbering them were found a hundred and fifty thousand and three thousand and six hundred.”
 Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen wrote, “These strangers, migrant workers, were of vital importance. It was they who did the heavy manual labor, and it would appear that already then the Israelites themselves avoided such work.” Justice Cohen goes on to argue that Judaism has embedded in its spiritual reservoir the utmost respect for non-Israelite residents. And this fact of history and theology supports why we have been overwhelmingly sensitive and empathetic to the immigrants who have come after us to America.
One final piece of evidence comes from medieval Spain. The commentator Moses Ibn Ezra commented on the verse not to oppress the stranger.   He writes, “As a resident alien, he has no family roots in the land, so it would be easy for the citizens to wrong him whether regards to money or to housing, and even to oppress him by means of false testimony.  You must not wrong a stranger either, merely because you have more power than he.  Remember that you were once strangers like him.”
Does this not bear relevancy for today?  True we must make difficult decisions. Will we support efforts to purge or cleanse our country of these people? Will we come to grips with America’s ideal and its promise?  True, we must be honest about our feelings about Hispanics and other minority groups in general as we decide our position on illegal immigration. Is the best or proper solution for illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship? Or do we as a society continue a national policy of perpetual indecision?
The Torah tells us, “Have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike”(Lev.24:22). Putting both laws together is a political and spiritual challenge to keep this nation strong.

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