Comprehensive immigration reform has been a contentious issue in the halls of the United States Congress for years. The Senate has recently passed a bill to address the needs of immigration reform but it will likely be more difficult to pass legislation in the House of Representatives and there is already talk about a less comprehensive compromise in the works.
In Israel there has also been significant political tension over the status of illegal immigrants from northern Africa who have crossed into Israel in recent years. The Israeli government has begun to return some illegal immigrants back to Eritrea and a fierce debate is raging as to whether the government’s actions are just given the human rights violations in their native country.
For both Israel and the United States, countries established by immigrants, the question of how laws should deal with immigrants seeking a better life and how to properly integrate them into society goes to the heart of people’s perceptions of national character and identity.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, records several biblical laws that speak directly to this critical element of national policy and national character. In Deuteronomy chapter 23, verse 8 it states: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you should not abhor an Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land.”
The liberation from Egyptian enslavement is a cornerstone of Jewish theology and collective memory. The entire Passover ritual of the seder is oriented toward re-experiencing the suffering in Egypt and the great redemption wrought by God’s salvific compassion for the Israelites. Given the centrality of Egyptian bondage to the biblical narrative, it would be natural, perhaps, for the Israelites to direct vengeance and hatred toward Egyptians for their cruelty. And yet, this verse seems to indicate that Egypt’s original hospitality that provided a refuge for the Israelites during years of famine redeems Egypt from the status of a pariah nation. The memory of being welcomed as immigrants in need of the kindness of others must overcome the hatred that the memory of bondage and cruelty generates.
In verses 16-17 of the same chapter of Deuteronomy it states, “Do not deliver to his master a slave who has escaped from his master. He shall dwell in your midst with you, in the place he shall choose in one of your gates, where it is good for him; you shall not oppress him.” Jewish commentaries give various reasons for this law including concern that slaves of enemies may return to their masters with knowledge that can be used against the Israelites.
The Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 45a) interprets these verses to refer to non-Jewish slaves who seek freedom in Israel from their Jewish masters who live outside the Holy land. However, the plain meaning of the text suggests that freedom from bondage and the right to live in peace and security should be granted to those who cross the borders seeking asylum. The national character of the Israelite nation, as understood by these passages in Deuteronomy, needs to be shaped by a deep concern for the stranger and for those who are oppressed by others.
The current debates concerning immigration policies in the U.S. and Israel are complex and emotionally intense. They reflect legitimate and often competing concerns about justice, resource allocation, and cultural values. For both countries, attitudes toward immigrants reveal deeply rooted, conflicting understandings of the nation’s history and mission. In the argumentation and resolution of these debates, nothing less than the national character of these two great nations is at stake.
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is the eighth President of Hebrew College. He previously served as the founding Headmaster of Gann Academy – The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston and the Founding Director of BIMA – The Berkshire Institute for Music and Arts. A graduate of Yeshiva University and its Rabbinical School, Rabbi Lehmann received the Covenant Foundation Award as well as the Benjamin Shevach Award from Hebrew College for his innovative leadership in Jewish education. He has both studied and taught at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the National Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) in New York. Rabbi Lehmann has written numerous articles and chapters on Jewish education and interreligious learning, and has lectured widely to professional and communal audiences.
ON Scripture — The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.