The Torah’s Views On Immigrants? Let The Bible Speak For Itself
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The Torah’s Views On Immigrants? Let The Bible Speak For Itself

This image by John Moore of U.S. Border Patrol agents taking a Central American asylum seeker into custody, and separating the woman from her child, helped catalyze the response to the Justice Department’s zero-tolerance policy. Getty Images
This image by John Moore of U.S. Border Patrol agents taking a Central American asylum seeker into custody, and separating the woman from her child, helped catalyze the response to the Justice Department’s zero-tolerance policy. Getty Images

The Bible does not need Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or anyone else speaking for it on the issue of immigration and the treatment of immigrants – it speaks for itself. The Book of Genesis alone is replete with treatment of the questions of why people emigrate, what challenges they confront as immigrants and how they often respond (both well and badly) to those challenges. In turn, Biblical law offers regulation of the conduct of governments and individuals in dealing with aliens/ immigrants in their midst.

Abraham emigrates three times, first to achieve a blessed life in fulfillment of divine promise, second due to famine, and third to promote his economic well-being. In these instances he finds his life threatened, his wife at risk of rape, himself subject to economic exploitation and lacking any legal protection. His defensive responses are varied: he lies, he induces his wife to lie, he tries verbal rebuke and entry into treaty, he insists on public disclosure of his needs and transactions, and he manifests vigilance as to his vulnerabilities. Despite these travails, Abraham, his nephew Lot, his niece Rebecca, and his great niece, Rachel, are portrayed as offering a counter-cultural model of hospitality and decency towards strangers.

Isaac emigrates but once, due to famine. He too finds threat to his life, risk of rape of his wife, economic exploitation, absence of legal protection and beyond those, open jealousy and hatred of him as an outsider. He too responds with lies, with rebuke and unhelpful treaties, but also with deep persistence, pride and eventual flight back home.

Is there anyone amongst us who cannot find in these Biblical portrayals the contours of the stories of their ancestors, or even of their own stories, as immigrants?

Jacob emigrated the first time because his life was threatened. After the first flush of welcome, he is personally denigrated, deceived in his choice of a spouse, deceived in compensation for his labor, and victimized by jealousy and false accusation. He persists in sustaining an attitude of trustfulness, he marries a local woman, he undertakes ever more work, even self-sacrificially, but eventually, unable to tolerate the fierce rejection, acts deceptively. He plans his flight and reacts vigorously with righteous indignation. Upon his return to his homeland after a 20-year absence, a stranger once again, desiring only to be able to live in peace – his daughter is raped. He has no legal standing against the rapist and he fears extermination of his entire family. He reacts with the subservience learned as an alien, but his sons respond with deceit and violence – unwilling to tolerate the criminal conduct against their sister and the failure of action by the society against the princely rapist.

Saul J. Berman

Joseph becomes an immigrant in Egypt because he was sold as a slave. He is subject of sexual seduction and false accusation, he is legally defenseless, is imprisoned, and even those he served and helped have no sense of loyalty to him. He remains silent because his social position allows him no voice. He just continued to work with integrity as a slave, until he was needed by the government. Then they needed him to look and behave like themselves because it would be shameful if they needed an alien, an outsider, a slave, to rescue them from their own economic failures. So they shaved off his beard, dressed him in royal clothes and jewelry, and provided him with a royal chariot. They changed his name and married him off to the daughter of a local priest.

Central American asylum seekers, including a Honduran girl, 2, and her mother, are taken into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. Getty Images

Is there anyone amongst us who cannot find in these Biblical portrayals the contours of the stories of their ancestors, or even of their own stories, as immigrants?

But the Bible speaks further to these matters in its legal passages. It is clear that Biblical law does not intend to allow these forms of harmful and abusive conduct towards strangers to stand as acceptable in the societies which it will form and influence. And so, Biblical legislation related to the immigrant, the stranger, the “Ger” (whether as a geographic or as a religious alien), attempts to eliminate the major vulnerabilities which it had identified in its narratives.

In forbidding homicide, the Bible does not distinguish between taking the life of a citizen, or that of an alien, or that of a slave. The principle that every human being is created in the image of God and is therefore entitled to equal protection of life is upheld. Criminal sexual acts such as rape or incest are not distinguished in Biblical law as between citizen and alien. Biblical law emphasizes the need for honesty and integrity in economic relations between citizens and aliens; economic exploitation of immigrants is repeatedly condemned as violation of the duty to remember the enslavement in Egypt.

Multiple passage in the Bible insist that the civil laws, (protection of life and health as well as protection of property), must be applied equally between citizens and aliens. Special emphasis is placed on the duty of magistrates to adjudicate fairly and equally between citizen and alien, for the law is the Lord’s.

The emotional well-being of aliens is to be protected, as the Bible emphasizes that crimes which are of an especially oppressive or degrading nature are particularly to be avoided in the relationship to aliens.

Protesters at a Jewish rally at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in New York City demonstrate against the government’s border separation policy, June 21, 2018. JTA

Of course, in the Biblical perspective the grant of such extensive rights to aliens generates a reciprocal set of duties on their parts. The same laws which bar citizens or government from acting abusively towards the alien, bar aliens from engaging in those same action against others, Thus, aliens bear the duties of not killing, nor committing sexual crimes or crimes against the property of others, of not exploiting the emotional vulnerabilities of others, and affirmatively the duty of upholding the law.

Beyond all of this stands the command to love the stranger, and its underlying rationale of God’s insistence that He “…upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and loves the stranger…. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19.)

No one ever said that adherence to Biblical law was easy. But if it is not our conscious aspiration, as individuals and as a nation, to achieve its moral teachings, then we forfeit our claim to be faithful servants of the God of Abraham.

Rabbi Saul J. Berman teaches at Stern College; and teaches seminars in Jewish Law and co-teaches a course in Biblical Jurisprudence at Columbia University Law School. This op-ed is a summary of a lengthy article on immigration which Rabbi Berman is now completing.

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