As Americans repeat their centuries-old folly of inflaming anti-immigrant passions, we might remind ourselves that the Torah commands us 36 separate times to love or provide for the stranger. That’s more than for Shabbat, sacrifices, Yom Kippur, or kashrut. It’s a good idea to recall this Torah commandment at Sukkot, when it’s a mitzvah to invite family, friends, neighbors and even sukkah-less strangers to our booths. We were strangers once in the Land of Egypt, and God, Moses and our rabbinic sages apparently don’t want us making the same mistakes with strangers that the ancient Egyptians made with us.
Torah commandments are made to set ideals for us. We’re fear- and scarcity- driven animals, whose intellects (cerebral cortex) are constantly wrestling with our fight-or-flight lizard brains (amygdala). While we fear and resist change, our intellects are determined and persistent, and over the millenia, they’ve led us past superstition and brutality to wiser places.
For example, we don’t pronounce death sentences on recalcitrant sons (Ki Tetze), or on people who plant two different crops in the same field, wear
garments made from two different kinds of thread (Lev.19:19), or violate the Sabbath. We no longer kill or banish men for trimming their hair (Lev. 19:27), or trading clothes with women (Ki Tetze). And we don’t keep slaves (Lev. 25:44), or sell our daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7). Curiously, Torah ignores female homosexual relationships, but it does condemn male ones — once (Lev.
18:22). However, as genetic research advances, we exercise kindness to strangers, pursue justice, and increasingly view these relationships as unremarkable, intellect may lead us past this “hot button issue,” too. It’s just as well: we need to focus now on how we’ll survive on this climate-challenged planet.
A key to survival is re-imagining our social contract. This is the invitation behind every commandment in the Torah: How can we choose to better relate to and work with each other?
Every émigré must fight for recognition and acceptance in his or her new land. Anti-immigrant groups often dislike and ridicule newcomers’ “strange” religious and cultural customs — the very things that comfort immigrants after being uprooted from their homelands. Ironically, elements of the new cultures often get incorporated into American culture as new foods, art styles, dances, words and products. Could America’s landed, slave-holding, colonial European “founders” ever have imagined today’s melting pot, Colors of Benetton America?
Immigrants also face economic resistance. Like blacks, Irish Catholics, Chinese, Jews, Japanese, Vietnamese and others before them, they support themselves with entrepreneurship, labor and low-paying jobs. They often create unwelcome competition for already-established Americans. And they often use education, health care and social services paid for by residents’ tax dollars.
Until recently, economists magically divorced social and ecological consequences from “the economy.” They were considered “externalities,” unrelated to business. Now, we know better. The new perspective, “sustainable business,” combines them all in a “triple bottom line” of social equity, ecology and economy.
Curiously, immigrants and established Americans both currently agree on resisting sustainable business. They’re accustomed to an economy that makes and moves money, not one that takes care of the people and planet that make an economy possible. Societal responsibilities may be spelled out in every corporation’s charter, and hundreds of giant companies may be “greening” their operations. But profit still rules as they race to meet quarterly earnings and shareholder targets. And the bigger the enterprise, the less it bothers with regional or local concerns.
If we re-imagined our society, however, we’d form coalitions, co-operatives, communities and unions with immigrants. We’d “vote with our dollars” — and financially support local and regional enterprises that take good care of the people and places where they do business. We’d discourage corporate welfare, mergers, acquisitions, outsourcing and offshoring. We’d create a simple, graduated income tax system, and encourage the wealthy to contribute generously to the country that made their fortunes possible. And what would we get? Strong regional economies and local investment, more jobs and civic engagement, less pollution and illness, and better uses of our resources.
So, let’s start re-imagining society now. Join the tikkun olam or social action committee at your temple or synagogue. Take advantage of earth-healing activities created by the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox movements. Or contribute time and/or dollars to these Jewish organizations:
• American Jewish World Service (www.ajws.org), dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among people across the globe,
• COEJL (www.coejl.org), the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which creates distinctively Jewish responses to the environmental crisis,
• Hazon (www.hazon.org) working to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community and world for all, and
• Repair the World (www.werepair.org), working to make service to those in need a defining part of American Jewish life.
We’re bound in Judaism to pursue justice and do mitzvot. If it were up to the Torah, we’d welcome the stranger like Abraham and Sarah did. But it’s not. Whether we welcome or repel newcomers is entirely up to us.