Evolving Torah: Viewing 21st C. Morality Through the Lens of Our Ancestors | November 10, 2019

Guest preacher: Rabbi Jessica Shimberg

This week, I had the blessing of reading Joel’s sermon from last Sunday and, in observance of All Souls Day, his reference to The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians. As an American Jew in my 50s, my formative experience of Christians — as one of the only Jewish children in Upper Arlington in the 1970s and early ‘80s — didn’t allow me to see the nuanced variety of Christian experience. In my personal story, to be Christian was to be part of the dominant majority — safe, secure, culturally very dominant. Through my many experiences of exclusion (though none of them “bloody,” thank God!) and as the victim of antisemitic language and mythology, I was the stranger despite my citizenship and that of my parents and my grandparents as people born in the United States.

The opportunity Joel’s sermon provided to learn about Menno Simons and the persecution of the early Anabaptists/Mennonites at the hands of other Christians within central Europe was a window for me into, as Joel put it, “one of the central teachings of Menno and Anabaptists of his kind. That to be Christian is to embrace the nonviolent – or, as they would say, nonresistant – way of Jesus – the peacefulness spoken of in the Beatitudes. This eschewing of violence left these Christians ‘defenseless.’” Although this reaffirmed my deep affection for this church and you, it also saddened me a bit. Knowing that so many of us share an historical lens of persecution of “our people,” and a Scriptural lens that encourages and commands us to love and care for those who are most likely to be marginalized and persecuted in society, somehow feels like it should make it a “no brainer” that we would treat the stranger/sojourner with kindness. And yet, here we are in 2019 proving the line from Proverbs that there is nothing new under the sun …

Last week, Joel offered to you 3 phrases from Hebrew Scripture that call upon us to remember our experience of slavery in Egypt and 3 to treat the stranger with kindness. The linking of our memory of slavery to our obligation to treat others with compassion and care is the clarion call of Judeo-Christian scripture. And, as a Jew, it is a message written on the strands of my DNA. As Joel beautifully expressed last week, “Memory, for the children of Israel, is the grounding of ethical orientation. Collective memory informs present group identity and behavior.” The children of Israel (b’nei Yisrael”) are told repeatedly to recall, as Joel stated, “the most oppressive time of their past. When they (and here I will say, WE, as I consider us all inheritors of these imperatives) were in Egypt … [and] were resident aliens, non-citizens, ethnic outsiders … enslaved, oppressed, beaten down and exploited…”

The phrases we have read from Exodus, come from the Torah portion called Mishpatim (laws) and come shortly after the revelation of Aseret Dibrot (the 10 Utterances or as we are used to hearing — the Ten Commandments) on Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai). This moral imperative of welcoming, caring for the “ger” is an integral part of the formative structure of an ordered and civil society. This treatment of “the other — the stranger in our midst — the “ethnic outsider” — is at the heart of the laws and precepts are the prototype which has been used again and again from the Code of Hamurabi to
the Constitution, and yet, the emphasis on caring for the immigrant seems a distant whisper in the nationalist rhetoric and policies of far too many countries in 2019.

In Torah, and throughout our daily liturgy, Jews recall our journey out of slavery as a touchpoint for faith. God brought us out of Mitzrayim (the Hebrew for Egypt is linked, etymologically, to narrowness of a life of slavery). Our degradation and liberation leads us, eventually, to the revelation that inspires ethical behavior which become laws. When we daily remember our own degradation, our early liturgists intuited, compassion will be stirred in us. Thus, memory will surely keep us from turning from oppressed to oppressor as is a real possibility given the flaws of our human nature.
And if memory of our own experience of degradation is not enough, we are also commanded to love the stranger/sojourner/other. What does it mean to be commanded to love?

This is a different kind of love that that which we give to our children or our beloved. It is even a different kind of love than we give our parents (whom, by the way, we are also commanded it love). This love is more of a civic duty. What would it be like in the bureau of motor vehicles, or on the bus, or as we walked down the street if we observed this civic duty kind of love?

We talk a lot about this kind of love in scripture and in our social justice work and yet, how often do we practice this kind of love when we are irritated by the beggar on the street or the person who
changes lanes too quickly? How do we love when there is little to no “incentive” to show love?

When we hear “Love your neighbor as yourself” we may have a “kumbaya moment” and think of “neighbor” as referring to the entire human family. Or we might think of “neighbors” as those who live next door or in proximity to our dwelling. Torah clearly specifies two separate categories of people – neighbors and strangers – when commanding we behave lovingly. Torah’s classifications reflect a much more nuanced and accurate representation of human nature than any contemporary platitudes about love, love, love. For, in fact, we humans are not likely to automatically treat a stranger the way we treat a neighbor. There is generally a bit of moral calculus in treating one’s neighbor well — a quid pro quo mentality even if only subconsciously. We want our neighbor to treat us well, too! A basic social contract among people living in community is that it is in everyone’s self-interest to behave well towards each other. The stranger is by definition someone beyond our affinity group. Because self-interest is not the incentive, Torah wisely gives us memory to create compassion through a sense of shared suffering when Torah insists that when we encounter a stranger, we transcend self-interest and instead practice empathy. To accomplish that, we must be able to identify with the stranger by imagining or recalling what it feels like to be without power in a land not your own.

This instruction is repeated more than three dozen times*, in various forms, in Torah (just in Genesis through Deuteronomy) — more than any other commandment. We are taught that anything that is
repeated in Torah is not a casual coincidence. Words are repeated for emphasis. As a parent, teacher and evolving human being, I know that the rules that get repeated the most are the ones that we are having trouble following! Torah teaches that all human beings are made in the Divine image and all are fundamentally deserving of being treated with dignity, care and respect, including the foreigner, the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee. However, this teaching is clearly hard for us to grasp because Torah commands us repeatedly to love those who are not the most natural or beneficial or easy for us love so that we will cultivate and grow love to reach the level of awareness of this divinity of each human being.

Whichever way we look at it, there is something striking about the dozens of iterated concern for the stranger – together with the historical reminder that “you yourselves were slaves in Egypt.” It is as if, in this series of laws, we are coming back, each time, to the core of our Judeo-Christian-Islamic values.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, commenting on Parshat Mishpatim, suggests that:

“Hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilization. The Greeks called strangers “barbarians” because of their (as it seemed to them) outlandish speech that sounded like the bleating of sheep. The Romans were equally dismissive of non-Hellenistic races. The pages of history are stained with blood spilled in the name of racial or ethnic conflict. It was precisely this to which the Enlightenment, the new “age of
reason,” promised an end, but that did not happen. In revolutionary France as the Rights of Man were being pronounced, in 1789, riots broke out against the Jewish community in Alsace. Hatred against English and German immigrant workers persisted throughout the nineteenth century. In 1881 in Marseilles a crowd of 10,000 went on a rampage attacking Italians and their property. Dislike of “the stranger” is as old as mankind.”
“This fact lies at the very heart of the Jewish experience. It is no coincidence that Judaism was born in two journeys away from the two greatest civilizations of the ancient world: Abraham’s from Mesopotamia, Moses’ and the Israelites’ from Pharaonic Egypt. The Torah is the world’s great protest against empires and imperialism. There are many dimensions to this protest. One is the attempt to justify social hierarchy and the absolute power of rulers in the name of religion. Another is the subordination of the mass to the state – epitomized by the vast building projects, first of Babel, then of Egypt, and the enslavement they entailed. A third is the brutality of nations in the course of war (the subject of Amos’ oracles against the nations). Undoubtedly, though, the most serious offence – for the prophets as well as the Mosaic books – was the use of power against the powerless: the widow, the orphan and, above all, the stranger.”

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the experience/memory of being “a stranger” is central to what it is to be a Jew. Abraham is commanded to leave his land, home and father’s house. And Abraham is told that his descendants would be “strangers in a land not their own” a very long time before Joseph was born and sold into slavery by his brothers. ; Moses, too, experienced exile before assuming leadership of b’nei Yisrael, and the Israelites wandered and experienced persecution before we were allowed to cross over the Jordan River to inherit the Land. We retell this story each day (liturgy) and each year (Passover) along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery to ensure it becomes a permanent part of our collective memory.

In retrospect, knowing the long history of my People as being treated as strangers in every land, it is extraordinary foreshadowing that the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia so seriously. It was preparing us for the journey ahead and reminding us as we became comfortable the remain mindful.

Why must you love the stranger? Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of
their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger?

Because the stranger is me.

From the stories of Torah to the stories of Kristallnacht (the destructive November pogroms in Germany that occurred on this weekend in 1938), the prohibition against oppressing others is founded on our own historical memories of persecution: “Do not oppress him in your land when you are stronger than him. Remember, you were strangers like him” (Ibn Ezra on Ex. 22:20). Everyday, we recall our experience as defenseless victims in Egypt, and God’s redeeming role in our liberation. Everyday we recall that our cries were heard – our people born out of slavery – so that we too might respond to the cry of suffering in the world around us.While we cannot draw equivalencies between our suffering – its unique depths and horrors – and the suffering of any other people, past or present, we can, in remembering our humiliations, weave empathy from pain. We know, from the inside, what it can mean to be abandoned to powerful governments. We know what it can mean to be dehumanized, blamed, and punished collectively for the misdeeds, real and imagined, of the few.

Why do we remember? To protest ongoing innocent bloodshed and human cruelty, and to honor those who have defended the victims in every age. To urge the One who delivered us from Egypt to help us deliver all those persecuted today. To ask that mercy might prevail and our lives take part in bringing the world’s torments to an end.

We cry out because the psychological shields of the untouched majority are painfully familiar: denial (it’s not really happening), minimization (it’s not really so bad), justification (it must be done), and dehumanization (they are animals, criminals, etc.).

We cry out because the heart of the stranger is our own heart, the humiliation of the stranger our own humiliation, and the persecution of the stranger our own persecution.

We cry out and commit ourselves to action because we understand the commandment to love the stranger as ourselves.


* 3 dozen times: The treatment of strangers is not merely the subject of a solitary legal command; it is a leitmotif of biblical literature. According to the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Bava Mezia 59b), the Torah admonishes us about the treatment of strangers no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment is repeated so often.
*Kristallnacht (also called, in Germany, the November pogroms): Photographs with explanation — https://www.insider.com/kristallnacht-night-of-broken-glass- anniversary-2019-11#in-the-weeks-that-followed-jewish-people-are-banned-from- schools-and-theaters-and-had-restricted-access-to-public-transportation-9