The Torah On Protecting Strangers


I was deeply saddened by Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld’s response to my opinion article on “Torah Views on Immigrants,” July 13, in his July 20 letter to the editor. Since I referred to some 30 instances of mistreatment of immigrants reported in the narratives of the Book of Genesis, and some 30 explicit laws of Torah reflecting the attempt to protect strangers from such vulnerabilities, I was surprised to read Rabbi Schonfeld suggest that I was “shoehorning” my “political or ideological agenda into the Bible’s narrative.”

I do not think that Rabbi Schonfeld would argue that there are no ways to verify the fundamental ethical patterns which Torah teaches us. It is true that one can sometimes find in Torah an exception to a general pattern, usually indicating the presence of a competing Torah value. Citing a singular instance, as he does, particularly citing it out of context, or in a fragmented manner, does not undermine the vital force of powerful moral teachings of Torah.

I am encouraged by the fact that Rabbi Schonfeld did not cite a single instance from the Torah text itself countering my contention of the fundamental ethical value of protection of the well-being of strangers. He does refer to the case of the Gibeonites, which appears in the Book of Joshua, without mentioning that later, in II Sam. 21, the entire Jewish nation is punished with three years of famine as punishment for King Saul’s cruel treatment of those same Gibeonites.

I do not believe that Rabbi Schonfeld actually believes that the issue of the legality of the immigration should be a singularly sufficient factor to justify the rejection or exclusion of the immigrant. Would he then argue that the U.S. in 1939 was justified in turning away the St. Louis with its 900 Jewish refugees from Germany, because they were illegal?

Rabbi Schonfeld correctly accuses me of bias. I am biased in favor of our using the Torah to understand the foundational virtues and values which God desires us to utilize in our public as well as our private lives. I deeply believe that one of those essential virtues is the sensitivity towards the vulnerability of immigrants and the correlative legal responsibility to protect them as much as possible from suffering and mistreatment. This does not deny any country the right to regulate its borders while taking into account other vital interests. But it demands that such regulation be undertaken in a spirit of loving concern.