Mishpatim: Outsiders Among Outsiders

April 11, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Posted in Mishpatim | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on January 24, 2011.)

And you will not wrong an outsider, nor will you crush him, for you yourselves were outsiders in the land of Egypt.  You will not oppress any widow or orphan.   (Exodus/Shemot 22:20-21)

geir = outsider, foreigner, resident alien, sojourner, immigrant; someone who has lost the protection of his clan by moving to a different place; a convert

When the book of Exodus begins, the children of Israel are slaves building storage cities for Pharaoh.

Historically, Egypt under the New Kingdom pharaohs had foreign-born slaves who were prisoners of war or purchased from slave traders, but resident aliens who had been living in Egypt for 400 years, like the Israelites, would not have been slaves.  However, if they were poor, they might have been drafted (like native Egyptian peasants) for corvee labor—temporary forced labor to carry out government building projects.  The Exodus story might be based on an experience of corvee labor that continued until it seemed like permanent slavery.  And if the Israelite population was as large as the Torah says, maybe the labor quota was filled without using natives, so the Israelites would also feel discriminated against because they were outsiders.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“laws”), introduces a theme that recurs frequently in the rest of Exodus through Deuteronomy: consideration and fairness for the outsider living among you.  Don’t treat immigrants in your midst the way the Israelites were treated in Egypt!

While every society in the Near East seems to have required taking care of widows and orphans, adding resident aliens to the list is unique to the Torah.  According to the laws transmitted by Moses, these immigrants are expected to observe all the civil laws of the Israelites, and some of their religious laws.  The Israelites are expected to give the resident aliens special consideration as a disadvantaged group.

Why are they disadvantaged?  Modern scholar James Kugel noted that it was particularly easy to cheat or take advantage of resident aliens, since, unlike ordinary Israelites, they had no clan network to protect them.

Why does the Torah add  for you yourselves were outsiders in the land of Egypt?  Twentieth-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz pointed out that while some Israelites might empathize with strangers, many people who have been oppressed in the past and then come into positions of power compensate by becoming tyrants.  This, she wrote, is why Ramban (13th century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) interpreted the phrase for you yourselves were outsiders in the land of Egypt as a reminder that the Egyptian oppressors thought there was no one to help the Israelites, but God responded to their cries—destroying much of Egypt in the process.  The implied warning is: When you have your own land, don’t imagine that the strangers living among you will be helpless; God will respond to the cries of any strangers you oppress, and then you’ll be sorry.

This new moral idea of consideration for the outsider continued even after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah fell, after all the descendants of Israelites lived in lands ruled by other peoples.  The Talmud ruled that the word geir also applies to converts to Judaism, and people who were born Jewish must treat converts and their children with respect and consideration, in speech as well as deed.

Rashi (11th century rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) confirmed this principle, explaining that a convert to Judaism has a difficult life.  Is that still true today in America?

Not according to some people I’ve spoken with who were born Jewish.  They knew their own childhood pain from being abused by other children, targeted because they were Jewish.  But they seemed to imagine that non-Jews had carefree childhoods, and also that they never suffered, after conversion, at the hands of other Jews.

That was not my experience.  I was victimized by other children, even though I was not Jewish.  Then when I  converted to Judaism 24 years ago, I quickly realized that I was at a disadvantage among people who had grown up Jewish.  I didn’t share their memories or their culture—only their religion.  More than once I was told I could never understand what it’s like to be “a real Jew”.

Maybe being “a real Jew” does mean growing up Jewish.  Maybe it means living in Brooklyn, or having a bubbe (grandmother) who speaks Yiddish, or growing up under the shadow of the Holocaust.  Sometimes I want to give up and say okay, I’m not a real Jew, I can never be a real Jew.

And yet—the religion of Judaism is in my blood now.  My passion for Torah and devotion to prayer (in Hebrew) mean something.  Now I belong to a congregation that treats converts with consideration and respect.  But in the past, when I was told I wasn’t a real Jew, I felt shamed—just like the convert in the Talmud who is shamed when someone taunts him because he used to be a pork-eater.

Jews may still be outsiders in America to some extent.  But believe me, it is possible for someone to be an outsider in a group of outsiders.

May each one of us be blessed with a family, a circle of friends, a community of fellow-travelers, and even a nation, where we are insiders, where we truly belong.  And may each of us also be blessed with compassion for all outsiders—even those living among us.

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