Torah teachings vary when it comes to immigrants

Every year, on the first night of the holiday of Shavuot, I deliver a Torah class about a timely political or social topic. The more controversial, the better; after all, I have to keep everyone awake from midnight to 3 a.m. In my time, I’ve covered many of the big ones: abortion, suicide, gun control, illegal drugs and marijuana, trangenderism and homosexuality, and the legal parameters of self-defense. Although it’s always a massive undertaking to try to comprehend and encapsulate the Torah’s viewpoint on particularly complex issues, I’ve always found plentiful traditional source material to work with, and with it a coherent line of thought or thoughts on the issue.
Not this year. With border security and the cessation of illegal immigration as cornerstones of the Trump administration’s platform, it seemed natural to dig into the Torah’s position on border security, immigration in general and how the Torah might tackle the challenge of the thousands of undocumented immigrants already living and working in the shadows of this country. The problem I encountered is, although we know much of Joshua’s conquering of ancient Israel and of the laws governing who could live in the country and under which conditions, it’s hard to know how these Torah laws, particular to the Holy Land of old, might affect or influence a Jew’s outlook on policies concerning modern nation-states. In a sense, this would be more of an investigation into the spirit of the Torah’s laws, than an investigation into the laws themselves.
That the Torah allows sovereign nations to defend themselves and their borders from physical threats arising from foreign enemies and invaders is clear. At a minimum, that which is permitted under the allowances of personal self-protection (see Exodus 22:1-2, for example) is surely extended to a country, or a grouping of many individuals. The modern policy adopted by many countries (including the United States) to exclude those with criminal backgrounds or proven ties to foreign gangs or terror organizations from obtaining citizenship is a logical, pre-emptive attempt to prevent potential dangers from entering one’s borders, and would certainly have the Torah’s approval.
What’s interesting of note, however, is the Torah’s equally vigilant concern regarding the introduction of foreign ideological threats that might undermine the national character of the country. This, after all, is a threat that immigration poses as well. To this extent, non-Jews were permitted to live in the Holy Land along with the rest of Israel, but they had to abide by the seven Noahide Laws (laws of basic social civility and morality that are incumbent upon all of humanity). When pledged to the law, these non-Jews immediately obtained the status of a ger toshav (“a foreign dweller”) and all of Israel was enjoined to treat them as they would treat a fellow Israelite. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Idolaters and miscreants, on the other hand, were not welcome, lest their negative behavior influence the local Jewish populace.
A somewhat modern equivalent of this can be found in the multiple conditions and tests that countries impose upon those seeking citizenship to their country. Whether they be proficiency tests in the national language, required lessons in national history and law, or pledges of allegiance to the welfare and laws of that given country, these are modes of ensuring, to the best of a government’s abilities, that immigrants taking up permanent residence will only add to the national landscape, and not, God forbid, create an internal corrosion of the basic tenets of the state.
And, while countries acting in good faith have a duty to admit those seeking refuge from physical danger (a concept the Rambam [Guide to the Perplexed 3:39] derives from the Torah precept, “You shall not deliver a slave to his master if he seeks refuge with you from his master” [Deuteronomy 23:16]), the waters become murkier when considering those seeking citizenship upon the promise of economic security. A country has the right to consider the economic sustainability of immigrant absorption en masse, as well as the overall toll and burden it might place on the broader populace. This, indeed, is a dilemma that different countries attack in differing ways, and are within their rights to do so.
Jews have known exile longer than any other people. It was the prophet Jeremiah who set the precedent for all times as to the expected attitude that Jews should adopt toward their new nations of residence, when he said: “Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to God for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” And, it was the Sages of the Talmud who commanded us that “the law of the land is the law.” We were, in other words, to serve as model citizens of whichever country we found ourselves in at the time, however long or short that stay might be.
As to the Torah’s approach/solution to the dilemma of those already living in a country illegally, we will dissect that conundrum in Part II of this article to come next time.

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