What a provocative phrase! It comes from Exodus 2 (verse 22), and is Moses’ explanation of the name he chooses for his son, Gershom. ‘Ger’ – stranger – and ‘shom’ there. In that one word is an expression of Moses’ particular dilemma, representative of every Jew’s dilemma, and the dilemma of the Jewish people as well. To be a stranger in a land not your own, an outsider in a place where you dwell but are not fully connected. To be other. We come from Abraham, the ‘Ivri,’ the one from beyond.
The Torah does not shy away from this core fact of Jewish life, in fact it uses this idea as a constant reminder to us to care for those less fortunate. Time and again the Torah tells us we have a special responsibility to watch out for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger “because we were slaves in Egypt.” We know what that feels like to be other, to be the stranger, and so should be extra-sensitive to those who share that experience.
Over the last week or so a series of stories that have been in the news remind me of how difficult the issue of the stranger is in our culture still today. The killing of Michael Brown, the young black man from Ferguson Missouri, is at least in part a story of what can happen when we fear what we are not, when we are afraid and estranged from the other. At its heart, racism also comes from that kind of fear, and the Michael Brown tragedy is deeply connected to issues of race.
Fear of the other is also at the heart of a ‘nationalities bill’ that is making its way through the Israeli political system, having been approved by the Israeli cabinet this week. As currently constituted, the bill would create a licit distinction between Jews and Arabs, with a two tiered citizenship structure that favors Jews. There are many ways to let the stranger know he is unwelcome, and giving him a different legal status is one tried and tested method.
Finally, there is the issue of conversion to Judaism, which has become contentious particularly in the Orthodox community over the last number of years. A NY Times column this week by a brave Orthodox rabbi about making the conversion process more open and less exclusive and intimidating will raise some hackles in the Orthodox world.
Over the next few days I’ll write a short blog about each of these stories – Michael Brown, the Israel ‘nationality bill,’ and conversion to Judaism. In each case the perception and fear of the other plays a central role. We were strangers in Egypt. I am wondering how well we remember that experience, and the lesson it is supposed to teach us.