President Trump’s executive order on Wednesday should not end the expressions of moral outrage regarding the deliberate separation of undocumented families entering the United States. The 2,300 children ripped away from their parents are being transported right now to shelters and foster care, and the trauma of the “zero-tolerance” policy continues. As Jews, we must not only step into the moral breach; we should also understand the urgency of doing so in light of Jewish religious ethics. Modern Jewish philosophy invites us to see the parent-child relationship as the model for our human relationship with God. In the ongoing violence to the former, we violate the latter irreparably.
For Jews, the treatment of refugee families has reminded us of a recent past in which we were denied asylum and separated from our families. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a number of Jewish activists emphasized this history, echoing the Torah’s reminder that we, too, were strangers mistreated by a hostile ruler. In addition to these arguments, however, Jews should use own more recent philosophical traditions to understand that our relationships with others are the primary channel through which we can know God.
During the Enlightenment, Western philosophers and theologians understood that rational philosophy and natural science rendered claims to objective knowledge of God unconvincing. The end of the belief in direct access to God forced Jewish thinkers to develop new religious ideas. In the 20th century, the great Central European Jewish thinkers — Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas — argued that our knowledge of God will always be mediated through human beings. In beholding our neighbor’s vulnerability, we experience being commanded. In responding to the neighbor’s need, we become moral agents. In becoming our neighbor’s keeper, we come into contact with God.
The relationship between parent and child illustrates this process on an everyday level. Some of us are parents who have experienced responding to a small child’s need as formative of our moral selves. But whether or not we are parents, all of us have benefited from the responsiveness of caregivers who fed us, cleaned us, and comforted us. This care shaped us as beings capable of giving love and taking responsibility for others. Modern religious thinkers, following strands of earlier Jewish tradition, teach us that this abject dependence we see in children is the same dependence that human beings have on God. In the responsibility and empathy that flows between parents and children, modern Jewish thinkers’ insights are made manifest. Severing the tie between parents and children means cutting the cord that tethers human beings to our own humanity and to God. And that desecration has happened at the US border and continues now in shelters around the country.
Mara Benjamin is Chair of Jewish Studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and the author of The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press, 2018).