Philip Lefkowitz
Philip Lefkowitz

American Immigration and Judaism

As evidenced by recent articles in the media, many Jews who otherwise have no problem rejecting the eternal moral principles of life stated in the Torah, are now invoking so called Jewish morality in their desire to buttress their views on the American immigration controversy.

A sterling example of their negation of Jewish morality is their pro-choice advocacy. This position is in contradistinction to the Orthodox & Conservative approaches which limit abortion to very few circumstances, and even is in opposition to Reform Judaism, which, while not having a formal legalistic [Halacha] approach to Jewish morality, does give voice to opinions that do not countenance the pro-choice position. As Richard Alan Block writes in his “The Right to Do Wrong, Reform Judaism and Abortion,” “ The time has come for Reform Jews to stop touting radical freedom as Reform Judaism’s greatest virtue, and to abandon, ‘We’re Reform: we can do whatever we want’ as Reform Judaism’s credo.”

What is most disturbing about these selective “Jewish” moralists is that in quoting Jewish morality they distort it to justify their desired position. Specifically many refer to the issue of the Ger, invoking such passages as Leviticus 19:33, “When a stranger dwells among you in your land do no taunt him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be as a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” or Leviticus 25:36 “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him – stranger or resident – so that he can live with you.” to support their view that illegal immigrants in the United States should be given amnesty and allowed a path toward citizenship.

When the Torah speaks of a Ger it can refer to two distinct categories – a Ger Zedek one who fully embraces the Jewish religion and who as Ruth becomes a full member of the Jewish community, a Jew among Jews, or a Ger Tashuv an individual, a non-Jew, who lives in the theocracy of the ancient Jewish Commonwealth accepting upon him/herself specific Jewish moral laws, societal laws, so as to enjoy this privilege. There is no category in Jewish tradition for a non-Jew to reside in the Jewish Commonwealth devoid of acceptance of specific laws of conduct.

For our investigation we need not pursue the issue of Ger Zedek as that is self-evident. The conversion of an individual to the Jewish religion means that he/she accepts fully the “yolk of the kingdom of heaven” to live as a Jew and to observe the commandments placed upon our shoulders at Sinai – Shabbos, Kashrus, charity, loving kindness, all of the Mitzvos a Jew is required to observe are now his/her responsibility as well. Violation of these Mitzvos brings upon the Ger Zedek the same punishment as it does upon a Jew born to Judaism. Once converted, the Ger Zedek is, on all accounts, a Jew, a full member of the Jewish Commonwealth – the nation of Israel.

The Ger Tashuv, on the other hand, is quite another story. While, in comparison to the nature of Peoplehood and Nationhood in the ancient world where religion served as one of the defining qualities of nationhood, the concept of a Ger Tashuv, a resident alien, breaks with normative practice, (a practice I suggest that was carried on until our present times, i.e. Jews, because of their religion were not considered citizens of a nation, no matter their loyalty to the government and their acceptance of the laws of the society in which they lived), it was not without requirements. True, the Ger Tashuv, the resident alien, was not required to convert to Judaism. Yet if he/she desired to live in the theocracy of the Jewish Commonwealth, there were specific rules, which must be observed.

Generally, he/she must renounce idolatry, murder and, sexual immorality. This was no simple matter as paganism was the normal religious expression of the day with Jewish monotheism being a bizarre and perplexing religion, as were ritual murder and sexual practices which Judaism views as vile and disgraceful behavior contributing to the destruction of society. It was quite a departure from the non-Jewish life style of the day. If this individual was unprepared to do so he/she could not reside in the Jewish Commonwealth.

I don’t believe, in light of the Ger Tashuv concept, it is a stretch to state that if one by his/her actions demonstrates unwillingness to respect and abide by the laws of our society, particularly by violating our society’s immigration laws, he/she is not welcome as a supposed modern day “Ger Tashuv” in the United States.

All the more is this the situation, as, while our immigration laws do give special consideration to those subject to persecution in their home country over those who wish to come to the United States to improve their economic status, for example, the illegal immigrant crossing our southern border who makes no such assertion. He/she is a citizen of a democracy, however flawed. As a citizen one must take on the obligation of citizenship in a democratic society to be actively involved in the governing of that society through advocacy and the voting booth – an obligation of citizenship we in the United States proudly proclaim. Crossing the border for economic opportunity in light of the classic understanding of a citizen’s responsibility accrues to them little merit.

Finally, while others who today are fighting for their lives and the lives of their children cannot come to America, a perfect example, the horrors daily being perpetrated in Iraq upon the Yezidis, unlike our neighbors to the south who can cross the Rio Grande (it really isn’t grand but rather an unimpressive river), for economic opportunity, the Yezidis must languish in daily fear of death, rape, enslavement or torture because they cannot swim across the Atlantic ocean. My heart, my Jewish moral compass tells me the cause of those wishing to flee the persecution in their homeland should trump the cause of those who illegally arrive in the United States for economic advantage or those who do not accept the values of our society – the Judeo-Christian ethic.

The words of Emma Lazarus emblazoned upon the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” call out to the world to send us those unwanted and persecuted, “tempest tost” folks. It is the lamp of freedom, of liberty, as understood by the Judeo-Christian foundation of American values, which that grand lady holds aloft for the entire world to see.

I am not attempting to minimize the problem of immigration and the moral dilemmas it places before American society. Obviously it is a complex and gut wrenching situation as we are dealing with the lives of millions of human beings. Yet, to premise ones view on Jewish morality, distorting that morality to justify one’s own preconceived position, and, at the same time not accept upon oneself the obligations of that very self-same Jewish morality when you wish to reject it whole cloth, as is evidenced by the abortion issue, is disingenuous to say the least.

We as citizens have the right to express any view we feel appropriate to remedy a given problem in our society. I respect the right of other Jews to differ on the immigration issue. I find it objectionable, however, for them to cloak their position in so-called “Jewish” morality distorting the very nature of that Jewish morality to justify their position.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
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