B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Ha Ger

“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Parshat Kedoshim packs a real punch, but this line is maybe the punchiest, and some phrasing of this concept appears in other places in the five books (Ex. 22:20, Ex. 23:9, Deut. 10:19). This is the piece of Torah made for us bleeding heart progressive Jews, the one that often gets clapped back when the hawks cite the “rise up to kill him first” bit, and definitely I’d say top 10 English Torah quotes, right up there with “let there be light.” Back in 2016 when I wrote my first AJT piece, the one that landed me this blog so that I would be slightly less likely to spin out at my rabbi(s) or friends when I get upset about the world, I’m pretty sure one of the people in this picture was holding a sign quoting this verse.

Except that’s not quite what it says in this passage.

וְכִי־יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר בְּאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תוֹנוּ אֹתוֹ׃ וְכִי־יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר בְּאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תוֹנוּ אֹתוֹ׃ כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי־גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃

The word we commonly hear in the English phrase “love the stranger” is “Ha Ger,” a word traditional Jewish texts translate as “the proselyte,” or convert. A Jew who was not born a Jew, but a Jew.

Artscroll’s commentary, derived from Rashi and Rambam no less, does not leave much wiggle room for the squishy universalist interpretation to which we modern liberal folk aspire: “It is forbidden to taunt a proselyte by reminding him of his non-Jewish past and suggesting that this makes him unfit to study God’s Torah… Who, more than a Jew, should understand the hurt felt by an unwanted stranger?…Aside from the commandment to love all Jews, proselytes included, there is a special commandment to love proselytes. God, Himself, has a special love for proselytes.”  (Schottenstein Interlinear Chumash p. 573.)

With this in mind, translating “ger” as “stranger” could be considered offensive to converts, or at a minimum shortchanging all who came to Judaism through the mikvah, distorting an important Biblical shout-out that might, oh I don’t know, reduce the number of invasive questions any non-white person in shul gets asked about their background. If what this verse really means is “Jews are Jews however they came to be Jews,” conflating converted Jews with non-Jews by way of nebulous translation does the exact opposite. Hmm.

But that’s not all that the “stranger” translation obscures. In Parshat Kedoshim, the commandment to love “Ha Ger” appears in the midst of a bunch of verses traditionally interpreted to refer to a Jew’s obligations to treat other Jews in a particular way, while remaining silent or applying expressly different standards to the treatment of non-Jews. At a time when we are being forced to confront the reality of protesters screaming at us about apartheid conditions in our Jewish state, the concept that this tracks our biblical and rabbinic obligations is something that should at least get our attention.

On the other hand, the same word “gerim” is used to refer to (presumably born) Jews in the land of Egypt, to arouse their empathy for the “ger,” proselyte. In Exodus 23:9, Artscroll translates “ger” as “foreigner” in the verse: “A ger do not oppress; you know the feelings of ha-ger, for gerim you were in the land of Egypt.”  And Artscroll’s commentary on another iteration of this concept using “ger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) explicitly says “the Chinuch broadens this commandment to include all strangers, such as a newcomer to a neighborhood, a new student in a school, or a new employee.”

So by translating “ger” as “stranger” when discussing our commandment to love the ger as we love ourselves (ourselves being Jews who are not gerim) we’re taking certainly a defensible and probably the better position. But we are also gracefully sideskirting an uncomfortable truth: Jewish texts are clear that Jews are obligated to treat fellow Jews better than non-Jews. Even if the laws also demand a certain standard for all humankind that is quite high–for example, another passage reminding us of being “gerim” in the land of Egypt (here Artscroll translates that word as “sojourners”) tells us not to despise Edomites or Egyptians for that reason–the reinforcement of discriminatory logic in these thoughtful gems of wisdom is something with which we must contend critically. Otherwise, gentle apartheid exhortations become hidden subtext, at risk of burying itself in our subconscious even as we choose to smooth over the words and tell our children the version we want them to live by today.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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