Years ago, I read an account of how would-be immigrants at Ellis Island needed to demonstrate that they were unlikely to become a public charge. The key proof would come from a sponsor, who could vouch for the immigrant. But the sponsor also had to show sufficient resources to make a meaningful claim. According to my history book (maybe “World of Our Fathers” by Irving Howe?), there developed an organized way of making sure that the sponsor could demonstrate adequate wealth. The potential sponsor would rent the requisite cash (at one point, apparently, twenty dollars) from a conveniently-located money renter near the southern tip of Manhattan. After showing the bills to the immigration officer, the sponsor and the new immigrant would return the bills to the money renter, with an appropriate additional payment for the service. The same two ten-dollar bills could then go back into service, rescuing another immigrant from deportation, and generating additional wealth for the money-renter.
The Bible famously forbids lending money to fellow Jews at interest (The prohibition appears at Lev. 25:35-37 and elsewhere). How should we evaluate this money renting just for show to the immigration officer?
When Ellis Island opened to visitors in 1976, we accompanied my wife’s grandmother on an excursion to the newly-opened National Monument. As we traveled from the Bronx to Ellis Island, we asked Grandma about Ellis Island, but she did not remember whether she had been there on her way into the United States. In their Smokey the Bear uniforms, the national service rangers led us through the cavernous and now-decrepit buildings, recounting what the disembarking immigrants would experience each room. The tour refreshed Grandma’s memory. She had indeed passed through Ellis Island some 65 or 70 years earlier. She recalled that a doctor used a shoe button-hook to lift her eyelid to test for disease, and cruelly joked, “I have bad news for you; you are healthy.”
If you did not pass the eye inspection, you could get sent back to Europe.
Grandma also remembered the sponsors waiting for their relatives or friends, waving the money that would guarantee that their relatives or friend would not get deported. Grandma’s older sister was one of those, waving her rented dollars.
At the time, I thought, the practice of renting money to rescue immigrants must have technically broken the biblical law against charging, or paying, interest. But what could the immigrants do? Their ability to enter the new country, and quite possibly to survive, depended on that cash. And what could the sponsors do to keep the government from deporting their relatives to who-knows-what fate in the unwelcoming old country? For that matter, what could the money lenders do? Could they have afforded to lend the money to so many deserving sponsors without charging interest?
Immigration to the United States might have seemed at the time much like rescuing endangered people from death. In retrospect, that judgment seems literally correct; in the coming decades, the vast majority of Jews who remained in Europe were destined to be murdered.
So I thought that everyone involved in this story technically broke Jewish law, but, under the pressure of necessity, Jewish law itself requires breaking the law to save lives. It turns out, however, that I judged too harshly. I just discovered the relevant ruling.
In Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 176:1 we find that the prohibition on lending money at interest applies when the borrower anticipates spending or investing the money; “but when one lends it to be studied, or to be exhibited, and returned intact, it is permitted” (Based on Tosefta Bava Metsiah 4:2).
In fact, Hebrew has two different words for “borrowing.” A “loveh” borrows a fungible item, expecting to spend or invest it, and to return its value to the lender (“malveh”); the lender does not expect to get the same dollar bills back, but the same number of dollars – or more, if he charges interest. A “shoel” borrows an item, intending to make use of it without destroying it, and then to return the item to the lender (“mashil”) intact.
The rabbis understood that the probation on lending at interest applies to the kind of loan that consumes the item. The money-renters of Lower Manhattan who helped my wife’s grandmother into this country rescued her life, as it turned out, but Jewish law would permit what they did even without that dire circumstance.
And as for fooling the Government of the United States into overestimating the wealth of the sponsors of immigrants . . . well, I cannot feel vicariously guilty for that deception. I suspect that the sponsors technically complied with the law; they had the money. The immigration officers accepted the evidence that they saw, although it seems likely that they knew what was going on. The United States benefitted over and over again from letting Grandma in.
I have asked legal historians to identify the legal regime which set up this way of proving that potential immigrants would not become public charges, but so far without success.