What does it mean to love the stranger?

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Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the concept of the stranger and what it means to love them in Judaism.

Who is the stranger in Judaism? A clue may be given by one definition of ‘neighbour’ discussed in my previous article on the subject. Loving your neighbour as yourself may in fact mean loving the neighbour who has shown him or herself to be a true human being, a ‘mentsch’, as you hope that you are yourself. This is a very tall order. Often we don’t have a clue about our neighbour, let alone the ‘stranger’.

In Judaism there are a number of different words for ‘stranger’, one at least often translated as ‘alien’. This word, nochri, in Hebrew, has a negative connotation in English, and in this country in particular. So many great grandparents, having arrived here from the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, had to contend with the Edwardian Aliens Act of 1905, aimed at preventing their emigration to the UK from certain death. An ‘alien’ to the British then was an ‘undesirable immigrant’.

And this was how the word nochri was has also often been translated in academic and popular Jewish literature. For example, the great Israeli Bible Scholar, Yehezekel Kaufmann’s (1889-1963) first major book, Golah ve-Necher (1928-32), was translated into English as Exile and Alienhood. A more accommodating translation would have been something like On Being a Stranger in Diaspora, which is more redolent of quirky trips abroad. But the more honest and striking translation stood. The term ‘alienhood’ doesn’t sit very well with us, and maybe for very good reason. The book itself deals with the alienation felt by the Jew in Diaspora, the Exile situation from the Jewish homeland, and therefore, for us in 2024, the absolute imperative for Jews to have a Jewish homeland that Jews can call their own.

The fact that Jews are still not regarded as an ethnic minority in the UK, for example, is a scandal, since it means that Jews have no legal rights in this country and are therefore regarded as ‘alien’. Maybe that is why peaceful Jews are either ignored, or arrested by the police during the current London marches against the Jews. If you don’t exist as a legal ethnic entity, unlike Muslims for example, then you are no better, as Kafka argued of the Jewish condition, than insects, and that is exactly how Jews are being treated here at present. 

But when the Bible describes the stranger, often it uses another term, ‘ger‘, which, in Hebrew, hints at the possibility of ‘conversion’. And the two phrases given are ‘ger toshav’ and ‘ger tzedek’. A ger toshav is a person living in the Land of Israel in Bible times who maintains a broad association with the Jewish people, without actually becoming Jewish. A ger tzedek is, however, a very special person, who takes on the yoke of Judaism, and can therefore become Jewish and be regarded as Jewish. But this is not so much to do with belief in the accepted Western sense inherited from Christian doctrine, as with deeds and practice.

The best recent description in English of these two groups of people, the ger toshav and the ger tzedek, has been given by Rabbi Haim Angel of the US-based Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. And I am therefore delighted at his timing and link to his article on this subject here. It should be emphasized however, and should indeed be evident to all, that following Jewish practice must of necessity incorporate belief in that practice. People are not coerced to become Jewish. Authenticity is more important in Judaism than ‘numbers on seats.’

I recently asked the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Baron Williams of Oystermouth, for his interpretation of the Good Samaritan story, which only appears in the Book of Luke chapter 10, and is related in the form of a parable. He shared an interesting interpretation of this Gospel story in the context of ‘universal love’ and the fact that some thinkers interpret the so-called ‘radical’ views of both Jesus and Paul on ‘universal love’ as due to the impending ‘end times’ assumed in NT teaching:

‘As to universal love: it’s true that the sense of an impending end makes Jesus and Paul radical in many ways. But I *think* the point in Jesus’ teaching is a bit more complex. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not (despite any number of sermons!) about who the neighbour is that you’re supposed to love, but whether you can recognise and receive ‘neighbourly’ love from people outside the expected circle. Jesus is saying, I think, ‘It’s possible that even the most respectable religious members of your own kin – priest and Levite – may fall short in their duty; others may unexpectedly step in. Be grateful for this, and return that care as best you can.’

‘All of which is, in my view, something other than a universalist as opposed to a particularist view of love. Jesus isn’t advancing a theory in which Jewish distinctiveness is being overthrown; it’s more like the way in which in Hebrew scripture there is a consistent reminder that people outside the kindred may still have a role in the divine purpose for that people (Jethro, Ruth, Cyrus…). So as I read it, Jesus is answering the ‘Who is my neighbour?’ question not by saying simply ‘Anyone and everyone’; the parable takes for granted that the priest and Levite have real obligations to a fellow-Jew that they are not fulfilling. God provides even when people fail in those obligations; and because of this, we understand that our obligations don’t stop with kindred, since something is owed to the righteous ‘outsider.’ The imperative laid upon Israel becomes something that the non-Jew is irresistibly drawn to (Paul seems to assume this in Romans), and in this process enters the community of mutual service and protection that is the people living under Law.’

As a Jew, I read Baron Williams’ interpretation as taking for granted that the ‘priest’ and the ‘Levite’ are supposed to act as role models for the Jewish people and are therefore cited first as being obliged to take appropriate action and assist a fellow human being. This is very different from the Jewish interpretation of the role of the priest or the Levite who in Judaism had a very circumscribed role as purveyors of ritual Temple behaviour and were therefore not regarded as role models for ethical behaviour in the sense of the prophets, and even the king/judges of Israel, who were tasked with these everyday decisions. 

But to get back to the concept of stranger as ‘ger’, is the sojourner, or non-Israelite foreigner resident in the Land of Israel, who has no family or clan to look after him, and is therefore vulnerable to social and economic exploitation. This term has now been extended by some to include a Jewish person who has been dislocated for one reason or another and is therefore in Shai Held’s words: ‘a vulnerable person from outside the key family.’

Contemporary examples of these would be those Israelis who are currently refugees in their own land, having been displaced for over eight months due to the war with Hamas and Hezbollah, both proxies of Iran. These people have had to move from the south and north of the tiny country, often into the unknown, and have become dependent on the good-will and generosity of others, who have magnificently stepped up to the plate. Then there are the ‘lone soldiers’, people, both men and women, who emigrate to Israel from other countries in order to fight for her. These ‘lone soldiers’ are also increasingly being looked after by ‘adopted’ Israeli families.

Always in Judaism the love of the ‘ger’  starts with love of your own family, your own neighbour, and then works outwards to anyone who doesn’t fit in but still demonstrates basic human norms. As an example of this, Menachem Begin was the first Prime Minister to take in the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s when they had nowhere else to go. They were very grateful, including some who eventually left Israel, but many opted to stay. Then there are the two million Arab Israelis living in the State of Israel, with some of whom I’ve worked, and who feel part of the Israeli story. This Arab identification with Israel was confirmed to me many times when, at the end of February, I visited Jerusalem, where 40 per cent of the population of the entire city is Arab (both Muslim and Christian). The Israeli Arabs I met and conversed with in Hebrew were proud of the achievements of their country, the State of Israel, to which they have contributed so much and continue to do so.

This is very different from the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank who call for the destruction of not only Israel, but of the Jewish people entirely. The Israeli Arabs are a huge success story as a minority. By contrast, the Jewish community of the UK have no legal protection as a minority, and, by refusing to insist on this, the so-called Jewish leadership of the UK has rightly been accused of indifference and worse.

It is helpful also to consider the Book of Deuteronomy on the mitzvah of loving the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:17-19): ‘For the Lord your G-d is G-d of gods and Lord of lords, the great G-d, the mighty, and the awe-inspiring, who shows no favour and takes no bribes. He upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger (ger), by providing him/her with food and clothing. Therefore, you too must love the stranger, seeing that you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.’

The orphan and the widow are bereft of both social standing and social support. Their entire world has collapsed and, if no help is given, they will go completely under. The stranger (ger) is simply a continuation of that list. He or she is not contrasted with the Jewish victims of death in the family, but is part of this list.

And truly, so many ‘strangers’ living and/or working in Israel who associated with the Jewish State on October 7th behaved heroically. These include carers from abroad, as well as the now well-documented story of young fleeing Israelis and their (also Israeli) Bedouin Arab helper, who, on October 7th, directed Hamas in the opposite direction, whilst hiding the young fleeing Israelis in his home/workplace. This was of course at risk to his own life.

The Bedouin Arab whose religion and customs differs from that of the young Israelis seeking succour, took the snap decision to recognize in himself that he identified with the Jewish State of Israel which has given so much to the Bedouin community. At risk to his own life, he preferred the rough and ready young Israeli Jews to his own powerful co-religionists, also Arabic speakers, who had the power of life and death over him. It would have been so easy for the Bedouin Arab to comply with the Hamas demand. However, in these minutes, by showing that he truly loved the stranger, the Bedouin Arab also exemplified the Jewish biblical injunction, to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

So, ironically maybe, loving the stranger can actually equate with loving your neighbour as yourself.

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