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04/23/2013 02:38 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2013

Leviticus 21:1-24:23: Strangers and Immigrants: Justice for All

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A subtle thread runs through the seemingly disparate narrative and legal materials in this week's Torah portion of Emor. It is the subject of the "ger," the stranger or the immigrant, the perennial "other."

This is not only an important theme in this particular parashah (portion), but is a central preoccupation of the Torah as a whole. Why? Repeatedly we are told that because the Israelites were persecuted as the hated and dreaded foreign element in Egyptian society, one of their primary responsibilities as a free people is to not oppress the stranger.

A few weeks ago, in the heart of the priestly holiness code, we read the following words: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33-34).

This issue of the ger reappears first in Emor within the context of a discussion about the ritual details of the priestly cult. It is not surprising that in establishing rubrics and norms for important communal rites, the question of who is and is not a part of the community is raised yet again.

This is a universal question that we face throughout the generations, one that is fraught with anxiety as it raises core questions about identity and security.

This issue is, of course, at the heart of the current immigration debate in our country. Often, we experience great anxiety when thinking about this matter. Who are these people that come from foreign places and speak languages we do not understand? Do they want to harm us? Will they take away our jobs or change our culture?

While these fears are understandable, we must not let them cloud our judgment when we ask what is a humane and effective immigration policy? There are approximately 11 million undocumented people residing in the United States. Are we aware of the suffering that many of these people and other immigrants face? Can we even imagine the distress of parents and children separated from each other for decades? Do we know what it is like to be denied basic rights and live in constant fear of detention and deportation?

Are we compassionate but silent as we enjoy the privileges of being third- or fourth-generation U.S. citizens?

Among the Torah's strongest impulses is to protect the ger: Do not do what was done to you in Egypt. It seeks to break the repetition compulsion that leads the abused to become an abuser. There are no less than 36 instances in the Hebrew Bible when we are instructed to care for the stranger. Boundaries are necessary, security is essential, but justice cannot be trampled upon.

Let us also remember that the United States is a nation of immigrants -- this is our heritage.

As the Torah details the various observances and sacrifices connected to the yearly holiday cycle, it includes the following passage:

"And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I YHWH am your God" (Leviticus 24:22).

In the midst of the ritual celebration of the harvest an economic program that includes the poor and the stranger is installed. What is the rationale? God, the Source of all life and bounty, proclaims justice and compassion for all members of society.

The biblical twinning of the poor and the stranger is pertinent in our times. Economic motives are still a driving force for immigration. The comprehensive proposal for a new vision to address the injustices in our current policy, developed by the American Friends Service Committee, offers seven core principles.

The first of these principles seeks to develop humane economic policies to reduce forced immigration. This points to the fact that international economic policies, including various trade agreements, have displaced workers and caused forced economic migration.

The Torah is sensitive to such issues. While we don't live in a world where gleaning is the answer to inequality, we might ask ourselves what measures might we take in our day that are in keeping with the concern for justice and compassion in our sacred texts? How might we apply this high standard of care and concern for the poor and the stranger today? Some of these questions are explored in recent resources developed by Jewish campaigns for immigration reform (Bend the Arc and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

I want to share one final teaching about the ger in our portion. In Leviticus 24:13 we are told that a person who blasphemes the Name (God's name) must receive capital punishment, whether that person is a citizen or a stranger. The principle underlying this statement is then stated in the abstract: "You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God."

It is hard for the contemporary ear to fathom how blasphemy can be a capital offense. However, if we understand it as high treason, the greatest betrayal of national trust and honor, it may make more sense, even if we deplore the idea of stoning a person for such an offense.

The Torah makes a point of saying that this kind of crime is heinous, whether committed by a native or a foreigner. Although the example is in a criminal case, the principle is universal. There must be one standard of justice for both.

By this measure, the U.S. immigration policy is much in need of repair. As Rabbi Stephanie Kolin wrote in this same column several weeks ago:

We need laws that bring dignity and justice to the immigration experience. Concretely, this should include a clear pathway to citizenship; reduced waiting times for the reunification of families separated from one another, including LGBT families; protection of the rights and safety of workers wishing to migrate here; and border protection policies that are both consistent with American humanitarian values and that keep our country safe.

We are all the poorer for a system riddled with injustice. Let us take inspiration from the teachings of Leviticus and exercise our democratic rights and responsibilities by advocating for more equitable and humane immigration policies.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.