Editor’s Note: Rabbi Shai Held, a leading Jewish theologian and educator, is the author of “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Donald Trump has declared the Bible to be his favorite book.
Rabbi Shai Held: Trump should remember that to hate the immigrant is to abandon God and to forget the Bible
It is a moment that will live in political infamy. As he announced his candidacy for president of the United States, Donald Trump assailed Mexican immigrants as “people that have lots of problems.” He accused them of bringing drugs and crime with them across the border and derided them as “rapists.” Doubling down in the face of controversy, Trump added that they are “killers” as well. As with so much that Trump says, his comments were at once inaccurate and obscene. Recent studies show that immigration is associated with lower crime rates, and that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than are native-born Americans.
Trump next targeted Muslim immigrants, calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He also said he was open to creating a database of all Muslims living in the country. As for the desperate refugees fleeing Syria, Trump dismissed them as a “Trojan horse.”
Trump has said that the Bible is his favorite book, so it’s worth asking: What could Trump learn about immigrants if he opened up his beloved Bible?
The book of Exodus admonishes us: “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). By ger, commonly translated from Hebrew as “stranger” or “sojourner,” the Bible refers to an immigrant who is an outsider in the place where he now lives – a resident who has no family or clan to look after him, and who is therefore vulnerable to social and economic exploitation. The text appeals to the Israelites’ memory to intensify their moral obligation. Having tasted the suffering and degradation to which vulnerability can lead, the people are bidden not to afflict or mistreat the stranger. The Bible’s charge is based on an urgent demand for empathy – since you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you must never abuse the stranger.
Precisely who is this stranger with whom the Bible is so concerned? When people consider the biblical category of “the stranger,” they usually think exclusively about his present status: an outsider vulnerable to exploitation. But Bible scholars have recently added color to our picture of the stranger by looking more closely at his past. Most often, Frank Spina argues, the stranger left his place of origin on account of “social and political upheaval due to war, famine, economic and social troubles, oppression, plague and other misfortunes that produced strife.” It does not seem much of a stretch, therefore, to suggest (as Rabbi Jason Rubenstein does) that ger could also be rendered as “refugee.” In fact, the word ger, which derives from a root meaning “to sojourn,” may also be connected to another root meaning “to dread or be afraid.” The stranger flees home and arrives scared.
Ger may also derive from an Akkadian (an ancient Semitic language) word meaning “enemy.” This is hardly surprising, since immigrants were often perceived as dangerously subversive threats. Although they “saw themselves as reacting to social difficulties,” Spina explains, “officials and rulers often saw them as the cause of turmoil.” The Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt begins in just this way: Pharaoh looks at them and sees a potential fifth column.
In response, the Bible twice mandates that the people “love the stranger.” The people are effectively told, these immigrants, whom you are likely to deride as enemies – love them instead; protect them, care for them and seek their well-being.
The Israelites are supposed to love the immigrant because the book of Deuteronomy teaches that the God they worship loves the immigrant (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). This is a big part of what it means to be religious: If you love God, you strive to love those whom God loves. If you hate those whom God loves, it is not God you worship, no matter how insistently you declare otherwise.
In light of all this, you’d expect religious leaders to be lining up against Trump. But you’d be wrong (or at very best only half-right). Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the founder of the Moral Majority, has declared that “Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation.” One wonders, why would God, who loves immigrants and bids us to do the same, choose a man who hates the very people whom God loves? Evangelical leader James Dobson has added that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit.” Yet true tenderness of the spirit, true receptivity to the word of God, should push him in an entirely different direction.
Now, there is nothing wrong with enacting laws around immigration, and nothing wrong with enforcing those laws. Nor is there anything wrong with taking precautions to make sure that those purporting to seek refuge are not terrorists in disguise. But there is something terribly wrong with basing those laws on bigotry and falsehoods. In any event, given the Bible’s preoccupation with loving the stranger, can one be a biblical Christian and revile the stranger? To vilify the stranger is to confess that one has not internalized the true meaning of biblical teachings.
Judaism and Christianity both teach love, empathy and compassion. Donald Trump consistently and unabashedly espouses hatred, disdain and discrimination. The fact that Falwell and Dobson have been led astray does not change the truth one whit: To hate the immigrant is to abandon God and to forget the Bible.
Rabbi Shai Held, a leading Jewish theologian and educator, is the author of “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.