“You were strangers” – when the universal bursts forth from the particular

Dear Wonderful Future Colleagues, Rabbinic Students

In the last semester of teaching at the Leo Baeck College, we spent several weeks learning together about the description of the ‘ger’ (the stranger – though probably more accurately, the convert) in Jewish texts of late antiquity.

We read, that the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael – a 3rd century (CE) text – is at pains to remind us that “YOU WERE GERIM (STRANGERS)”. In other words, remember that whatever I think about ‘the other’, probably applies to me too. Or to put it another way, be very careful not to call a stranger by a fault that you might have too. An aphorism for which we have many parallels today.

“You were strangers”. It’s been the subject of many posts with regards to the way that Trump has used the executive order. My future colleagues, we did not mean to set out to teach you a text that underpins almost everything about how the Jewish community reads textually its response to refugees and the other.

We’ve seen how the text we’ve used as our springboard for learning, the Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 58b-59b, a text that concludes with reference to 36 (or is it 46?!) warnings about the mistreatment of the stranger, knows that malevolence which begins with the words we speak, ends in death.

I didn’t think that the gates we would be seeking to open would be the gates of truth, righteousness and compassion. The gates of wrong, of tears, of prayer and of repentance, seem woefully insufficient.

We could not predict it. But I know that your thoughtfulness, integrity, strength and courage, qualities that will be called upon as rabbis, will remain resolute. Just as you have taught me a great deal in our learning together about the need for careful analysis and a clear moral path.

Chazak ve’amatz

Neil


A moment of pedagogical reflection:

I wrote this letter to rabbinic students who I had the honour to teach in the last semester at the Leo Baeck College. The interesting thing about rabbinic education is that we walk a delicate line between the academic rigour when learning Jewish texts and the applied reading of Jewish texts to weave a sense of purpose and meaning. What is more the Rabbinic role is changing, even since I was ordained 10 years ago. It used to be said that the Rabbi needed to be ‘Priest, Pastor and Prophet’. Our future colleagues will need to be resilient to these changes and strong in their sense of the purpose of the rabbinate.

When it comes to our textual tradition, I still think that the way in which we respond to the texts, through our critical understanding of their development and the evolution of the ideas contained in them, is powerful. Negotiating a way of interpreting our world and our texts in tandem is always a challenge and teaching this text, the goal was not to jump to how it could be applied – tempting as it was. We were focussed on the critical study of the text, the language, the history of the ideas, etc. But now I’ve read over and over again, Jewish voices bringing the ideas to bear of ‘love the stranger’ ‘you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’. All of this is valid and hugely important, and the rabbinic text has a subtlety that can be lost in ‘soundbites’.

What I find more fascinating is that though the sentiment is core to our literary tradition it has relatively little wider traction if you’re not engaged in Jewish sources or not Jewish. What it does is provide us with an interpretative world view, a vocabulary for articulating our particular perspective through our own unique literary heritage. Suddenly, the universal message from within our particular tradition, has an urgency that bursts forth. In that moment, the subtlety is also of value – since it betrays our own particular misgivings, psychology, communal anxiety and so on.

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