“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


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.


One Life – נפש אחת – On Tyranny Again

In November 2016, I posted a sermon based on David Daube’s incredible assessment of a text in his book “Collaboration with Tyranny in Rabbinic Law”. My sermon is here. The book was written in 1965 and led him to comment:

This tale, it is to be feared, shows what, under intolerable pressure, when the spirit is broken, might occur despite any high-minded, farsighted, carefully balanced rulings. (p. 51)

The text he is dealing with is a complex one, in fact there is more than one text. A simple statement of the text is here (Tosefta Terumot 7:20):

סיעה של בני אדם שאמרו להם גוים תנו לנו אחד מכם ונהרגהו ואם לאו הרי אנו הורגין את כולכם יהרגו כולן ואל ימסרו להן נפש אחת מישראל אבל אם ייחדוהו להם כגון שייחדו לשבע בן בכרי יתנו להן ואל יהרגו כולן … וכן הוא אומ’ ותבא האשה אל כל העם בחכמתה וגו’ אמרה להן הואיל והוא נהרג ואתם נהרגין תנוהו להם ואל תהרגו כולכם

A group of [Jews] to whom gentiles say, “Give us one of you and we shall kill him, and if not, behold, we will kill all of them”; they should let themselves be killed and not deliver them one soul from Israel. But if they designated [the person] to them – for example, Sheva ben Bichri – they should give him to them and not let themselves be killed…. And so did it state (II Samuel 20:22), ‘And the woman come to all of the people in her wisdom, etc.’ – she said to them, ‘Since he will be killed and you will be killed, give him to them and do not kill all of you.’”

It has got to be one of the most astonishing and challenging texts. The idea of when we would surrender someone (potentially innocent, though the sages question that innocence if they have been identified by name) to tyrannical regimes for our own safety. I wrote about that theme too in a more complex post.

But now I want to dwell on where this text occurs in the midrashim – the rabbinic interpretations that form the commentary in the spaces of our text of the Torah. In Bereshit Rabbah 94:26, the text is found not only in legal materials but here in the narration of Jacob’s family (Genesis 46:26):

“All the souls belonging to Jacob that came into Egypt, that came out of his loins, besides Jacob’s sons’ wives, all the souls were threescore and six.”

The midrash wants to know how the figure of 66 is arrived at, since in the beginning of Exodus we hear that Jacob’s family numbered 70 in coming down to Egypt. The discussion is long and quite technical but one of the things that comes out is the story of Serach bat Asher – an Elijah like figure who appears at pivotal moments during Jewish history to save the day.

In the midrash she is ‘the one’ who makes up the last missing person to the number 70.

The midrash contrasts her role in bringing Joseph’s bones out of Egypt and her role in handing over Sheva ben Bichri (II Samuel 20). The midrash, it seems to me, is layering over and over again the significance of one life, one person, one individual with the power to save. One rebel. One set of bones of a patriarch.

What if we imagined all the world stood at the threshold of being surrendered? And what if we individually were responsible for handing over an un-named soul to tyranny? This is all about risk – the risk we’re prepared to take to save. What cost could we tolerate in order to save ourselves – a thousand people, 500, 10…1? Here’s the midrash:

The woman urged them, “Do you not know David’s record? Which people has [successfully] resisted him, which kingdom has resisted him?”

“What does he demand?” they asked her.

“A thousand men,” she replied, “and is it not better [to sacrifice] a thousand men than that your city be destroyed?”

“Let every one give according to his means,” they proposed.

“Perhaps he can be persuaded to forgo a little,” she told them.

She then pretended to go and appease him, and returned with the number reduced from a thousand to five hundred, then to one hundred, to ten, and finally to one, who was a lodger [stranger] there, and who was he? Sheba the son of Bichri. Forthwith, then they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri.

אמרה להון לית אתון ידעין מילי דדוד, הידא אומה קמת בהון, הידא מלכותא קמת בהון, אמרון לה ומהו בעי, אמרה להון אלף גוברין ולא טב אלף גוברין מלמחרבה מדינתכון, אמרון לה כל חד וחד ליהב לפום מה דאית ליה, אמרה להון דלמא אגב פיוסא שביק ציבחר, עבדא נפשה כמא דאזלא מפייסא והדרא מאלף לחמש מאין למאה, לעשרה, לחד והוא אכסנאי ומנו שבע בן בכרי מיד ויכרתו את ראשו.

What cost could we tolerate in order to save ourselves? Do we recognise the power of ONE life – the life that saves, the life that rebels, the life that is no more. Do we see ourselves as that ONE life?

Would we sacrifice a thousand on the altar of our own salvation. Would then just one person sound like something insignificant? This midrash is playing with us, our morality, our judgement, our consideration of Serach bat Asher’s righteousness. We know the law, but when push comes to shove, how quickly would we collaborate with tyranny? What price are we prepared to pay…? And I don’t know anymore and it terrifies me.