Attitudes to Strangers

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by R. Gil Student

I. Strangers and Converts

In the Daily Reyd last week, I linked to an article by Prof. Jeremiah Unterman about the concept of stranger in the Bible. However, I had not read it carefully before linking to it. Since I disagree with a certain part of the article, but not all of it, I feel the need to discuss the issue. I like Prof. Unterman on a personal level and enjoyed his recent book, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics. On this issue, he makes such an important point that it should not be lost in the methodological discussion — namely, that the Torah expects the Jewish people to treat strangers with extra care. How that translates into specific policies — which, of course, is the underlying context today — requires a different discussion, as well.

The key issue is Prof. Unterman’s comment that “by the Hellenistic period the term ger had acquired a new meaning – the proselyte to Judaism.” This understanding of halakhah as evolving, as reinterpreting the biblical text, seems to challenge the idea of an Oral Torah, a tradition from Sinai about how to understand Judaism.

In a somewhat related way, Prof. Lawrence Schiffman writes that the current conversion process developed in the Second Temple era. Prior to that, people converted through “attachment to the land and collective fate of the people of Israel,” although there was an even older process followed by Ruth that had gone out of use (“Conversion to Judaism in Tannaitic Halakhah” in eds. Adam Mintz, Marc D. Stern, Conversion, Intermarriage, and Jewish Identity, p. 190). The day he presented that paper at the Orthodox Forum, I asked him during breakfast how he can square that with a concept of an Oral Torah. He responded with an answer that I will be transforming into my own words and structure, which he has not reviewed and might phrase differently and with significant modifications.

II. Tradition and Law

In the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, Rambam (ed. Kafach, vol. 1, pp. 9-10) divides the Oral Torah into three sections: 1) strictly oral traditions, 2) biblical interpretations transmitted from Sinai, 3) biblical interpretations derived through the thirteen traditional methodologies. The third part, that the Sanhedrin can introduce new legal interpretations of the Bible, allows for development of halakhah, although the historical extent of the usage of this method can be debated.

As I understand it, Prof. Schiffman considers the conversion laws to have been developed within this methodology. The Sages derived the process using the methodologies of tradition, Rambam’s third type of Oral Torah. Similarly, while this does not come up within his article, Prof. Unterman could say that the Sages interpreted many of the the biblical references to stranger as referring to converts.

I don’t feel comfortable with this approach. The Rambam says that there are no debates over traditions from Sinai. The Chavos Ya’ir challenges this claim with a long list of traditions that were debated. If anything, the Rambam’s claim is so obviously wrong that it could not have been intended in that way. A lot has been written to explain the Rambam’s claim, which I do not want to review here. However, I accept the general claim.

I once discussed this with Rav Mayer Twersky and he pointed out that some biblical interpretations are undisputed within traditional texts and commentaries. While we cannot know with certainty, it stands to reason that those interpretations are traditions from Sinai. As I understand it, this means that we can speculate, maybe even assume, that undisputed interpretations are traditions from Sinai. They fall under Rambam’s second category, not his third.

That seems to me to be the case with the laws of conversion and strangers. While alternate interpretations of these biblical passages are possible, traditional texts and commentaries offer only one approach. Therefore, that is the only appropriate interpretation, the interpretation given with the text itself.

III. Reasons for the Stranger

None of this should detract from Prof. Unterman’s point regarding the biblical attitude to strangers. While it may be true that the Torah commandments about the stranger refer sometimes to a convert and sometimes to a resident alien (ger toshav), the laws have an explicit underlying rationale. Rav Jonathan Sacks (Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, pp. 179-186) explains the Ramban (Ex. 22:22) as offering two reasons for these laws. The first is that the stranger lacks power — connections, family, support. Therefore, God has to protect the stranger. The second reason is “the psychological vulnerability of the stranger.” The stranger lives in an unfamiliar society, feeling alone, unheard and rejected. We were strangers in Egypt and remember the powerlessness and feelings of rejection, which should motivate us to help others in that same situation.

Rav Sacks quotes the Or Ha-Chaim (Ex. 22:20) who explains differently. He suggests that Jews’ sanctity, their covenant with God, may lead them to look down on outsiders who lack that covenant. Therefore, we are commanded repeatedly to remember that we, too, were once subject to degradation as strangers. We must remember our origins in humility, thereby recognizing others who today are in the position we once held.

Even if the commandments have technical limits, their underlying reasons have broader applications. We must treat the stranger with care because — of all people — we should understand their lack of power and confidence. Rabbi Sacks concludes: “Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

Despite these considerations, real-world policies have to take many considerations into account. What will be the unintended consequences of any decision? You have to look years into the future and not just at the immediate problem. But that hard realism has to be accompanied with the knowledge that “you yourselves were strangers in Egypt.”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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