Rabbi Sacks’ Theology of the Stranger: A Halakhic Defense

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by R. Gil Student

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l opened up Jewish thought to a broader audience with his prolific writing and speaking about ideas in ways that were both eloquent and accessible. To a surprising degree, he was able to transcend denominational, ethnic and religious communities without sacrificing his traditional Orthodox Jewish beliefs. However, some people contend that in his creativity, he offered some ideas that face challenges from Jewish tradition. I have written before about my disagreement with that claim (Tradition, Spring 2012, pp. 109-111). In commemoration of Rabbi Sacks’ first yahrtzeit, I would like to address at greater length an idea that Rabbi Sacks championed that seems to contradict the Talmud, one of the pillars of traditional Judaism. I will show that this idea was already offered by prominent Medieval Jewish thinkers and the apparent contradiction to the Talmud was resolved.

I. The Theology of the Stranger

Time and again, Rabbi Sacks wrote about the significance of the stranger in Jewish thought and its relevance to contemporary times. I started to compile a list of every book in which Rabbi Sacks mentions this idea but I quickly realized that he invoked this idea so often that it would be easier to list the books in which he does not mention it. Let us turn straight to the most controversial chapter in his most controversial book — The Dignity of Difference, chapter 3: Exorcizing Plato’s Ghost. Rabbi Sacks begins a new section of this chapter by stating (p. 58): “Nowhere is the singularity of biblical ethics more evident than in its treatment of the issue that has proved to be the most difficult in the history of human interaction, namely the problem of the stranger, the one who is not like us.” In the revised edition of the book, Rabbi Sacks adds an endnote stating: “The biblical stranger is either the ‘resident alien’ who does not share our religion, or the convert who does not share our biological ancestry.” This endnote is accurate and useful, but — I will argue below — not completely necessary.

Rabbi Sacks continues that, unlike most societies (p. 58): “As the rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger’.” He emphasizes (p. 59): “God cares about the stranger, and so must we.” He sees in these commandments, and in a variety of biblical narratives that he ably interprets as teaching this theme, the need in all generations — and particularly ours — to care for those who are different, who are out of their element and somehow strangers in our midst. This is an important Torah value for Jews, who follow the commandments within the Mosaic covenant, and for all people throughout the world.

Rabbi Sacks invokes this theology of the stranger in his books explicitly intended for a general audience, such as the above, as well as in his books intended for a Jewish audience, such as A Letter in the Scroll (p. 95ff.). To a primarily general audience, Rabbi Sacks teaches that we must reach across religions to strangers, in order to restore peace to the world (To Heal a Fractured World, p. 103). In terms of a broad description of biblical ethics, Rabbi Sacks accepts the brief statement: “love of God, the neighbor, and the stranger” (Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, pp. 268, 270). To a primarily Jewish audience, he says: “There are commands that leap off the page by their sheer moral power… The first and last of these laws [Ex. 22:20, 23:9], however, is the repeated command against harming a ger, a ‘stranger.’ Clearly something fundamental is at stake in the Torah’s vision of a just and gracious social order” (Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, pp. 179-180).

In one of his last books intended for a primarily Jewish audience, Rabbi Sacks states his theology of the stranger, in which he finds such a powerful contemporary imperative: “You have been oppressed; therefore you shall come to the rescue of the oppressed, whoever they are. You have suffered; therefore you shall become the people who are there to offer help when others are suffering” (Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, p. 93; emphasis added). In this chapter, and particularly in the phrase I emphasized in this quote, Rabbi Sacks continues in his consistent reading of these biblical passages as a universal command to love and assist anyone who needs that help, any “stranger.” And therein lies the problem.

II. The Talmudic Stranger

The Sages of the Talmudic era record authoritative traditions and interpretations. While the different activities of these rabbis can be classified with great nuance, I think it is fair to say that a theology that contradicts a universally held interpretation in that era cannot be called a traditional Jewish theology. If there are different opinions, even in different texts, then there is room for discussion. That is not the case in the issue we are discussing. Nor are we discussing innovative textual interpretations, for which there are no end. We are discussing here something more fundamental, “the Torah’s vision of a just and gracious social order.”

The Torah commands, “And you shall not mistreat a stranger (ger), nor oppress him, because you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:20). Similarly, “And you shall love the stranger (ger) because you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Our experience as strangers in Egypt must inform our treatment of strangers today.

Judaism sees two meanings in the term ger (stranger): 1) a ger tzedek is a convert to Judaism, 2) a ger toshav is a gentile who fulfills the Noahide covenant (according to some interpretations, it is a gentile who rejects idolatry). The Talmud and Midrash interpret the various biblical usages of the term ger in either of these ways. Regarding the commandment that prohibits mistreating the ger, the Talmud (Bava Metzi’a 59b) clearly says that this ger is a full-fledged Jew, in other words a ger tzedek (convert). We are specially obligated to love converts and refrain from mistreating or oppressing then. This obligation to the convert is formally recorded in Jewish legal codes (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os 6:4, Hilkhos Mekhirah 14:15-16; Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 228:2; Magen Avraham 156:1).

If so, this undercuts Rabbi Sacks’ entire theology of the stranger. The Talmud reads the Bible as commanding us to give extra care to those who join the Jewish people as converts. They used to be outsiders and might still feel like outsiders to some degree. Therefore, we must welcome them with extra kindness. Where is there room for a universal welcome to all strangers? When the Sages say that the Torah states at least 36 times that we must love the stranger (Bava Metzi’a 59b), which Rabbi Sacks invokes (e.g., To Heal a Fractured World, p. 103), the Sages are referring to a convert to Judaism!

This is an important challenge that many Jewish thinkers, mainly informally, have posed to Rabbi Sacks’ ideas. They say that he invokes messages from the biblical text while ignoring the explicit interpretations of the Talmudic Sages. Rabbi Sacks was a careful and sensitive reader of the Bible. However, his critics say, he cannot derive a theology directly from the biblical text without the mediation of the Jewish commentarial tradition.[1]See, for example, Dr. Alan Jotkowitz, “Univeralism and Particularism in the Jewish Tradition: The Radical Theology of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks” in Tradition, Fall 2011 (44:3), p. 61. See also my … Continue reading

III. Who Is A Stranger?

However, any challenges should be directed not at Rabbi Sacks but at his Medieval precedents. In his main analysis of this subject directed at a Jewish audience (Commentary & Conversation, ibid.), Rabbi Sacks quotes Ramban (Nahmanides, 13th cen., Spain; commentary to Ex. 22:20) who offers two reasons underlying the commandments regarding a stranger:

1) “The relative powerlessness of the stranger. He or she is not surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, a community of those ready to come to their defense” (p. 182).
2) “The psychological vulnerability of the stranger… The stranger is one who lives outside the normal securities of home and belonging. He or she is, or feels, alone…” (p. 183).

Rabbi Sacks further quotes Rav Chaim Ibn Attar (18th cen., Israel; Or Ha-Chaim, Ex. 22:20) who adds that Jews, with their divine covenant, might feel superior to those of other nations who lack ancestors who merited such a divine relationship. Therefore, the Torah had to remind us to show extra care for these strangers. These different explanations all point to a concern for the outsider, the less fortunate, the vulnerable — concerns which apply universally, to all strangers.

Rabbi Sacks was looking more to sharpen his point than to prove it. If he had wanted to demonstrate the authenticity of his approach, he might have quoted Rashi (11th cen., France). In his commentary to Exodus (22:20), Rashi defines the term ger as follows: “Any use of the term ger (stranger) in the Torah means a person who was not born in that country where he presently resides, but rather came from another country to sojourn there” (Artscroll translation). Rashi does not say that ger means a convert or someone who formally rejects idolatry, as one would expect from the Talmud. Rashi says that ger means an outsider, a foreigner. This definition is so startling that one nineteenth century Israeli legalist, Rav Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Te’omim, suggests that this comment in Rashi was a later insertion out of fear of a censor (commentary to Sefer Ha-Chinukh, no. 431, quoted in Rav Shlomo Zalman Braun, She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah, Bava Metzi’a 59b).

However, the context of Rashi’s comment makes it difficult to take this definition in a straightforward way. Rashi is addressing the seeming imbalance in the verse: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger (ger, nor oppress him, because you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:20). The beginning of the verse refers to a convert while the end of the verse refers to Jews as strangers in Egypt. From the Talmudic perspective, the second half of the verse does not match the first. Rather, as Rav Yitzchak Slonik (17th cen., Poland, son of the author of Responsa Masas Binyamin; Nachalas Yitzchak on Rashi, ad loc., quoted in Sifsei Chakhamim, ad loc.) explains, Rashi says that you should not mistreat a convert for being a ger because he can respond that you, too, fall under the broad category of a ger. If this is what Rashi means, then his comment cannot serve as support for Rabbi Sacks’ view other than as offering a broad definition of a stranger that Rabbi Sacks uses for a different purpose.

IV. The Ethical Imperative

Even without Rashi’s help, Rabbi Sacks finds ample support in the words of the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (anonymous, 13th cen., Spain; Mitzvah 431). The Chinukh follows the Talmud in saying that the commandment to love the stranger (Deut. 10:19) applies only to a convert to Judaism. However, he adds: “And we should learn from this precious commandment to have mercy on a man who is in a city that is not the land of his birth and the place of the family of his fathers. And we should not pass him by on the road when we find him alone and that his helpers are far from him, since we find that the Torah warns us to have mercy on anyone who needs help. And with these traits, we will merit to receive mercy from God, may He be blessed, and the blessings of Heaven will rest upon our heads. And Scripture hints to the reason of the command when it states, ‘since you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’: It mentions to us that we were previously burnt by this great pain that there is to every man who sees himself among foreign people and in a foreign land. And upon our remembering the great worry of the heart that there is in the matter, and that it already passed over us and that God, in His kindnesses, took us out of there, our mercies for any person like this will overwhelm [us]” (translation by R. Francis Nataf).

Sefer Ha-Chinukh sees the idea underlying this commandment as a universal idea to care for anyone who is a stranger. Any foreigner in a foreign land needs emotional and physical support. If anyone should know this based on personal experience it is the Jewish people. This was true when we emerged from exile in Egypt and became even truer after millennia of exile and wandering, when we were strangers even in foreign lands where our ancestors had lived for generations. The Jews outside of Israel are the prototypical strangers. We must, therefore, empathize with anyone else who becomes a stranger. The Sefer Ha-Chinukh serves as a strong precedent for Rabbi Sacks’ theology of the stranger. Indeed, after seeing this text, it seems more like Sefer Ha-Chinukh‘s theology of the stranger than Rabbi Sacks’.

Another Medieval commentator expresses a similar idea. Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam (13th cen., Egypt, son of Maimonides) wrote a commentary to the first two books of the Bible. On the verse prohibiting the mistreatment of a stranger (Ex. 22:20), Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam writes: “[The term] ger derives from living in a foreign land. It primarily refers to someone who is a stranger regarding where he lives, and from there was taken to refer to a convert who enters the religion… because generally [a convert] is a foreigner where he lives.” Rav Avraham could be discussing merely the linguistic origins of the term ger but he goes further. “The simple meaning of the verse is that ger refers to a foreigner where he lives, as it says ‘because you were strangers…’ The Sages interpreted it as a convert. It is possible that the intent is for both — a stranger and a convert.”

Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam explicitly includes the stranger — not just a convert — within the Torah’s command. It could be suggested that he refers only to a ger toshav, a gentile who fulfills the Noahide covenant, and not to every geographic stranger. However, aside from the absence of this detail in his commentary, Rav Avraham says that he is interpreting this verse simply and the simple meaning does not suggest anything about the stranger fulfilling any covenant. Rather, the plain meaning of the verse teaches us the extra care we must show for all strangers because we, too, were once strangers in Egypt.

V. Two Methodologies to Resolve the Contradiction

And yet, despite the substantive precedents for this theology of the stranger, we remain with the contradiction to the Talmud. Set aside Rabbi Sacks; how could the author of Sefer Ha-Chinukh and Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam interpret the verses about the stranger as referring to any stranger when the Talmud says it refers to a convert? There are two answers to this question.

Note the language of Sefer Ha-Chinukh as it progresses to discussing the general stranger: “And we should learn from this precious commandment…” Sefer Ha-Chinukh locates the underlying spirit of the law about the treatment of a convert and applies it non-legally to a universal stranger. Rav Yosef Babad (19th cen., Ukraine; Minchas Chinukh 431:3) asks how the Sefer Ha-Chinukh could interpret this verse as referring to any stranger rather than a convert. He answers that the Sefer Ha-Chinukh meant this as an ethical imperative (derekh ha-mussar) and not a legal obligation. It is proper, compassionate and ethical to care for any stranger in a foreign land. It is halakhically obligatory only to care for a convert.

Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam takes a different, more daring path. He suggests that the verse refers both to a foreigner (as per the simple reading) and a convert (as per the Talmudic tradition). Both are proper readings and religious obligations. Rav Avraham here follows his general approach that the simple meaning of a verse teaches a religious obligation even when the Talmudic tradition reads the text differently. In such a case, we accept both the simple reading (peshat) and the rabbinic reading (derash) in practice.

For example, regarding the prohibition against theft (Ex. 20:13), Rav Avraham writes in his commentary (ad loc.) that the peshat forbids any kind of theft. On the other hand, the Sages read this verse as referring only to kidnapping and a different verse as referring to the theft. “Nevertheless,” says Rav Avraham, “a verse does not depart from its simple meaning” (based on Shabbos 63a). In other words, the Talmudic reading is certainly religiously binding but, additionally, the simple meaning is binding, as well. Similarly, Rav Avraham believes that the simple meaning of the verses about the stranger refer to a universal stranger, while the Sages read it as referring to a convert. Both are religiously binding.[2]See also Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam’s commentary to Ex. 23:1 and the overview in volume 1 of R. Moshe Maimon’s 2020 edition of Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam’s commentary on the Torah, pp. 53-59. … Continue reading

I am very uncomfortable with this idea of determining practice based on a simple of reading of the Bible. However, I find some comfort in the resolution of a contradiction within the responsa of Rav Yosef Kolon (Maharik, 15th cen., Italy). Maharik (Responsa, no. 167) was asked about a woman who committed adultery, mistakenly thinking that the extra-marital relationship was technically permissible within halakhah. Is she allowed to remain married to her husband despite the general rule that a woman who strays is forbidden to her husband and to the man with whom she cheated? Since she thought that she was permitted to engage in the affair, is she considered an accidental sinner? Maharik quotes the verse regarding a Sotah (Num. 5:12): “If any man’s wife goes astray, and acts unfaithfully against him.” Maharik points out that the unfaithfulness is not to God but to her husband. Therefore, regardless of whether she sinned intentionally, she intentionally acted unfaithfully and therefore cannot remain married to her husband. This decision is quoted by Rav Moshe Isserles (16th cen., Poland) in his glosses to Shulchan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer 178:3) and widely discussed and accepted by later authorities.

Maharik’s reasoning is astounding. He bases it, at least in part, on his original reading of a biblical verse. And yet in another responsum (no. 137), Maharik scolds a rabbi for performing his own exegesis on a verse as if he were a Talmudic Sage, something which Maharik himself seems to have done in the responsum above. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel; Chaim Sha’al 1:48) resolves this apparent contradiction by distinguishing between exegesis and simple reading. After the close of the Talmud, we are not allowed to engage in complex exegesis of the biblical text to uncover halakhic details. However, we are allowed to read the text and reach conclusions based on its simple meaning. This is what Maharik did regarding an accidental adulteress and, I believe, what many others have done. For example, Rav Yoel Sirkes (17th cen., Poland; BachOrach Chaim 625) says that while sitting in a sukkah on the first night of the holiday, you must have intent to remember that the Lord took us out of Egypt and protected us in the desert. He has no source for this original ruling other than an explicit verse (Lev. 23:43). Similarly, Netziv occasionally reaches halakhic rulings from plain verses in his Torah commentary (e.g. Harchev Davar, Num. 17:12 n. 1). While one can argue that Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam goes a bit beyond this practice, his approach fits in fairly well with that described and defended by Chida.

VI. Conclusion

Rabbi Sacks’ theology of the stranger follows Medieval precedent in reading the text and applying it in practice. Sefer Ha-Chinukh believes that when we properly understand the Torah’s commands, we can extrapolate to other scenarios. Even if this does not create a religious obligation, it creates an ethical obligation. It is entirely proper to build a theology based on the Torah’s vision of ethical behavior.

Rav Abraham Ben Ha-Rambam believes that we must incorporate the simple reading of the text into our religious practice. This approach requires further elaboration because it can easily lead to religious chaos. Certainly, any interpretations must be careful and sensitive, steeped in fear of the Lord and respect for text and tradition. Presumably, any such interpretation must complement, and never contradict, the Talmudic tradition. If someone interprets the Torah in a way that contradicts the tradition, we are religiously bound to follow the tradition. And in general, only the rare scholar in a generation — at most — has the grounding to offer such interpretations. Regardless of these and any other necessary methodological caveats, in the case of the stranger, Rav Avraham explicitly says that the simple reading of the text is religiously binding. Similarly, Chida and others learn laws from a plain reading of the biblical text. Presumably, they could serve as legitimate precedents for Rabbi Sacks if he had derived a theology from his interpretations of the Bible.

While Rav Abraham Ben Ha-Rambam offers an approach of original interpretation of the text, I believe that Rabbi Sacks follows the Sefer Ha-Chinukh’s approach of ethical extension of the command. Had he suggested this theology without any precedent, his methodology could be subject to criticism — is he appropriately expanding the traditional understanding of the ethical meaning underlying the text? Since his suggestion has important precedents, Rabbi Sacks’ theology of the stranger stands on solid ground of important Medieval texts, with the approval of the Minchas Chinukh and possibly the Chida. In particular, since Rabbi Sacks generally offers this theology to a gentile audience that is not obligated in the Mosaic commandments, the ethical understanding rightly takes priority. And even when addressing a Jewish audience, Rabbi Sacks presents his understanding on the ethical plane, not the halakhic, because his is a theology of the stranger and not a commandment regarding the stranger.

As we take leave of our first full year without Rabbi Sacks, we would do well to look back to his ethical teachings. In this confused world, with many moral compasses pointing in the wrong directions, Rabbi Sacks’ memory and teachings guide us toward the path of responsibility and sanctity.


1See, for example, Dr. Alan Jotkowitz, “Univeralism and Particularism in the Jewish Tradition: The Radical Theology of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks” in Tradition, Fall 2011 (44:3), p. 61. See also my letter to the editor in Tradition Spring 2012 (45:1).
2See also Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam’s commentary to Ex. 23:1 and the overview in volume 1 of R. Moshe Maimon’s 2020 edition of Rav Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam’s commentary on the Torah, pp. 53-59. And see the recent interview with R. Maimon on Seforim Blog, particularly his answer to the question, “Are there any Halacha pieces in this work?”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, 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 serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five 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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