Welcoming the Stranger: Kol Nidre 5778

Posted by on Sep 29, 2017 in Blog | 1 comment

‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’

By the time Shylock utters these words in The Merchant of Venice, I am always relieved that he stands up to antisemitism.

I’m a bit of a Shakespeare groupie—in the days pre-Olya, Sam and I would go to England every year to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform. I could never bring myself to go somewhere else because nothing could beat the joy I experienced at excellent theater. Now we make an annual trek to Ashland to be rejuvenated.

I think—and of course I’m not alone or original in this—that Shakespeare is one of, if not the most brilliant playwrights in the English language. And I had little trouble in using “the time in which he wrote” to excuse those uncomfortable moments: the sexism in Taming of the Shrew, or the racism in Othello, or the antisemitism in the Merchant of Venice.

But really, every time I saw the Merchant, I felt uncomfortable. It’s a comedy, a romantic comedy, with this huge streak of antisemitism in the middle. Shylock is a person, a villain of a person to be sure, but a genuine person whose pain is palpable. Unlike the cardboard villain, Don John in Much Ado about Nothing, Shylock is more like Richard III, the most engaging—if villainous—person on stage. This is all the more amazing considering Shakespeare almost definitely never knowingly met a Jew, as we had been expelled from England in 1290, and weren’t allowed back in until decades after Shakespeare’s death (1657).

Shylock is a fully human creation, who speaks beautiful, profound words about how it feels to face antisemitism:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? (Act III, 1)

Shakespeare shows us the humanity of someone from a hated tribe. As Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt wrote this summer in the New Yorker,

Ideologies of various kinds contrive to limit our ability to enter into the experience of another, and there are works of art that are complicit in these ideologies. More generous works of art serve to arouse, organize, and enhance that ability. Shakespeare’s works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake.[1]

And this ability to enter into the experience of others is vital. This summer, the NPR show “This American Life” broadcast a story about a huge brouhaha in Homer, Alaska, a town on the edge of America over a resolution proposed to the town council in the wake of the Muslim ban. One group of residents wanted to issue a statement welcoming immigrants and refugees and the other group did not. It nearly tore the town of fewer than 6,000 people apart. The journalist reporting this story checked with residents, and according to everyone, including the police and the town councilors, there are NO immigrants in the town. None. And yet this hypothetical concern was pitting neighbor against neighbor.

Just like the antisemitism in Merchant of Venice, these people were expressing a fear of something outside their experience.

For Jews, this issue is essential, as The Merchant of Venice so clearly shows. As Charlottesville showed. And the President’s words following Charlottesville showed. We know what it’s like to be unwelcomed, hated, expelled, kicked out, murdered. Even our wedding practices changed because of this regular feature of our existence. What was originally two rituals—the erusin or betrothal, and the nisuin or wedding—were combined in the Middle Ages because too often we couldn’t find the rest of the family in between the two ceremonies, because of the latest expulsion…

Unlike the people in Homer, our lived experience is that we have been unwelcome because we are different.

And so we Jews have made welcoming the stranger, hachnasat orchim, one of “the things whose worth cannot be measured” (Mishnah Peah 1:1)…Indeed it is part of our traditional morning liturgy—we remind ourselves of it every single morning.

AND according to Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b), the Torah, our foundational text, the first five books, “warns against the wronging of a ger [ger is a stranger] in 36 places; other say, in 46 places.”

Why so often? Because, hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilization. The Greeks called strangers “barbarians” because of their (as it seemed to the Greeks) outlandish speech that sounded like the bleating of sheep. The Romans were equally dismissive of non-Hellenistic races. The pages of history are stained with blood spilled in the name of racial or ethnic conflict.

And we Jews were always in the thick of the blood being spilt. This is illustrated toward the end of Genesis and of course the whole Exodus story is a story of the Other. Even Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, a former prisoner who rose to the highest rank below the Pharaoh, was still an anathema: Torah tells us that the Egyptians wouldn’t eat with him, let alone his brothers, “for that is detestable to Egyptians” (Gen. 43:32).

But long before that story, we learn that the first Jew, Abraham, was noted for his welcoming of the stranger. We read in Gen. 18 the account of Abraham’s welcoming of the three angels… As soon as he saw them, he jumped up—despite undergoing circumcision three days earlier—in his 90s—and ran to greet them, offering them the hospitality of his home. Though he had no idea of who they were, he still bowed down before them, washed their feet, and treated them as nobility, calling them “My lords.” He offered them a feast of cakes and beef and curds and milk.

The rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash saw this story as foundational to Jewish life. They spoke about it extensively, and from it, they derived one of Judaism’s most time honored and practiced virtues; the virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – the virtue of welcoming the stranger; of offering hospitality.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, asked, “Why was Abraham sitting at the door of his tent?” His answer was that he did so to see if any strangers were approaching so that he could welcome them as soon as possible. The Midrash goes further in saying that Abraham would pitch his tent at a crossroads and then raise up its flaps on all sides so that he could see if any travelers were approaching from any direction.  Such was the extent of Abraham’s desire to offer hospitality.

There is another midrash—a later story that builds out from biblical text.  It centers on the question of who was deserving of Abraham’s hospitality. According to this midrash, one of the many travelers whom Abraham welcomed into his tent was an old man. This old man was happy to accept all that Abraham offered.  After he had bathed, and rested, and eaten a luscious meal, he opened his pack, took out his collection of idols, and started to pray to them. Witnessing this, Abraham was quite distressed.

“What do you think you are doing?” he shouted at the old man.

The old man replied, “I am offering my thanks to my gods for such good fortune.”

“But,” Abraham stuttered and stammered in rage, “your gods did not provide this food and drink and shelter and respite for you.  My God provided it and it is to my God – the One God – that you should be offering your prayers of gratitude.”

“You are wrong,” replied the old man. “While I was traveling down the road, I prayed to my gods to lead me to a place where I could find food and drink and shelter and rest, and they led me here.  They answered my prayers and it is to them that I should be grateful.”

Well, Abraham would have none of this, and in his outrage, he kicked the old man out of his tent and sent him on his way.

Shortly afterwards, God called to Abraham and asked, “Where is the old man?”  Abraham then shared with God what had happened as well as his anger and frustration at how, after receiving all that bounty, the old man still rejected God in favor of his idols.  To this, God rebuked Abraham saying, “For all these years, I have taken care of that old man.  Now you have the audacity to toss him out?  If his idol worship hasn’t bothered me, why should it bother you?”  Hearing this, Abraham was greatly ashamed, and in his shame, he rushed down the road in search of the old man.  When he found him, he apologized, sought his forgiveness, and he invited him to return to his tent and to his hospitality.

Thus, very early on, and later (because the midrash come after the entire bible was put together), we have been told these stories that help create the memory of what is expected of us.

After the stories, we learn the rules, the commandments—the mitzvot. Brief aside about mitzvot—yes, commandments, but more than that, a way to connect to the divine: do this and we—God and I, God and we—will be close. We will be like God.

Rashi noted that the reason we are not supposed to oppress the stranger is because we know the feelings of the stranger-how painful it is for him when you oppress him. [Nechama Leibowitz Haggadah]

He is teaching the ethical imperative: Empathy is an outgrowth of experience. Nechama Leibowitz, a modern teacher, summarized, “We are bidden to put ourselves in the position of the stranger by remembering how it felt when we were strangers in another land.”

Another medieval commentator, Ramban, Nachmanides, has two explanations: one is that if we oppress the stranger, thinking we can get away with it, we must remember that God took care of us and will take care of the stranger we are oppressing as well. The second is:

For you know what it feels like to be a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That is to say, you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, and their eyes are always directed towards God, therefore God will have mercy upon the stranger even as God showed mercy to you, as it is written, “and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up to God by reason of the bondage,” meaning that God had mercy on them, not because of their merits but only on account of the bondage [and likewise God has mercy on all who are oppressed.]

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, until recently the chief rabbi of Great Britain, notes that

…. It is terrifying in retrospect to grasp how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Torah were saying with the utmost clarity: reason is insufficient. Sympathy is inadequate. Only the force of history and memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.

Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now… If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler … on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.

And that’s why we welcome the stranger: Hachnasat Orchim.

One last story. One of residents at the senior community where I serve as chaplain and I are practically landsmen—neighbors in the old country—the Pale of Settlement, what is now Ukraine. His mother came to the US at the age of 15, caring for her two surviving younger siblings. Two other siblings had recently died of starvation, as had her mother. They were rescued by uncles who had earlier emigrated to the US…She and her sibs walked from Kiev to Copenhagen, walked, and took a boat to Ellis Island. They didn’t speak English. They had no skills. They were part of a hated minority. The US let them in. The resident went to Harvard, Tufts Medical School and Stanford for his residency, and started the angiography lab at John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek. Had the US had the same practices on immigration at the time his parents came over, many lives in the Bay Area would have been lost.

How many of us are immigrants? How many of our parents? Our grandparents? Did they speak English when they arrived? Did they have skills yet?

How much poorer would the US be without us and our generations of Jewish immigrants, who were among the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?

And as Nachmanides said, we KNOW what it is like to be hated, to be exiled, to be newly arrived. Alas, not much has changed in 900 years…

And we also know that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Each one of us. Whatever our otherness. Wherever we’re born, whatever we look like, whatever tribe we belong to. Jewish tradition gives us the path to pay back the benefits we have received as members of the American Jewish community, and to practice recognition of this spark of holiness within each of us: Hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger, one of the most basic Jewish values. Let’s embrace it together.


[1] This article appears in other versions of the July 10 & 17, 2017, issue, with the headline “If You Prick Us.” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/10/shakespeares-cure-for-xenophobia?mbid=social_facebook_aud_dev_kw_paid-shakespeares-cure-for-xenophobia&kwp_0=472104&kwp_4=1714728&kwp_1=734308.

1 Comment

  1. Well said, Meredith!

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