What Does It Mean to Be “The Stranger?” 

Have you ever felt like a stranger? When do you feel this way? Parshat Devarim contains one of the 36 references to treating the stranger equally to an Israelite. It states, “Hear out your fellow man and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.”[1] Is this really practical to do? While we preach impartiality, we all have built-in biases that would likely favor someone like us over someone different than us. Can we really judge someone from a different race, ethnicity or religion as we would judge one who looks like us and who practices Judaism?

I remember one time when I was a stranger. I worked for a Muslim organization in inner-city Chicago (a Jew working with Muslims on criminal justice reform for African American Christians) and being the only white person who got off the subway at 63rd street on the orange L line. I would at times get stares, a white Jew wearing a kippah, but I felt accepted by the community. I came to learn a number of the similarities between Judaism and Islam. When I returned every night to my north shore suburban apartment, I discovered that knowledge assuages much of one’s fears and concerns.

I also spent a Shabbat at an Israelite Hebrew synagogue on the south side of Chicago, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken with Rabbi Capers Funnye (Michelle Obama’s first cousin). I was amazed by the passion and enthusiasm that people had for saying the prayers in Hebrew, reminding me of the gospel choir in Keeping the Faith. Everyone read their own Aliyah and I gave a sermon, often hearing a resounding “Amen Brother!” after a sentence. I was also amazed by how people spent Shabbat afternoon at the synagogue in classes studying Torah. True it was not up to my standards (there was what looked to me to be non-kosher fried chicken for Kiddush) but I appreciated the opportunity to be part of a community so different from my own.

In Jericho I do not feel like a stranger. After all I see the same people on a regular basis, whether in shul or in a walk around the neighborhood. I’m sure, however, that not everyone has my level of privilege in being a rabbi and that there are those who feel like a stranger in our community, not having friends or family here.

What can we do to ensure that no one in our community feels like a stranger? We should warmly welcome people in, like our synagogue does so well. Also we need to respect people who have different opinions than us, much easier said than done in today’s world. I think of Ann Coulter being denied to speak at UC-Berkeley, numerous speakers being shouted down upon ascending to the podium, or the gay and lesbian group being denied recognition at Hampton University. The amount of people who believe “everyone’s entitled to MY opinion” or that others should not be given a podium only seeks to further marginalize people in their own personal ivory towers. Respect might entail challenging someone’s opinion but it requires it to be held in esteem as long as it is not encouraging harm.

We must remember that we ultimately are descendants of one person yet we are also unique. The Talmud teaches that “The first man was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.’” [2]  It goes on to teach, “The Holy One, blessed be G-d, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.”[3] We are all created in G-d’s image yet each of us has unique qualities and characteristics. When we look at one another, we should see one of the innumerable faces of God rather than a liberal or a conservative.

In addition, we must recognize that our desire to welcome the stranger is based on a wide variety of Jewish text and traditions. Our people have been known for their hospitality ever since Abraham, the first Jew, welcomed in the three men of Genesis 18. Through showing understanding and compassion to people different than ourselves, we are fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah of being an אור לגוים “a light unto the nations.”[4]

When Rabbi Capers Funnye addressed me at a Jewish Council on Urban Affairs event, he said, “Never give up on dialogue or you’ll leave a lot of room for misunderstanding.”  He also mentioned that when he sees an injustice he speaks to the person first before calling in a third party. These made me think about how we communicate with people who are different from us and whose perspectives we might not understand.  Even if someone is a stranger to you, having grown up in a different milieu, with opinions that oppose yours, trying to foster understanding and treating that person as an equal is of paramount importance.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, a holiday where we remember that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred between Jews, we must take this lesson to heart. Let us work on connecting with others and understanding their situation-for only by empathizing with the perspective of others can we work together as partners to do tikkun olam, making the world into a better place.

[1] Deuteronomy 1:16

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[3] Ibid.

[4] Isaiah 42:6

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