OUR UNIVERSE OF MORAL OBLIGATION
“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
As a Jew with a deep commitment to social justice, I seek out elements of the Jewish tradition that speak to me loud and clear. Texts like this one, about loving the stranger, animate my view of Judaism as a guide for ethical living. It’s globally-minded and looks outward as well as inward. It points to the universal moral possibilities in Judaism.
It’s no surprise that this phrase is often quoted to justify and inspire social justice work. When asked, “why should we care about poverty, hunger and social inequality?” we have a clear answer: Because the Torah says, “love the stranger,” “love your neighbor as yourself.”1
This is a powerful mandate, to be sure. But I have to admit that sometimes, it is an oversimplification. Read in their traditional context, these passages don’t necessarily apply to all the causes we deploy them for today.
Let’s start with Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the members of your nation, rather you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai.” In our pluralistic society, many Jews understand “neighbor” to include non-Jews. But it’s clear from the full context of the verse that neighbor refers to “members of your nation.” In Biblical terms, we’re talking about other Jews, not members of our global society.
But this isn’t the end of the story…