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This piece by student rabbi Iris Ferreira marks the end of her placement with CCJ.

 

Throughout history and in all civilisations, strangers could be perceived either as a threat or as fellow human beings that we had to treat as equals.

This tension between fear and empathy towards the stranger can be evidenced in several rabbinical texts. Our first example is taken from the Babylonian Talmud, which comments on and explains the Mishna, an earlier collection of laws and traditions. The section of the Talmud we are going to explore deals with laws of property and ownership. The law from the Mishna is:

“One is compelled to [financially help] building a gatehouse and a door to the [jointly owned] courtyard [where one lives].”[1]

Then, the Talmud comments:

“Is this to say that a gatehouse is a good thing? But there is [the case of] this pious man, with whom [the Prophet] Elijah used to speak; [this man] made a gatehouse and Elijah stopped to speak with him! [Actually, this case] is not contradictory [with the Mishna]: [The man did his gatehouse] in the inner side [of the courtyard] and [the Mishna speaks of a gatehouse] outside [of the courtyard].”[2]

Rashi, a rabbi from the 11th century who composed a widely studied commentary on Bible and Talmud, said that Elijah stopped speaking to the pious man, because his inner gatehouse prevented him from hearing the voice of the poor outside. However, if the gatehouse is outside, the poor can receive help.

The Talmud goes on discussing what may have been the difference between the bad door and gatehouse of the pious man, and the appropriate ones spoken of in the Mishna. It concludes that, while in both cases the gatehouse was outside, there was also a door which needed a key to be opened. In the case of the Mishna, the key was in the lock outside, so everyone could easily open the door, whereas the pious man had put his key in the lock inside, preventing people from reaching him.

But what is the point of having a door if everyone can open it?

The door and the gatehouse represent a marker of the private space. Building them prevents anyone from walking in the courtyard, with no awareness of the need for intimacy of its inhabitants. However, people who need help should not be prevented from receiving it because of these barriers. The Talmud says that, even though we need a private space, we should not become deaf to what happens outside.

The same applies to the borders of a country. Although every country needs well-defined borders in order to protect its territory and its cultural identity, these borders shall not remain closed when people in distress are seeking refuge in our country. Otherwise, we would be like the pious man who prevented the poor from reaching him.

Another text can make us reflect about our behaviour towards refugees.[3] It tells that a boat sank and the only survivor was a Roman, who arrived naked at the shore. Many Jews were present, but Eleazar ben Shammua was the only one who rescued him. Later on, this survivor became Emperor. He decreed that all the men of the city were to be put to death, and all the women were to be made into slaves. Eleazar was sent to appease him: when the Emperor recognised him, he cancelled his decree in memory of the help Eleazar had provided him.

Nowadays, many people arrive at the shores of European countries in awful conditions, and are not always welcomed. However, helping them could lead to enriching and positive interactions: we would learn mutually from our specific skills and knowledge as well as strengthen feelings of solidarity which overcome cultural barriers. And maybe, one day, we will need the help of the stranger. If we created links of solidarity, we will be rescued – but what if we do not?

Other texts illustrate tensions around our behaviour towards strangers. A law in the section of the Talmud dealing with damages and their compensations states that if the ox of a Canaanite gores the ox of an Israelite, the Canaanite has to pay the whole value of the damage. In the opposite situation, the Israelite is not compelled to pay anything.[4]

Later on, the Talmud tells the story of two Roman officers who were sent by the Roman power to learn Torah among the Sages.[5] When they finished their study, they said that the whole Torah was true, except for this law. However, they would not report it to the government.

If the redactor of the Talmud included a story about Roman officers learning Torah, and even demonstrating sympathy towards the Sages by not reporting the problematic law to the government, it was in order to show that even Roman officers could become students and friends of the Sages. Would they not legitimately feel offended by such a law? How could the Sages approve a law that would diminish the value of Torah in the eyes of other people?

Thus, this story appears as a subtle criticism of discriminative laws. It reminds us that any person coming from any culture can become close to us. A law which discriminates against them would contradict the verse in Leviticus compelling us to love our neighbour as ourselves.[6]

Even though the fears provoked by strangers are acknowledged in our three texts, they also encourage us to overcome this fear, in order to reach a greater harmony and solidarity between all human beings.

 

[1] Mishna Bava Bathra 1: 5.

[2] Talmud Bavli Bava Bathra 7b.

[3] Kohelet Rabbah, parasha 11. Kohelet Rabbah is verse-by-verse midrash on Ecclesiastes, probably written towards the 8th century.

[4] Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 37b.

[5] Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 38a.

[6] Leviticus 19: 18.