By: Rabbi Jeremy Wieder  | 

‘A Stranger and a Resident I Am Amongst You’

Editor’s Note: The following is an edited transcription of a speech given by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder in the Glueck Beit Midrash on Tuesday, Nov. 26. An audio version of the speech can be accessed here

In last week’s parsha we read how Avraham Avinu said to the Bnei Heit (Hittites): Ger veToshav Anokhi Immakhem — A stranger and resident I am amongst you.  

Rav Soloveitchik famously commented about this: “Abraham lived among various people of divergent faiths. When he negotiated with the sons of Heth (of the Hittites) for a burial plot for his wife Sarah, he defined his status: ‘I am a stranger [immigrant] and a resident among you’ (Gen 23:4). He was basically declaring that the sectarian faith he was propounding did not preclude his commitment to further the welfare of the general society.” (Reflections of the Rav II, pp.74-75)

Perhaps the greatest challenge any ben or bas-Torah in our community faces is attempting to navigate the balance of Ger veToshav — when are we part of the broader society and when are we apart. And when we speak of this dilemma, I am not speaking about issues of halakhah. Halakhah by its nature is mostly clear and immutable. It may change in its application to a different reality, and perhaps even shift slowly, almost imperceptibly, over very long periods of time. There may be a shift from one approach to another within the halakhic tradition based upon changing circumstances, but fundamentally halakhah is immutable and, at least in broad strokes, clear.

Instead, what I speak of here are what we would term “Torah values;” what might best be described as the broader picture that the details of halakhah paint. If the various halakhot consist of all of the trees in the forest, then “Torah values” would be what one sees when stepping back and gazing at the bigger picture; it is not merely a collection of individual trees, but a magnificent, verdant forest — the intertwining of the branches of various trees, as well as the magnificent rays of light that shine through the gaps. 

In a somewhat famous teshuva, the Noda beYehudah (R. Ezekiel Landau of Prague) was asked about a Jew who had become wealthy and had acquired significant landholdings including wild forests and had expressed an interest in hunting for sport, inquiring of the Noda beYehudah regarding its permissibility.  After initially dismissing the relevance of a few possible halakhic prohibitions, the Noda beYehudah states: “I am extremely puzzled over the essence of the matter, as we do not find hunting men except for Nimrod and Esau; this is not the manner of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

He expresses his astonishment that any Jew would even consider hunting. Who hunts? Esau and Nimrod. But what is the prohibition? Apparently, this Jew couldn’t see the forest for his own forest.

The Yerushalmi tells the story of Shimon b. Shetah who used to earn his living by working with flax, a very unpleasant profession. His students came to him and suggested that he shouldn’t have to work so hard.  They suggested that they would buy him a donkey, and he could be the equivalent in those days of a contemporary short-haul driver. He assented and they went and bought him a donkey. When they returned with the donkey they informed him that not only would he not have to work hard, he wouldn’t have to work at all because apparently the donkey they had bought came with a precious diamond hanging on its neck. Shimon b. Shetah asked them, “Did the donkey’s owner know?”  They answered in the negative, at which point he told them to return it. His students said, “But Rebbe, even the opinion who says that the theft of a non-Jew is prohibited agrees that his lost objected is permitted (i.e. may be kept)?” He turned to them and said, “Do you think that Shimon b. Shetah is a barbaron (barbarian)? Shimon b. Shetah would much prefer to hear ‘blessed is the God of the Jews’ than any reward in this world.”

Shimon b. Shetah’s students knew the halakhah quite well — and yet they were unable to intuit the Torah’s broader message. The law may draw the line in a particular place, and may assign property one way or the other, but the Torah demands from us a broader ethic and ethos. This idea is famously captured in the related comments of the Semag (R. Moshe of Coucy, 13th century), where he tells us that he preached to the Jewish Diaspora in Christian lands that even though the halakhah technically permits keeping a non-Jews’s lost object, the reason why the Jewish nation is still in exile is because they partake of this technical permission and other similarly dishonest behaviors, and as a result, if God were to redeem the Jewish people, the nations of the world would challenge God as to how He could choose for His lot a nation of thieves and sneaks. Once again, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees.

But as easy is it may be to miss the forest when it comes to matters that are essentially driven by the internal dynamics of the halakhic system, a greater danger arises when there are values that are buffeting us from the broader culture. The Midrash in Eikha Rabbah (#2) tells us: “If a person tells you that there is hokhmah (wisdom) amongst the nations, believe it; that there is Torah amongst the nations, do not believe it.”

Hokhmah is science, in its broadest sense — including both the natural and social sciences.  It is descriptive in nature.  Torah is “instruction” as to how we ought to behave, a system of laws and values, prescriptive in nature. We can learn our science from foreign cultures — but with respect to our values, “Amongst the nations, there is no Torah”. (Lam. 2:9)

I want to be explicitly clear here about two points, both of whose essence I have tried to hammer into my students over the last several years:

1) Determining what are “Torah values” is not always a simple matter.  Of course in many areas the broad strokes are fairly clear — about this we should not deceive ourselves — but there are situations where there is genuine ambiguity. Take, for example, the Torah’s attitude towards capital punishment. The Torah prescribes the death penalty for many aveirot (sins) and the peshat (simple-sense) reading of Torah [Scripture] does not evince any principled reservations. And yet R. Akiva and R. Tarfon (mMakkot 1:10) asserted that had they been around during the historical era during which the death penalty was still administrable, they would have ensured that nobody was ever executed (utilizing arcane procedural technicalities) — it is unclear, though, whether their opposition was philosophical or only practical, i.e. concern for convicting the innocent.

On the other hand:

2) When the Torah’s perspective is clear and clearly in conflict with some other value system, there is only one acceptable choice for an eved hashem (servant of God): he or she chooses Torah. One cannot be poseah al shtei ha-se’ifim (stand on both sides of the divide) — you choose to identify as one thing or another, but kil’ayim (admixtures) are prohibited according to the Torah. Choosing the non-Torah value system is fundamentally a form of ideological idolatry. In its essence, it entails fashioning God in the image of humans, rather than humans being formed in the image of God. One gets to choose the altar on which one worships, but one should be honest about which altar that is.

Within these foreign challenges there are two different kinds — the first and more obvious, which I do not wish to focus on, are the “hot-button” issues. These are crucial issues in our community and it is essential that our approach in these areas be formed and informed by the Torah and its values — and so often they are not; but they are not what I wish to focus on now.

There is another kind of challenge, in which we adopt the values of surrounding society — and we typically do so unthinkingly. Some of these values are reflected in the way that we live our lives, and others are reflected in the positions we adopt and advocate for, or at least profess to believe in.

One example of this would be the materialism and consumerism which defines so much of our society. If you are not sure about this, recall that after the events of 9/11, then-President Bush told our country that the way to respond was to go shopping. Of course, what he really saying was “carry on as normal,” but the fact that a significant part of the way one would define “normal” was “shopping,” was telling of what so much of our culture has become. You can go to the mall because you need a number of different things and you have all of these stores in close proximity so it is a more efficient use of your time, or you can go there to hang out all day and shop for the things you never even knew that you needed — these are two very different kinds of activities. Clearly, Hoshen Mishpat delineates the permissible and the forbidden in our financial dealings, but once one has cleared its bar and then the bar of Hilkhot Tzedakah (laws of charity) in Yoreh Deah, everything else is technically permitted. But a Torah Jew should aspire to something more. We aspire to expand the gavra not increase the number of heftzas.

This kind of a values-challenge is problematic, but at least no one, presumably, would defend this from an ideological perspective.  

But there is another area of values conflict and confusion which I find to be extremely disturbing, and that is in the intersection of religion and politics. I understand that we have both College Democrats and College Republicans chapters on our campus. To be honest, I don’t understand why. Don’t get me wrong — I can readily understand why a Torah Jew might choose to vote Democrat and why a Torah Jew might choose to vote Republican. But I do have concerns about a Torah Jew perceiving his or her core identity as either a Democrat or Republican. I know that a large number of people will disagree with the statement that neither the Democratic nor Republican parties’ platforms in totality are in accordance with Torah values. If you disagree with this statement it is not because it is wrong, but because you are seriously confused about Torah. When you vote, you hopefully evaluate the full gamut of issues and discover that on some issues one party’s views are more in accordance with Torah and on others it is the other party’s, and often neither are. You then make a choice fully recognizing that you sacrifice some things for others, but the voting choice you make should never influence your understanding of Torah values. God forbid you should vote X, and then by association assume that all of X’s positions accord with the Torah’s perspective.

I don’t know what the Second Amendment actually means, but whatever it does exactly mean, that has no bearing on the Torah’s halakhic and hashkafic views towards weapons and gun-control, nor on what choices we, as bnei torah, should make as individuals in our own private spheres. I have no idea what the Constitution really holds about abortion, but I’m pretty sure that neither the typical pro-life nor pro-choice positions and attitudes are reflective of the nuanced and complex approaches of most of the contemporary poskim (decisors of Jewish law) who actually regularly answer these she’eilot (questions). And when it comes to economics: It’s worth noting that in the last few years there have been a couple of speakers, not Rabbinic individuals, who have come and spoken on this campus where at least parts of their remarks addressed the Torah’s ethos in the realm of economics. Suffice it to say that neither was sufficiently expert to opine about the economic values of Torah Judaism and certainly not in a makom torah such as this where there are plenty of talmidei hakhamim (Torah-scholars) who are. And while the Torah is most certainly not socialist, the conservative — lower case “C” — views expressed were also most definitely not in sync with the spirit of Hoshen Mishpat and Yoreh Deah. This should not be taken as a criticism of the speakers — they were invited to express their ideas and did so — but rather of those who invited them to do so, and of some of those in the audience who uncritically accepted what was said. 

The Torah’s weltanschauung on economic justice can be understood only through the study of large tracts of Torah, not by cherry picking halakhot to conform to one political philosophy or another. If you want to understand the Torah’s philosophy on economic justice — something that regrettably seems to attract little interest in large segments of our community — I would recommend that you study the laws of ribit (usury), shemitah and yovel (the Sabbatical and Jubilee years), sekhirut poalim (labor law), nizkei shekheinim (neighborhood zoning laws), geviat hov me-hayetomim (collections of debts from orphans), tzedakah and the list goes on and on. But don’t look to the platform of the party that you vote for to figure out your theory of economic justice nor any other matter of Torah values. A Torah Jew should not, at his or her core, be a card-carrying Democrat or Republican; he or she should view him or herself as a member of the party of the Ribbono shel Olam. How you vote, and what you advocate for in the public sphere of a mostly secular republic is complex and nuanced, but your fundamental allegiance and what you stand for and aspire to should never be in question — in your mind and in any impression you give to others.  

“If the Lord is God follow Him, and if Ba`al is God follow him” (Kings I 18:21). When Eliyahu (Elijah) presented the Jews on Mount Carmel with this choice, they could not answer — “and the people did not respond with anything.” I certainly hope that all of you can answer the question. And remember — you cannot be poseah al shtei ha-se’ifim (stand on both sides of the divide).

I began this sikhah (lecture) by talking about the Rav’s dichotomy of ger vs. toshav — the ger is apart from society whereas the toshav is part and parcel; but in truth even with respect to the toshav element — that is, when we get involved with the concerns of broader society — we are still fundamentally “apart.”  The ger represents those areas in which Torah values are diametrically opposed to those of the society in which we find ourselves, whereas the toshav represents those arenas in which we have enough in common to participate in the discussion. But even in the domain of toshav — and especially in situations where we might deem it wise to not necessarily push for our own particularistic positions and values — we always do so cognizant of what ideal Torah values are.  As the Torah tells us in Parshat Behar (Lev. 25:23), “Ve-ha’aretz lo timmakher letzmitut ki li ha’aretz — the Land may not be sold an eternal sale even with the agreement of both parties because the Land actually belongs to God — “ki geirim ve-toshavim atem immadi.” Because ultimately, the way we act both as a ger and even as a toshav must be informed by immadi” — in accordance with the Torah and values of the Ribbono shel Olam.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder is a Rosh Yeshiva in RIETS.

Photo Caption: The Glueck Beit Midrash 
Photo Credit: YU News