2 Iyar 5777 B’SD
The Rabbi’s Mea Culpa
Laying myself bare for all to see is uncomfortable and humiliating, but nonetheless I believe it is necessary to cleanse my soul from a year of iniquities. I was most fortunate to have my entire family visit over Passover, even though the conversation sometimes veered towards the political. The topics were varied but often involved passionate debate related to difficult current issues. Should refugees escaping from countries that are hostile to the United States be welcome? Should our borders be sealed tightly or is our country built on immigration? How should the United States treat its illegal immigrants? Do they deserve to be educated, receive government assistance, and get free medicine? How does being Jewish impact my thoughts and understanding of these issues?
I always imagined that I was inherently honest until I forced myself to stop and take a closer look. I woke up one day and had an epiphany: I had been fooling myself and those who thought they knew me. Thus, I am putting on record what I believe to have been my erroneous postulating on these most important matters.
I justified a rather conservative position by convincing myself that in order to be a law-abiding citizen one must adhere strictly to the rule of law. Therefore, anyone who enters a country illegally should be dealt with in accordance with the strictness of the legal system. And those who want to emigrate must swear allegiance to their newly adopted country and must distance themselves from the culture, politics, and philosophies of their past. I compared an immigrant to a convert to Judaism who must disassociate from their past ideologies and convince the Beth Din (Jewish court) that they genuinely want to be Jewish and no longer believe in the religion and philosophy of their past life. They must also promise to uphold the Torah and rabbinic law.
My conscience was clear as I believed my reasoning was logical and unassailable. However, my children didn’t give me a pass. They questioned and disagreed, often vehemently. They hammered their point of view until I was forced to reexamine my own. They asked me a pointed question that was most difficult to answer. Do I adhere to the laws of my country with the same conviction that I demand from immigrants? Am I willing to swear allegiance to the United States and renounce my own heritage and religious philosophy? Am I prepared to dismiss Torah law or a rabbi’s ruling if it contradicts a civil law? Do I fear an audit or have I ever paid in cash?
Need I say more! Of course, I am not perfect nor have I ever met anyone who would be able to meet the standards I have set for immigrants. I am being disingenuous by claiming that I am not prejudiced or biased against refugees from certain countries. I now realize that it is dishonest of me to claim that my opinions are solely based on a deep belief for the rule of law. Yes, I strongly believe that rules should be adhered to, but I also know I am most forgiving when it is I who am violating those laws. I am also willing to overlook certain laws when it is my people who are suffering. When the United States refused entry to Jews seeking refuge during WW2 would I posit the rule of law as a justification? Would I be horrified by our government’s insistence that details override the sanctity of life?
The deeper I dug into my thought process the deeper the hole became. I know that potential converts struggle with disassociating with their past and it may take years of communal acceptance for them to finally feel part of the Jewish people. The convert gives up so much merely by leaving their ancestral home and embracing an alien culture and philosophy. While converts are genuinely passionate about Judaism when they convert, that passion often dissipates after seeing the anomalies. The warmth, friendship, and love they received while preparing for conversion subsides and is often replaced by demands, prejudices, and a lack of total acceptance into the community. Sadly, many who took the giant step and converted to Judaism regret their decision after only a few years.
My guess is that my beliefs about refugees and immigrants were not very different than those of many of my peers. We thought we were protecting our religion and country when in fact we are committing a grave disservice. I think there must be vetting, but we must also consider how to embrace people whose values and customs differ from our own. I think that instead of worrying about immigrants not adapting to our culture, we should worry more about why we are not embracing them with love and respect and showing them the beauty of our culture. It is beyond the realm of possibility for a convert or immigrant to fathom the complexity and challenges of their new life without the effort and support of the community. When they fail to adapt into our culture, it is not they who are failing us, it is we who are failing them.
Do I believe in the rule of law? Absolutely. However, Moshe (Moses) was preoccupied with bringing Jews out of Egypt and wasn’t concerned about violating Egyptian law. When the State of Israel came into existence and needed armaments to stay alive, they too were not overly concerned with the rule of law. When they had to save the lives of Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews and fly them clandestinely to Israel, they were not that concerned with the rule of law. If Israel has a nuclear arsenal, it was not acquired by heeding international law. When the Mossad and Israeli intelligence exacts retribution against groups like Black September, they do not heed international law. When missiles destined for Hezbollah were recently destroyed in Syria, the country that destroyed them didn’t heed international law. Moreover, had the State of Israel always adhered to international laws, I could almost guarantee we would not be celebrating the 69TH Yom Ha’atzmaut.
I’m not sure if I’m completely convinced of all this, but I am certainly working on opening my eyes.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,