Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion Religion News

Three Jewish questions on refugee children

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about immigration at Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, Ind., on June 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Mike Moore)

Sometimes, people ask: is there anything that all religions can agree on?

Well, yes: the existence of God; basic ethical laws — and beyond that, not much else.

That is, until this week.

Every religious group in the United States has joined their voices together to condemn the enforced separation of parents and children on our nation’s borders. Unprecedented!

Even more unprecedented: 26 American Jewish groups issued a joint statement, in protest of that draconian policy.

Let us ask three Jewish questions on the situation with the refugee children.

How do Jews respond to Jeff Sessions’ use of biblical text?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 as a defense of the government’s policies — “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

As some observers have already pointed out, that particular biblical verse has often been utilized as a carte blanche justification for whatever a particular government chooses to do.

My colleagues have gone into our own textual toolbox for responses. The most popular quote is, of course, the oft-repeated commandment to love the stranger — mostly, the Leviticus 19:34 version.

There are several problems with this approach.

First, we Jews tend to overuse that commandment, to the point that it has become a cliche. As I wrote in Commentary:

Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it.

Second, Christians and Jews might share the Bible, but we read it differently. For Jews, Leviticus is Torah — law. For Christians, it has no legal standing.

If you are going to play battle of the texts with Christians, stay within the New Testament.

The best response to a Christian’s use of a Christian text is to find another Christian text.

Like, for example: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25: 40)

This is a key piece of inter-religious dialogue: helping the dialogue partner stay true to his or her own beliefs.

Many years ago, I was driving my 1966 Mustang, of blessed memory, and I lost my brakes. I drove my ailing car into an all night gas station/candy store. I asked the woman at the counter if I could keep my car there over night.

She refused. “You have to drive your car out of here.”

“But, I could be injured or killed, or someone else could be injured or killed.”

“That’s not my problem.”

I noticed that she was wearing a crucifix. So, I pointed to her piece of jewelry, and I asked her: “What would he want you to do?”

She thought for a moment. “Keep your car here.”

The Jewish question for Christians is, truly: WWJD?

What do we Jews do about Stephen Miller?

Stephen Miller, the 32-year-old White House senior policy adviser, has endorsed the family separation policy — and would want it to be even stricter.

Stephen Miller’s actions have embarrassed both his childhood rabbi, as well as his family.

Miller’s uncle, David Glosser, posted on Facebook: his family “escaped Europe as dirt poor immigrants, joined the community, built businesses, and honestly sold goods to their fellow Johnstowners.”

“If in the early 20th century the USA had built a wall against poor desperate ignorant immigrants of a different religion, like the Glossers, all of us would have gone up the crematoria chimneys with the other six million kinsmen whom we can never know.”

As Jane Eisner writes in the Forward:

Being a Jew is about respecting historical memory. It is about exercising responsibility to each other and, by extension, to others who require empathy and assistance…These are values shared by Jews across the political spectrum, who may differ on their responses and policy proposals but still adhere to a basic respect for human dignity.

I don’t see how Stephen Miller is part of this community.

I despise Miller’s actions as much as the next person. I mourn how ineffective his Jewish education must have been, which should be a wakeup call for Jewish educators (and parents, who often don’t allow Jewish education to “work”).

But, alas: this is where Judaism differs from other religions.

We are not a church, with the ability to bring people up on heresy charges. We are a family — and while there might be some members of my family whom I would not invite to my table, they are still members of my family.

And besides, last time I looked, the disgusting Harvey Weinstein is still one of us.

And last time I looked, the Yom Kippur liturgy reminds us that we are commanded to pray with willful transgressors.

Anger at Stephen Miller is a distraction.

Is it OK to compare what is happening on our borders with the Holocaust?

Because that is the first place that we go. We speak of concentration camps. We note that the authorities have told the parents that their children are going for baths — baths. We invoke our people’s experience of being turned away from this country, and many others, of being refused sanctuary.

Let us forgive ourselves the express lane to that metaphor. Seventy five years later, we are still a people that suffers from PTSD. Our history supplies us with a pile of trigger warnings.

But, careful. As Andrew Silow-Carroll writes in JTA:

Holocaust comparisons are lazy and more often than not hysterical. They diminish Nazism and genocide by making them synonyms for “very bad things.” You may regard the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance stance at the border, and its policy of separating parents and children, as inhumane and un-American. But if you think that’s Nazism, you don’t know Nazism…The Nazis’ aim was to harness all the power of the state to industrial-scale murder and the destruction of an entire race. Unless you are actually talking about genocide, it’s demagoguery to compare any policy with which you disagree to Nazism.

Andrew is right. Gratuitous Holocaust comparisons are unhelpful.

But, if your bar for evil is the Shoah, then everything else comes up short.

Where does the Shoah comparison work?

In the propensity for simply numbing out, of shutting down, of tuning out. As one of my friends said: “I guess that this is how ordinary Germans felt.”

No. Numbness is a luxury that we can ill afford.

The role of the Jews in this crisis is to say: Once upon a time, we saw how the process started. It is not necessary — please God! — that it wind up in the same place for us to be able to blow the shofar and to say that we promised to be silent — never again.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.