Parashat Chayei Sarah (23:1-25:18)
By Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann
Toward the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, Abraham describes himself to those with whom he lives with the phrase, “ger v’toshav anochi imachem, I am a stranger and a resident among you” (Gen. 23:4). Various Jewish commentators have interpreted this self-description as much more than just a statement about Abraham’s relationship to his immediate neighbors in the context of purchasing a burial plot for his dearly departed wife, Sarah. Rather, from their perspective, this phrase becomes a more general claim about Jewish religious identity in relationship to broader, universal concerns.
One example of this approach can be seen in Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s interpretation of this passage:
Our approach to the outside world has always been of an ambivalent character. We cooperate with members of other faiths in fields of human endeavor but, simultaneously, we seek to preserve our distinct integrity which inevitably involves aspects of separateness. This is a paradoxical situation. Yet, paraphrasing the words of our first ancestor, Abraham, we are very much residents in general human society while, at the same time, strangers and outsiders in our persistent endeavor to preserve historic religious identity. (Reflections of the Rav: Lessons in Jewish Thought Adapted from the Lectures of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik by Abraham R. Besdin)
For Soloveitchik, Abraham’s self-description as both alien and resident presents a paradox that should serve as a guide to the way Jews interact with other religious people and traditions. Famously, Soloveitchik posited that Jews should collaborate with other religions in “secular matters of mutual concern,” but steer clear of theological discussions.
I would suggest that we interpret this phrase not as a paradox, but as a dialectic. In our relationship with other religious people, texts and communities, we need to develop the capacity to live as strangers on the foreign soil of others’ religious traditions, theological concepts, and ritual practices. There is a way of being a guest, a visitor, which demands humility, curiosity and generosity of spirit. We can learn the ethical and religious posture of being a stranger who is eager to learn from others—discovering commonalities while recognizing and respecting the boundaries that define the deep differences between religious world views, histories and experiences. But we can learn to move dialectically between the experiences of being a stranger and being a host to others who want to explore our religious landscape. We have our own religious space, and we can be hospitable to those who seek to learn from religious understandings that differ widely from their own.
In my experience over several decades, inter-religious learning, designed and implemented thoughtfully, can afford us the opportunity to gain the skills necessary to successfully navigate this dialectic. In fact, serious inter-religious conversations that plumb the depths of theological commitments can preserve and deepen particular religious identity while expanding our knowledge and appreciation of other religious modes of being. Oscillation between living as a stranger and as a resident or citizen is not only possible or useful for inter-religions relations, it can form the basis of a more complex and nuanced religious existence.
Beyond the inter-religious and theological implications of this phrase, recent events in this country have highlighted the extent to which many people in our society feel the tension between experiences of empowered citizenship—rooted in our conception of equal rights—and alienation—caused by hate and hostility expressed by others with whom we share an increasingly weakened national bond. The march and subsequent violence in Charlottesville underscores the fact that Jews, blacks, and other minorities, who have full and equal rights as American citizens, are perceived as strangers and aliens by some white, nationalists who themselves feel alienated by changes in American culture. Labelled as strangers or aliens, we become a threat to the preservation of their control and dominance.
Even on elite university campuses, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and racist verbal and physical attacks that have taken place in recent months remind us that the intellectual havens of our society are not immune from the pathology that can emerge from an unhealthy understanding of the stranger-resident dialectic. I never imagined that my own children would encounter as part of their college experience the intense feeling of being a stranger in the eyes of some fellow students with whom they share a common citizenship in the university community. I am proud that they have felt the need to stand up not only for their rightful place, but for the rights of others from different religious and racial backgrounds who are made to feel like aliens rather than equal members of the community.
We can draw strength and courage from our experiences of being both a stranger and a resident to protect the rights of all of those with whom we share a common bond of humanity. If we manage to hold the difficult dialectic of being both a stranger and a resident, emulating Abraham who knew himself to be both, ger v’toshav , we can work to foster an environment where religious, racial and cultural differences invite us to learn from and appreciate the unique insights and perspectives that our diverse world offers us.
Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann is President of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.