The Torah portion Emor is rich with important subjects that are also difficult and fraught. Who is fit to serve as a religious leader, and how will that service affect their private lives? What behavior protects and magnifies God’s name, and what behavior sullies or even desecrates it? How shall we celebrate and sanctify time, including and especially Sabbaths and holidays? When people defy laws and norms, what are the consequences — for those individuals and for the larger community?
This last question takes up much of the last chapter in the Torah reading, in the form of laws and, more unusually for Leviticus, in a story. The final verses of our Torah portion name consequences for monetary crimes and capital offenses; they cover injury and death of animals, crimes against persons, and blasphemy against God.
It is in this context that Leviticus 24:22 instructs: “You shall have one law/standard of justice (mishpat) for stranger (ger) and citizen (ezrach) alike, for I am Adonai your God.”
This statement is shocking in its starkness and sweep. The law must apply equally; otherwise, it does not deserve the name mishpat.
It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator is a stranger or citizen. S/he may be an Egyptian or an Israelite or, as in the Torah portion’s narrative, the child of a union between an Egyptian and an Israelite. Justice doesn’t vary with the social standing of the victim, either. One law means one law.
Various commentators emphasize the breadth of this principle’s application. They look to the wording both of this verse and of the verses that surround it. Analyzing the familiar coda “I am Adonai your God,” many commentators, emphasize that the word “your” is plural and expand our usual assumptions about who is included. For example, Rashi (11th century France) writes, “Your God — the God of all of you. Just as I attach/unite my name to you, so I attach/unite it to the strangers.”
The word ger can be translated as “stranger/alien” or, more narrowly, as “convert/proselyte.” Rabbeninu Bachya (14th century Spain) shares this empathetic etymology: “The gentile who came from a foreign land and separated himself from his homeland is called ger by the Torah as he resembles a gargir, a berry falling of a tree which is separated from its source.”
“For stranger and citizen alike” is not a literal translation. The Hebrew reads “like the stranger, like the citizen will be.” The first “like” seems unnecessary, even confusing. It is clearer to assert “the stranger will be like the citizen” than “like the stranger will be like the citizen.”
The word “like” is indicated in Hebrew with the single letter kaf. The “extra” kaf/”like” is interpreted by most commentators to emphasize the equality between strangers and citizens, and the necessity to give them equal justice. One ancient interpretation goes so far as to say the “kaf” indicates that the women among converts and the women among born Jews should be included and legally protected equally with men.
One Law. Period.
Many law systems privilege certain classes of people over others — not just by flawed execution, but by design. In the ancient Code of Hammurabi, for example, the status of the victim and of the perpetrator affected the consequences of an assault. A nobleman who put out the eye of another nobleman would have his own eye put out. But if he put out the eye of a freed man, his punishment was a fine. For a slave, he had a lesser consequence.
In what may have been a polemic against Hammurabi, our Torah portion states in 22:20, just two verses before the statement of equality under the law: “an eye for an eye” — all eyes are equal. (The same phrasing occurs in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 19.) The Oral Law interpreted this language to require monetary compensation for the value of a lost eye (Baba Kamma 83b). And the value does not depend on the social standing of either the injured or the injuring party.
Like many Americans, I have been deeply troubled and often angered by Donald Trump’s rhetoric. What struck me this week, as I reviewed the Torah portion, is the contrast between his language — and where it leads — and the famous and still-aspirational verse: “You shall have one law/standard of justice for stranger and citizen alike, for I am Adonai your God.”
In the ignominious Access Hollywood tape, Donald Trump asserted that there was one law for “when you’re a star” and another for regular people; one law for men and another law for women: “You can do anything. Grab ‘em…. You can do anything.”
During his campaign, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He promised that he would “send back” all Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the United States, if elected. Since becoming President, he has instituted policies to at least exacerbate and arguably create a crisis on the Southern border. He has targeted immigrants (“strangers”) from specific countries, races, and religions with demeaning and demonizing language. He has made it harder for legitimate asylum seekers to find a haven in our country, as both American and Biblical law demand. He routinely applies different standards to different groups. Certainly, white supremacists have embraced him for the favoritism he shows.
There are political and social remedies: legislation, court rulings, oversight, protests, activism, voting. We need comprehensive immigration reform that values the stranger and the citizen. We need to root out racism and other forms of bias and discrimination. We need to act zealously for inclusion and equal justice in all our spheres of influence.
Now, more than ever, we also need a philosophical and spiritual remedy. It’s not enough to parse or legislate that “kaf” of inclusion. We need to take it into our hearts and souls. Each of us is called to become more inclusive and more just.
We dare not get so distracted by the outrage of the week or the tweet of the hour that we forget the wisdom of the centuries: “You shall have one law/standard of justice (mishpat) for stranger (ger) and citizen (ezrach) alike.” Nor can we forget the source of all just law and rightful authority: “for I am Adonai your God.”