Jeremiah Unterman

From 2000-2006, Dr. Jeremiah Unterman was the Director of the Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools and Yeshiva High Schools (in North America), and Adjunct Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University. Dr. Unterman also served as Executive Director of the Toronto Board of Jewish Education and Vice-President for Education of UJA Federation of Toronto.  From 1992-1997, he was Executive Director of the Commission on Jewish Education and Director of Boston’s Hebrew College-Hartford Branch in Connecticut.  He was Director and Associate Professor of the Jewish Studies Program at Barry University (Miami, Florida) from 1983-1992.  He received his B.A. in Hebraic Studies from Rutgers University, a Masters in Bible from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in the Judaica Program of the Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Unterman has authored some 40 articles in scholarly publications, and has served on the editorial board of Hebrew Studies and Ten Da’at (Yeshiva University’s journal of Jewish education).  His book on Biblical prophecy is entitled From Repentance to Redemption.

Dr. Unterman has had academic teaching positions at Dartmouth College, the University of Connecticut, Northwestern University, the University of California - Irvine, the University of Judaism in L.A., Wichita State University and York University in Toronto. He has also lectured frequently at universities and scholarly conferences in the United States and Israel.

The Stranger גר in the Jewish Bible and the Ancient Near East (with a note on slavery)

Social justice in ancient Near Eastern societies was not identified with equality, nor was it identical with the elimination of poverty as such, since it was accepted that large sections of the population would constantly exist at subsistence level. Social justice was perceived rather as protecting the weaker levels of society from being wrongly deprived of their due: the legal, property, and economic rights to which their place within the social hierarchy entitled them. Then or now, any government or society concerned with social justice needs to address the condition of its economically and socially disadvantaged elements. Such attention to this need should minimally result in a system for alleviating this condition and enabling the disadvantaged to attain enough practical support to continue to co-exist with the more fortunate members of society. A related question concerns the social standing of the disadvantaged: are they perceived as inferiors or as equals and, specifically, what are the parameters of this perception?

This paper will survey the Jewish Bible’s consideration of the non-Israelite underprivileged element of society - the stranger.

It would be hard to find a more problematic issue in human cultures than the perception of and position accorded to the stranger – the classic outsider. The stranger is the person who doesn’t look like you, or doesn’t act or dress like you, or doesn’t speak like you, or doesn’t think or believe like you, or doesn’t come from the same society as you, or any combination of the above. Thus, the stranger might be from a different race, religion, nation, ethnicity, sexual preference, or even gender and educational background. In defining the other, a group will determine what it itself is not. The result has often been the sad historical fact that the stranger has been evaluated negatively – as an imagined fearful threat, and therefore the group has developed means to exclude or restrict the stranger. This xenophobia has had the ultimate consequence of horrendous massacres, such as the genocidal wars against the Jews and Tutsis, as well as the rampant discrimination in the past century against Afro-Americans in the United States and blacks in South Africa, and the ongoing abuse of women in most Moslem countries. Unfortunately, the list of horrors engendered by xenophobia is too long to number in their entirety here.

To elucidate the Jewish Bible’s perception of the stranger, it behooves us also to examine how the stranger was looked upon in ancient Near Eastern literature.

A paucity of references to the stranger occurs in ancient Near Eastern legal or wisdom literature. The first time that the stranger as a group appears outside of the Bible is in 4th or possible 5th century B.C.E. Athenian law which, however, makes him a second-class citizen in danger of being sold into slavery should he make one misstep. Otherwise, the lack of the inclusion of the stranger in any law collections in the ANE (including the introductions and epilogues), with the exception of one law in Eshnunna, leads to the conclusion that the stranger was a legally unprotected element of society.

The Jewish Bible: The Stranger גר = Resident Alien

It is clear from the Torah’s laws, as well as the Prophets and the Writings, that the stranger was a member of the disadvantaged elements of society. He is grouped with the widow and orphan, and the poor. Particularly characteristic is the stranger’s lack of right to be a landholder.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that the stranger is not a member of the people of Israel, s/he is entitled, by Divine fiat, to all the benefits given the poor, widow, and orphan, which we shall explicate. Beyond that, the resident alien is singled out to ensure that no harm befalls him or her, that s/he receives food and clothing, and that his or her rights of justice are protected. Special emphasis in placed on the stranger’s parity with the Israelite in both civil law and negative cultic commandments.

Certain key ethical legal innovations in the Torah dealing with slavery will also be discussed in relationship to their Near Eastern background.

In order that the Israelite should fully comprehend the significance of treating the stranger well, exceptional motivational clauses are introduced: “(God) loves the stranger… so you must love the stranger” (Deut. 10:18-19) for “you know the character of the stranger” for “you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9). Unquestionably, further identification of the Israelite with the stranger was derived from God’s claim that “the land is Mine, for you are but resident aliens with Me” (Lev. 25:23).

Thus, the Torah creates an understanding of, and an attitude towards, the stranger who resides among the people which is unique in the ancient world. From a legal non-entity with almost no rights, who lives in constant danger of losing his or her freedom, the resident alien has been transformed into a divinely, legally protected member of society with both wide-ranging benefits and significant parity with the average citizen. More than that, the Divine devastation of Egypt is brought upon itself by its abuse of its own innocent, resident alien Israelites. The take-home lesson is obvious, “Do not mistreat your resident aliens, or else what happened to Egypt will happen to you.”

Although absolute equality would have to await the advent of modern ideals of civil rights (which have yet to be fully implemented even in most democracies), the motivational content attached to the Torah’s laws served to eliminate any shred of xenophobia. Would that our modern societies only duplicate this ethical achievement of the Torah!