Beis Moshiach Magazine/By Levi Liberow
The public debate about U.S. border control and immigration reform, interestingly enough, is a topic that sees a wide Republican-Democratic consensus, generally speaking. But still manages to stir up great tension even between those who we would think are pretty strong political allies.
We had a government shut-down over it; it’s being debated in federal courts and the president even threatened to take action by declaring a national emergency over it.
As Jews who believe that everything that happens in this world is an act of G-d, this two-decade-old crisis and the debate over it, I find, contain very important lessons for how to handle the microcosm of this great country: what we let in and out of our own borders.
I’M IN CHARGE!
An old-time favorite Chasidic tale is told about a disciple of the great Maggid of Mezerich who had a hard time controlling the thoughts that went through his mind. Some just weren’t so pretty and proper. His master didn’t give him any strategy on how to deal with them but instead sent him to one of his great disciples to discuss the matter with him.
So, late one night, our friend found himself arriving at the home of the great R’ Aharon of Karlin, a giant of mind and soul. He peered through the front door and observed R’ Aharon poring over his holy books immersed in deep thought. The Maggid’s disciple knocked on the door hoping to enter and warm his frozen bones. Upon hearing the knocks, R’ Aharon called out “Who’s there?” to which the guest responded with his name. R’ Aharon heard him, but instead of opening the door he retracted back to his books and deep thoughts. The poor freezing man tried again a few moments later, but to no avail, he wasn’t let in. He begged and pleaded but R’ Aharon, who was known as a kind-hearted individual, just ignored him the whole night through.
After many hours, the sun finally smiled its first rays upon the town and R’ Aharon turned to the door with a wide smile, welcoming his guest into his home and offering him a glass of tea to warm his frozen bones in front of the blazing fireplace.
The man was totally lost; he didn’t know what to think to himself of this strange experience. “R’ Aharon!” he demanded, “How could you just leave me outside like that in the freezing night?! How can a Jewish heart be so numb to the pain of a suffering brother?!” R’ Aharon responded to the perplexed man with a wise smile, “I just wanted to show you that I control who enters my home!” The man left with a lesson for life – thoughts can only enter if you allow them in.
Now more than ever we must challenge our protection system on how we respond to the many intruders that want to enter our borders. Some seem more innocent than others, like the thousands of children who flood the borders each year and challenge the American people, those from an immigrant nation at heart, on how we will live up to the motto inscribed on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired and your weary.”
An ethical and moral heart-twister indeed: Can we send these innocent children back home to struggle from hunger and violence? But can we just let them come here at the expense of our own children? Don’t we have enough of our own starving kids at home who could use the millions of dollars spent on caring for these heart-breaking illegal immigrants?
On a national scale, these sorts of dilemmas are really not easy to answer, for they place equally important principles at odds with one another. Yet a side must be taken and whichever one it is, it will leave an unbridged gap with the other. Still to our luck, the very same dilemmas on the personal level do leave us with more clarity on making the right decisions and while we may need to part in the process with ideas and ideals important to us, we still retain the knowledge that making the right choices is good for us in the long run.
JUDAISM: AN IMMIGRANT RELIGION
A large part of the multi-faceted problem of border control, many say, is the fact that the U.S. is an immigrant country; the legacy of this great nation is not a nationalistic one. The United States of America is a young country which never was the center of a certain religion, nor was it a land that bred a unique race. To the contrary: this country was established to protect one race from another and one religion from another by making itself a safe haven for anyone prosecuted in his or her homeland for their beliefs and creedal properties.
Yet to make such a nation thrive and to prevent a certain belief or race from overpowering another, a phenomenon of human nature has occurred in democracies of the past when special action had to be taken.
The founding fathers, humans who saw humanity at its best and at its worst, sought to create a nation that would not be nationalistic, yet patriotic, not ignore their differences yet rise above them – they set out to place values that all humans must embrace and freedoms that cannot be stripped of anyone.
These were values that ensured that even when the oppressed grow and prosper, they would not forget their oppressed brothers, and when they reached out for help we would identify ourselves in their suffering and offer them the G-d given freedoms we enjoy. These were the values that underlined the American immigration policy over the years and despite setbacks here and there under administrations with a different set of values, this approach persevered.
An excellent example of this is the mass immigration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1800s. In retrospect, with all its negative impact on religious observance, this mass immigration of over 1.8 million in a span of 30 years (1881-1912) was G-d’s way to save the embers of Jewry and authentic Judaism from the holocaust which soon followed. American Jewry also funded and supported its brethren in less golden countries during hard times. This was just another fulfillment of the “kindness that G-d has bestowed upon Israel by dispersing them amongst the nations.”
So in essence, rejecting immigration isn’t an American value. But at the very same time, immigration has to be controlled. Realistically speaking, we cannot accommodate everyone at once, and even among those we intake, many argue that we must give preference to skilled workers who can support themselves and their families. This is the background to the formation of the immigration quotas, currently standing at a rate of 675,000 per year. Judaism too faces a similar dilemma. Judaism is an “immigrant religion.” A Midrashic analogy explains what happened at Mt. Sinai when G-d gave the Torah: “A king decreed that citizens of Rome shall not descend to Syria and citizens of Syria shall not ascend to Rome. At one point the king removed the decree and declared “I will be the first!” and thus “G-d descended upon Mt. Sinai.” (Midrash Tanchuma on Shemos 9:15)
Since the dawn of time, there was a schism between heaven and Earth – between spirituality and physicality. G-d has set up a system in which G-dliness dominates the heavens and materialism dominates the earth. Yet the ultimate goal is that there be free trade between the two and ultimately spirituality will assimilate into physicality and vice versa; that physicality becomes a vessel and conduit of divine meaning and wisdom and that spirituality becomes as real and as tangible to us as materialism is.
Man too was created as such: “There are three things in which man resembles the ministering angels and three in which he resembles the animal kingdom; he was given his creator’s knowledge, he stands on two and speaks the holy tongue like the angels, he eats and sleeps and procreates and dies just as animals do.” (Chagiga 7b.)
THE “2448 FREE TRADE AND IMMIGRATION ACT”
The giving of the Torah was G-d’s “free trade and immigration act” which for the first time in history made it possible for physical objects to become conduits of G-dliness and allowed spirituality to access the divine potential found only in this lowly world.
Jews are not required to live a life of detachment from the world, on the contrary! Judaism is a system that was made specifically for that purpose – to create communication between G-d and the world.
And here is where we come to the secure borders issue. Judaism believes, encourages and even mandates by the virtue of its laws to admit physicality into the service of G-d, yet care has to be taken so that the right sort and the proper number of people enter. Here is where we need “border control”. Just because America is an immigrant country doesn’t mean we accept anyone; we only take in those who pledge allegiance to the country, will follow its laws, and will defend it when needed. We cannot let in drug dealers and terrorists! We must admit hard workers and prefer skilled ones! We cannot allow forms of physicality to enter our system to pollute our spiritual experience and relationship with G-d. What we take in is only for the purpose of enhancing our practice.
Jewishly speaking, despite the ban lifted between heaven and Earth, there are rules regulating the trade: A Jew must eat, but not every kind of food (Kosher). A Jew must engage in business, but must adhere to laws of integrity and honesty. A Jew must labor, but not on every day (Shabbos). A Jew must marry, but not anyone. To sum it up, Jews are required to admit physicality into their life. Asceticism is not a Jewish value, and at the very same time, we must maintain a tight screening process as to what and how much of it enters.
The challenge gets harder as to determine and to screen such immigrants that don’t display a record of crime, yet neither do they possess outstanding intellectual and social skills complete with diplomas from outstanding universities. When he comes, you don’t know what to make of him: when his real face is eventually exposed will he be a professor, or perhaps he will turn out to be a criminal.
For instance, an illegal immigrant recently killed four law enforcement officers in Arizona — a case that the conservative party officials will never let us forget.
In Jewish thought, we learn of three classes: good, evil, and “neutral.” The material entities in this world which are not treif but also don’t belong to the realm of holiness, while there is no prohibition against consuming them, there is no commandment to do so. They can pull us down and cause us to become egocentric hedonists and they can help us lead a calm life which we could dedicate to serving G-d with tranquility.
The solution for this is again, tight screening. It is hard to know from the outset what every single immigrant will end up doing; maybe they themselves don’t even know. Life contains many surprises, still, we must develop a certain formula which can help us determine these people’s intentions based on many factors.
Spiritually speaking, we don’t need to wait five to 20 years to see, and the stakes are not so high if we choose to reject something. If we are honest with ourselves, we can easily determine where these “kosher indulgences” lead us to. Do they enhance our spiritual experience, or do they perhaps make us more materialistically oriented? Did this new smartphone that I purchased ease my mind and let me focus better on my prayer, learning, and the time spent with my family, or did it desensitize my desire for prayer and Torah study? If the answer is to the affirmative then we may carefully proceed. If it’s a no, then as hard as it seems, we must stop in our tracks and rid our lives of it before it gets to the next stage.
The whole immigration saga gets heated up when it becomes a family affair.
More often than not, illegal immigrants come and find a measure of success that allows them to marry (with citizens or other illegals), and the children born are granted automatic U.S. citizenship. If and when these illegals are caught and face deportation, we are again faced with a tough dilemma. We cannot separate families, but we cannot deport legal American citizens who haven’t broken any law: “Sons shall not be penalized for their father’s sins.”
This dilemma that faces the U.S. legislation and law enforcement bodies is actually an incentive for millions of illegals to marry and have “anchor babies” that tie them to the soil of this country. To date, there are over 400k of such babies reported! The initiative spins out of control when these parents with this undefined status begin to demand working rights and benefits which belong to citizens or legal immigrants on the ground that “If we don’t qualify for deportation, then we cannot be denied these benefits and the right to work”. One side of the debate turned into executive policies adopted by President Obama in 2014 included mass deportation deferrals and an expansion of the DACA program for children brought in illegally. The other side of the debate, twenty-six states who suffer from illegal immigration, a phenomenon some will call an “epidemic,” challenged these policies and won a temporary injunction from a federal judge early on in 2015, and the crisis seems far from being resolved.
It becomes heartbreaking when these “anchor babies” themselves plead on behalf of their parents. How can you explain to an American citizen that American law mandates his parents’ deportation?!
What do you say to a child who grew up in the U.S. since he or she was three months old, English is his or her first language, he or she went to American schools, eats American food, and lives by American values, that he must go to a country he or she never was in, doesn’t know its language and culture, just because his or her parents crossed the border illegally?!
In Jewish terms this is a very challenging matter, both personally and even more devastating communally:
A famous adage goes that, “It is easier to learn the entire Talmud by heart than to change one bad habit.” We are born with some character defects and some we adopt over time. While the ones we were born with are hard enough to deal with, we have the option of not taking on more, but more often than not, we make that mistake. It’s important to know how it happens; “Habits become second nature” is how.
Even if you fail to properly screen something “not good” entering your life, if we are alert enough to determine when it becomes a habit that will soon become second nature, we can “deport” it before it becomes deeply rooted within us and starts a second generation. This is much harder to deal with and get rid of. Deporting someone, especially if he doesn’t present himself as a terrorist with a Kalashnikov and grenade in hand is hard. The tears on the deportees’ faces make you feel incredibly cruel. But it is inevitable, and the earlier you uproot a bad middah, the easier it is. At some point, you will have to take action – it may be your spouse that will push you to it or your children. So why wait until you hit rock bottom?
Communally speaking we face a similar issue: As a nation we faced and will continue to face challenges from the world around us all the time. Some of them force us to rethink the methods with which we ensure the continuity of our traditions and our people. At times we even made so-called ‘concessions’ and gave up great values in order to ensure the survival of values of even greater importance. When the challenge passes and the storm is gone, do we go back to the old way, or do we not? Even if we wish to do so, is it even possible? How do we restore the “factory settings?” Do such settings even exist? Maybe Judaism is an adaptive religion?
Perhaps this was the argument between traditional Orthodox Judaism and other breakaway movements. In a more subtle manner, this remains as the hidden argument between so-called Modern-Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy.
To be continued.
Also in the next issue: Open borders.
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