And you shall love the foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10:19)

And you shall not abuse the foreigner nor shall you oppress him, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Shmot 22:20)


Rashi’s and Ramban’s commentaries on these verses support different Jewish moral viewpoints. Rashi says that if those of us who were born Jewish were to verbally abuse foreign-born residents (and converts, as the word “ger” means both of these things), they can retort by reminding us that we were foreigners ourselves once. Rashi goes on to say “Any taint that you have, do not point out in your fellow.” This indicates a need for personal humility and a lack of hypocrisy. Essentially, this is a human-centered morality that is not dependent on a religious framework. 


Ramban disagrees with Rashi, and says that the reason why we should not abuse or oppress the foreigner is that just as God heard our ancestors’ cries in Egypt, so too will God hear the cry of anyone who we oppress. Oppressing and abusing foreigners leads to divine retribution against us. This is a God-centered morality. 


Neither Rashi nor Ramban address the morally problematic nature of seeing social status based on how native one is to one’s community as a “taint.” That is a lesson hard-learned over the centuries that we still struggle with. But the core of each commentator’s interpretation of the verses opens other questions about how we evaluate moral statements.


Is the “religious” morality of Rambam a higher form of morality than the “secular” morality of Rashi? Rambam tells us to avoid divine wrath. It is not in our own interests to be oppressive. Rashi tells us not to be hypocrites. It is a matter of character and principles. 


Moral philosophers across cultures and times have posited that a higher morality is one that is less self-centered. Pirkei Avot 1:3 teaches “Do not be like the servants who serve their master for the sake of a reward, but be like the servants who serve their master not for the sake of a reward.” A mature moral character is one that transcends the selfish impulse of “What’s in it for me?” and seeks a higher good.  


Judaism as a religion is grounded in a Jew’s relationship with God. Not abusing or oppressing the foreigner is a mitzvah; it is commanded by God, just as is the commandment to keep Shabbat. Shouldn’t we be primarily focused on God in our Jewish morality? We can look at the seifah (end) of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot quoted above: And may the fear of Heaven be upon you.


What, then, is a mature and authentic Jewish morality? Clearly, the Torah tells us that a true relationship with God involves a view of the world that is not egocentric. We are told to “circumcise our hearts” and to understand that it is not because we are tzaddikim, paragons of moral excellence, that God “chose” our people to follow the Torah and inherit the land of Israel. We are told explicitly that we are not. We are to live lives that are devoted to God, and that involves being fair and ethical in our dealings with other people. A higher, more mature relationship with God involves a transcendence of ego and a “circumcised heart” by which we serve the Master with no thought of reward, and by inference, punishment. But when that higher wisdom eludes us, as it inevitably does, we are given a more self-interested framework to keep us moral. Let us strive for higher and higher levels of non-egocentric thinking, and honor the fullness and divinity of everyone we are in contact with.


Shabbat Shalom!

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