Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Cease Citing Bible To Defend Bush’s Immigration Bill

It would be virtually impossible to unearth a single statement by a mainstream American Jewish leader in support of President Bush’s “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act” that does not cite Leviticus 19. Citation of the passage is as ubiquitous as mainstream Jewish organizational support is monolithic in backing Bush’s bill and its provisions: exponentially increased immigration, guest worker programs and the amnestying of illegal aliens.

Many critics of this legislation, which will de facto result in an America with open borders, argue that its underlying purpose is to create a vast underclass of impoverished Mexican immigrants — who will be exploited as cheap labor at the direct expense of America’s most vulnerable, in particular poor African Americans.

That clearly comports neither with Jewish values nor Jewish attitudes toward immigration — especially the clear line most Jews draw between legal and illegal immigration. Indeed, survey research shows that most ordinary American Jews, like the great majority of ordinary Americans, oppose the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act.” The mainstream Jewish leadership, however, has chosen to disregard the majority of the Jewish community and back Bush’s bill — and it seems the only defense they can offer for their obduracy is Leviticus 19.

Mainstream Jewish organizations can’t get enough of Leviticus 19 — “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The biblical passage is the routine rhetorical climax, the putative ace in mainstream Jewish groups’ hand. Drenched with scriptural authority, it’s presumably unassailable. Leviticus 19 supports Bush’s immigration bill, end of story.

Or is it?

Mainstream Jewish organizations cite ancient Leviticus 19 like a contemporary policy recommendation, as though the Torah’s authors were policy wonks with foreknowledge of 21st-century America’s immigration debate. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the lunatics who believe they’ve broken the Bible Code, deciphering names like Reid, Kennedy and Hagel buried in Scripture — though it’s unlikely their numerology will uncover Sensenbrenner’s, Tancredo’s or any Blue Dog Democrats’.

Leviticus 19 is one of Judaism’s greatest ethical statements. It makes empathy, and even love, for non-Jews a binding duty, asserting ethical universalism and reminding us that the God who commands it is the God of all humankind, not only of Jews. Moreover, this universalism is exceptional; strictures surrounding it are addressed to the Children of Israel as a people set apart, a “chosen people.”

Leviticus 19, like other passages throughout the Bible, demands special treatment for orphans, widows and strangers. Status among Israelite tribes, like other ancient peoples until Athenian democracy, was determined by ownership of land. Since orphans, widows and strangers lacked it, provision was made for their welfare, such as allowing them to glean the corners of the fields for sustenance.

Leviticus 19, however, is not Judaism’s only word on the treatment of strangers, and it is in reading other biblical passages that it becomes clear that key terms have been mistranslated for what can only be political purposes. The word in the Bible for stranger is “Ger v’tohshav.” The precise English equivalent is sojourner.

“Ger v’tohshav” is first used in Genesis 4:23 to describe Abraham when he dwells briefly with the Hittites in Kiryat Arba, what is today Hebron. Richard Elliot Friedman, a leading authority on biblical language, translates the term as “alien” and “visitor.” And every English dictionary defines sojourn as a temporary stay. Given this translation, this passage has absolutely no utility to those, including leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations, who argue that 12 million illegal aliens should be permitted to remain permanently in the United States. Indeed, it furnishes excellent ammunition for the anti-amnesty coalition — that is, were it equally prepared to trivialize scripture.

The term reappears in the last book of the Bible, Chronicles 29:15, in a metaphysical context. King David employs it to contrast the transitory nature of human existence with the eternality of God, creator and steward of the earth on which we briefly dwell as wanderers.

Terms for immigrant or immigration are absent in the Bible, which demands empathy and hospitality for sojourners. Narratives about inclusion are rare. Indeed, we know the rule by the exception — namely, the story of Ruth.

The Bible does address the inclusion of strangers in civil and legal terms in Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22 and Numbers 15:14, which proclaims that there shall be one law for citizens and strangers alike. But it is important to note that while strangers did have rights, they only earned them once they went through what in those days constituted the process of naturalization: circumcision and abandoning idolatry. Strangers were required to strictly obey Israelite law and not undermine the legal fabric of Israelite society.

An exegete could actually cite this text to justify deporting illegal aliens that have violated so many American laws as to threaten the rule of law itself, but I won’t exploit the Bible to make that case.

Leviticus 19 commands us to love the stranger. Bush’s cynical, reactionary bill, you can be certain, is not about love, and Leviticus 19 surely does not command us to exploit strangers as cheap labor or for political gain. Cherry-picking the Bible to support a shameful scheme to exploit poor immigrants at the expense of impoverished Americans to engorge the wealth of rich employers is a sacrilege. Why not just cite the Wall Street Journal?

Mainstream Jewish groups can cite Leviticus 19 all they want, but the Torah simply does not take a position, pro or con, on Bush’s “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act.” The Torah is not for open borders or for reduced immigration. God is not a Democrat and a liberal, nor a Republican and conservative, nor even a moderate or independent.

God is ineffable. The divinely inspired human beings that recorded God’s vision for humankind sought to make us ethical, reverential beings; they did not set political litmus tests.

Seeking to turn God into a partisan of one’s cause is spiritually arrogant and repugnant. It’s reminiscent of the behavior of Islamist mullahs, supremacist Christians, Frankish crusaders chanting “Gott Mit Uns” and all the basketball players that ever crossed themselves before taking a free throw. Jews should know better.

Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, is a former director of national affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.