When newspaper style guides started adopting “they ” and “their” as singular, gender-neutral pronouns a friend told me, “I get why this should be done. It is the right thing to do. But it is going to be really hard for me to switch. It is not going to just roll off my tongue.” His words reminded me of someone who was on a rabbi search committee who was interviewing female rabbis for the first time, who confided, “I know I should give these women a fair shake, but it is not how I grew up. When I close my eyes and picture a rabbi, I see a beard and hear a man’s voice. If I do this I will be going against my gut feeling and not just now but for years when I will see them on the bimah.” Both these people made a significant effort to adjust their own thoughts and words and what go against what felt “natural,” to do what was difficult and unfamiliar because they wanted to bring forward a more just world.
During the Passover season we hear a lot about the biblical verses commanding us to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:33–34 and Deuteronomy 10:18–19). These verses have been used for generations to underline our Jewish obligation to care for the oppressed and marginalized and to advocate for refugees and immigrants.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses how these verses refer not only to our actions but to our words, thoughts, and emotions. He writes that God wants us to “fight the hatred in our hearts,” as our inclination at first is not to love the stranger, but to fear or hate them.
Extending this metaphorical reading of these verses suggests that it is not just “strange” people that we need to accept despite our prejudices, but to create positive change we need to embrace unfamiliar ideas and habits of mind. For justice to proceed, we must allow in thoughts that are unfamiliar and ways of talking and acting that at first seem strange to us.
The ethicist Moses Pava writes that the commandment to love the stranger “challenges the very notion of a static and unchanging community” because it asks us to continually broaden our notion of community, which also forces us “to transcend our current conceptions of who ‘we’ are.” He observes that to love the stranger we must transgress the status quo. Since the commandment is one that we are always obliged to do, it means we cannot allow ourselves to be comfortable once we have alleviated one form of oppression, but once comfortable with our new reality, push ourselves through uncomfortable ways yet again.
Just as every year the haggadah tells us we must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt and were personally redeemed from oppression, so every year we must push ourselves out of our comfort zones and try to embrace new and “strange” habits of mind and thoughts. We cannot rely on what was once difficult and brave for us but is now part of our regular internal conversation or behavior.
It is not enough to have stood with civil rights protests 50 years ago if your community is not supporting Black Lives Matter today. If 30 years ago you began including the matriarchs in your prayers, it may be time to stretch to something like female God language, which might make you feel as uncomfortable now as you did then. If 20 years ago you instituted having men involved in clearing up and washing the seder dishes, it is time to examine the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and meal-planning. If you once championed inclusion at your JCC by having ramps and accessible washrooms, it is time to turn your eye to access to programming. Loving the stranger means stretching to new and previously uncomfortable places. For the child of the stranger becomes as a native-born and the strange new words that we stumble through with brave intention but slower speech flow easily off the tongues of our children.