Because my family moved to an outlying suburb of Cleveland, I began 9th grade at a new school. Our new neighborhood had very few Jewish people, and the new school had even fewer. The very first day, I was approached by the class “tough guy.”
He said, “Are you a Jew?”
When I said, “Yes, I am,” he hauled off and punched me in the stomach!
I was in pain, and suddenly realized that I was more than just the new student at the school. I was the stranger there. I discovered that there were no other Jewish kids in my grade. I remember one friend, with whom I had played after school for some months, suddenly telling me, “I can’t come to your house any more.”
When I asked him why not, he said, “My parents found out you are Jewish.”
I’m not sure which hurt the most, the constant physical bullying or the withdrawal of friends.
Now that was a long time ago, and I know things have changed a lot since then. I am grateful that my own son never encountered any bullying because of his Jewish heritage. But my personal experience taught me an important lesson of what it was like to be the stranger.
I could also understand, firsthand, why there are so many teachings in the Torah, the sacred first five books of the Hebrew Bible, about how we are to treat the stranger. There are at least 36 places in the Torah talking about befriending the stranger, treating the stranger justly, and even loving the stranger. For example, the Torah teaches:
“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
“And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not wrong him or her… [but] you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33, 34)
It’s important to understand that in ancient times, the Children of Israel lived in the land of Egypt for some 400 years. During that time, we became the strangers, cast out from Egyptian society to serve as slaves. This historical enslavement serves as a symbol for all the times the Jewish people were seen as the stranger throughout history. The symbol of Egyptian enslavement also became important for many in the Civil Rights movement, for African-Americans were, and sometimes still are, perceived as strangers in our country.
Even though I was a stranger for the Christian majority at that school, I did have friends, and got along with most of the kids. What I noticed was that when I was picked on, they didn’t know what to do, so they just watched, and helped me up if I had been knocked to the ground. That taught me something very important. Often in such a situation, the real power belongs to those who are the quiet bystanders, the witnesses to such events. They are the ones who have the power to intervene. Maybe you will find yourselves in positions where you see someone being bullied, and you will remember that you and others can step in to stop him or her from being harmed.
The Jewish Bible, often called the Old Testament by Christians who have a New Testament, is a text that both Jews and Christians share. As Jewish literature continued to develop, there were no additions to the Bible itself.
The sensitivity toward the stranger is expressed in Jewish teaching through the centuries after the Bible was completed. For example, in the Talmud, the great compendium of teaching completed at the end of the fifth century CE, there is a teaching about one of the great rabbis:
“It was said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai that no one, not a stranger, not even a heathen, ever greeted him first, before he greeted them.” (Berachot 17a)
The stranger is the one who appears to us as the outsider, different in some way from ourselves. The stranger is unknown. Perhaps the stranger is a homeless person who doesn’t have enough money for proper shelter. Perhaps the stranger is one whose poverty leads him or her to seek handouts on the street. How do you feel when you see them?
Jewish folklore sees the Prophet Elijah as reappearing through the centuries, usually in the guise of a poor man, offering help where it is needed. Sometimes, as the stories have it, he is shunned, seen simply to be a poor beggar. Sometimes he is welcomed, and able to aid those who welcome him.
Maybe your first reaction before such a stranger is to draw away, and that’s pretty natural. But amazing things happen when we begin talking with those who appear to be different. Not only do we discover that they are human beings just like ourselves, but they have the riches of their own stories to share.
Caring and love come from sharing with others and discovering our common humanity. It might begin with a greeting. Perhaps you will begin to greet all others with a smile, even before they greet you. That’s in keeping with deep Jewish teaching!
There are two things to remember right from the start. There is and always has been a difference between Jesus’s teachings and the behavior of the Christian church in general, and the behavior and thinking of Christian people in particular. There is no one Christian view. There are many. Mine is one, and I am glad to have the chance to write this for you to think about.
Let’s start with Jesus’s teachings. My view (which is shared with my colleagues and friends Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman) is that the core teaching from Jesus is unconditional love. I mean loving without conditions.
Think about that for a moment. Have you ever or would you ever be able to love someone no matter what? This is what Jesus’s message is about. Unconditional love, sometimes called grace, is at the very heart of Jesus’s teachings. It is a core teaching.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:15-32) tells of a parent and two sons. One takes his inheritance, goes to a distant country, wastes his inheritance and comes home, surprisingly, to unconditional love. The father welcomes his son without conditions. The older son doesn’t understand why the father has given a party in honor of the younger son’s return. The older son has never disobeyed the father, and yet there has been no party for him. The older son does not understand unconditional love. He is still in his own “distant country.” He has not yet connected with loving without conditions.
Many other verses suggest loving without conditions. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44) and, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
Could we love our enemies in any way except without conditions? As we think about Jesus, we can see how that he loved his disciples without conditions.
So what does this have to do with “the stranger?”
Historically, “the stranger” or “the other” has been a person who is, in any way, different. You know what this is about and you know how it feels to encounter someone who is different. How do we understand this new difference? Often difference has functioned as a source of fear and even anger.
Jesus appeared to honor everyone. The tax collector Matthew lived on the fringe of his culture. Jesus honored him. Zacheus was very wealthy. Jesus not only honored him, Jesus invited him to share his wealth with the poor. Jesus honored children in a way that suggested that children, because they can see life through younger eyes, can teach us much.
But even more than that, Jesus treated children as full human beings. Jesus treated women as full human beings — way ahead of his time. Jesus honored Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jewish people. He was not in the habit of thinking the same way Jesus did, but he listened to Jesus and wanted to know more.
These are the kinds of people Jesus honored. They were all strangers in many different ways: the marginalized, the wealthy, the poor, children, women. In many ways, they were all strangers in their own culture and time. Why did he do this?
He was actually drawing on Jewish tradition. Remember that Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew and a rabbi — a teacher. Christianity was the result of his ministry. In the Jewish tradition, the essential dignity of every human being is to be honored. All people are created in the image of God. That doesn’t mean that we all look like God. It means we are all a part of what God is about, and our essential worth is the same even though what we do, say, and think can be very different. Those things are sometimes good and sometimes bad.
I learned this lesson a long time ago. In some ways, I learned it from my parents. When my dad admitted a young woman from Jamaica to the small college where he was dean, I encountered one who was understood to be “the other” in the culture of that small Illinois town.
Her name was Gloria. The moment it all came home to me was Thanksgiving, when I was about seven years old. The entire college community celebrated Thanksgiving together in the dining hall. Faculty members and their families hosted the students.
Each table had chosen a student to bring a turkey for the table. All of the students carried the turkeys on a tray, holding it with their hands, like we would expect. But not our Gloria. She brought our turkey on a tray balanced on her head. In that moment, I saw her essential dignity and it was a great blessing to me.
I hope you will take this little piece as an invitation to think about your life, about those in your life who are “different” and about how difference — instead of being fearful — can be a great source of vitality, energy, and growth!
Ever since I was a teenager, I was fascinated by a particular piece of wisdom in the Quran, the holy book of Muslims: God has deliberately created diversity in humanity so that, in spite of differences, we might connect with one another on a human level. Surely God could have made all of us into one community, but instead, our Creator chose to bestow upon each community “a law and way of life,” create “diversity of tongues and colors,” and make us into “nations and tribes” so that we might “come to know each other.”
Those key words “come to know each other” (Quran 49:13) resonate deeply with me. Today, I am in my 60s, living in America. Especially after the tragic event of 9/11 and its aftermath, I have realized the critical importance of human connections. A number of national polls have shown that almost 60% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam — but none of them know a single Muslim personally.
On the other hand, 35% of Americans report that they have a favorable view of Islam — and all of them personally know at least one Muslim. There is a teaching here. Clearly, the best way to overcome fear or distrust of the other, be that person your stranger or foe, is to establish a personal relationship with him or her.
How do we develop personal relationships with others who are not in our usual circle? I love the saying of the elders in South and Central Asia: “Share three cups of tea.”
Why three cups of tea? Because the time it takes to share just one or two cups is not enough to really get to know someone. This advice is about connecting with people sincerely and listening respectfully to what they have to say.
A few years ago, I decided to put this advice into practice. I was acquainted with a couple of conservative evangelical Christians who were profoundly distrustful and suspicious of Muslims, and I made a personal commitment to get to know them more personally. I made every attempt to listen sincerely to their fears and anger. It was hard to keep listening instead of getting distracted with what I was going to say next, but a helpful metaphor about authentic listening came to mind: “Put your head on the person’s chest and sink into the answer.”
As I began to bond with my conservative Christian friends, I also became aware of my own biases and prejudice.
“Where did these come from?” I asked myself.
Most of my stereotyping came not from my personal experience but from hearsay. This was a remarkable realization, and it moved me to work even harder to simply come to know these people as fellow human beings. There was no need to score points about politics or religion. We shared human stories and, when I was humble and honest about my intention, the conversations flowed. We found much to talk about. We bonded.
And I realized the truth of one of my favorite quotations: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” (Credit goes to Muriel Rukeyser, an American poet who was devoted to equality and social justice.)
After two years of earnest work, I can honestly report that the results have been transformative. My conservative Christian friends are no longer anti-Islamic. On their own they have reached out to other Muslims and befriended them. We continue to have differences over scripture and politics, but these differences no longer loom as personal threats.
To me, the most important result of these encounters is my own transformation. I had considered myself open-minded, but came to realize that my views were narrow and uninformed. In getting to know these two friends, their families, and members of their community, I have become aware of a range of variations in Christian conservatism. But most of all, I have been deeply inspired and touched by their dedication to social justice and care for the earth. This fills me with immense hope. In spite of differences, once we establish personal relationships, we can all cooperate and collaborate on issues and projects dear to our hearts.
Thus, the best way to transform the stranger into a friend is to “come to know each other.” This sounds simple, but in reality, it is not easy. It was not meant to be! The Quran refers to this in a witty revelation: “We have made some of you as a trial for others” (Quran 25:20). But if we are patient, persistent, honest and creative, we shall find ways to connect with the other.
Rumi, the 13th century poet and sage who is my favorite teacher, once cried out, “O God, You have created this ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we,’ and ‘they’ to play the game of adoration with Yourself.” It’s a “game” we all can play: seeking and finding the Face of God in every human face we meet.
Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Imam Jamal Rahman, now known as the Interfaith Amigos, started working together after 9/11. Since then, they have brought their unique blend of spiritual wisdom and humor to audiences in the United States, Canada, Israel, Palestine, and Japan. Their first book in 2009, Getting to the Heart of Interfaith, brought the Interfaith Amigos international attention with coverage from the New York Times, CBS News, the BBC, and various NPR programs. Karen Armstrong called their “exuberant and courageous” second book in 2011, Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith, “An inspiration and example for all of us in these sadly polarized times.”
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