There is one statement that drives me mad during almost every lecture. Invariably, someone stands up and says something along these lines: “I only know a little about Judaism, but the one thing I know for sure is that we should love our neighbors and not oppress strangers. That’s the entire Torah.” That’s what they were told by incompetent teachers and progressive rabbis. Love your neighbor and throw out the other 612 commandments and the heap of halacha. Don’t forget to baptize, too.

Exodus 23:9: And ger, [him] you shall not oppress—you, too, know the soul of ger, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 23:31: And I will set your limits from Reed (“Red”) Sea to Philistine (“Mediterranean”) Sea, and from steppe (“Sinai Desert”) to the river (Euphrates), for I will give in your hand the yeshvei [of] the land, and you shall displace them (gerashtamo) from yourself.

What is the difference between yeshvei and gerim, those who must be displaced and those who must not be oppressed? The root i-sh-v means, “to stay, as in settlement.” Thus the yeshvei are the natives. The natives must be driven out because their hostility is inherently implacable: they, and even their remote descendants, will always remember that Jews took away their land. This is not an issue of land ownership, but of sovereignty: the country may have belonged to the Canaanites or the Palestinian Arabs, but now the state is Jewish. Modern Jewish rulers believe that Arabs will ignore the insult in return for generous aid, but the Torah’s author was infinitely wiser: if Jews want to be sovereign on this land, they must cleanse it of yeshvei.

The Torah economizes suffering: yeshvei have to be evicted (Exodus 23:31) and ravaged (Deut20:17), but not necessarily killed. After the Jews have cleared a country for themselves and uprooted the yeshvei, security issues will become less pressing and Jews can take measured risks. Deuteronomy 20, therefore, speaks of the wars which the Jews start voluntarily rather than by the divine commandment to take Canaan. In such wars, the natives need not be uprooted if they agree to submit to Jewish rule. If they did not defend themselves against the advancing Jews, such natives are allowed to remain, performing “labor duty for you and shall work for you” (Deut20:11). That law applies only to the towns far away from the Jewish population centers (Deut20:15).

The conquered people lack the high status of gerim, who are not to be abused. The labor duty in question was likely border defense, or perhaps public works in Jewish towns. Other than labor conscription, the conquered populations remain free and enjoy all property rights. Their major difference from the gerim is that the conquered populations may continue their pagan worship, as they do not live in the Land of Israel proper and so do not pollute it by their idolatry.

Now back to gerim. The Torah, particularly the section of Laws (Exodus 23 is a part of it), is not laid down in chronological order. Exodus 23:9 deals with a time later than 23:31. How do we know that? Exodus 23:10 speaks of Shmita, seventh-year rest for agricultural land. Settled agriculture was the last stage in the Jewish conquest of Canaan, after the land was taken from its original inhabitants. So gerim appear after yeshvei are displaced.

Who are gerim? They are not natives, as the natives had been exterminated or evicted already (yes, Jews are not nice). In the Biblical Hebrew, the cognate gur has an unquestionable sense of meaning, “to huddle together, to reside timidly.” That sense is very far from the toneless Modern Hebrew, to live. Even in the most aggressive sense, Psalm 56:6-7: “… all their thoughts are against me for evil. They iaguru secretly (or, from north – the left side in ancient coordinates)…” Likewise Psalm 140:3-4: “Who think evil things in their heart, every day iaguru conflicts. They sharpened their tongue like a serpent.” The main theme about gerim is timidity, submissiveness.

In modern terms, gerim must absolutely accept Jewish sovereignty. In ancient Judea, gerim were not oppressed, but neither did they have political rights. It is in this sense that the Torah speaks about Jews: “… for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” Whether the Jews were slaves or ate meat from full pots, they lacked political rights in Egypt.

Rabbis traditionally had an even stricter understanding of gerim, as converts to Judaism. Such reading is semantically (though not etymologically) correct, as foreign religions were banned in Judea, and resident aliens had to practice Judaism. In particular, not even slaves or gerim were allowed to work on Sabbath, erect altars, worship idols, sacrifice to foreign deities, or drink blood; they adhered to the restrictions of Pesach and Yom Kippur. They submitted to the laws given to Jews on the Sinai, and acted like Jews in all practical matters except marriage.

The terms ger and i-sh-v converge in some situations, as when Abraham pleads with the tribe of Heth to allow him to bury his wife, who died in Kiryat Arba (in our days, the place of notorious Jewish settlement which “took the Arab land”). Genesis 23:4: “I am a ger and toshav with you.” Abraham, a great legal mind, is precise here: he is a submissive resident (ger) now, but will settle (toshav) this land. So Abraham insists on buying a cave for the burial instead of accepting the offer to receive it free. Israel abandoned that cave, Mearat a-Mahpela, to Arab jurisdiction.

Even toshav, a status higher than ger, relates inferiority. He is not allowed to partake of Pesach sacrifices (Exodus 12:45) unless he converts to Judaism and circumcises (12:48). He is just a bit higher than a slave (Leviticus 25:35, 40). His right to live in the Land of Israel is unquestioned, but his status is far below that of a Jewish freeman.
There is not a single instance in the Bible where ger lacks a clear sense of submissiveness.

What, then, is the meaning of “oppress”? We can only marvel at our lawgiver, who preceded every political theorist. The Torah differentiates between natural law and special rights. Oppression means depriving a person of what is inherently his: life and ownership. As for political rights, the rights to change or influence the Jewish character of the state—he doesn’t have them.

Jews were oppressed in Egypt, where we were slaves (Exodus 3:9). Syrians oppressed us so that we needed a deliverer (2 Kings 13:4-5). To our lawgiver, oppression was tremendously more severe than the mere absence of voting rights.

The parallel prohibition in Exodus 22:20 clarifies, “And ger, you shall not squeeze (toneh) or oppress him.” The word toneh (i-n-h) has a root cell cognate i-n-k (to suck), testifying to the reading, to squeeze out. What can be squeezed out of a person? Surely not his political rights, but life and property.

The important sense of the l-h-tz root for oppression is its communal character: in the word’s common usage, one polity oppresses another. When the oppression is between individuals, it is referred to as a-sh-k, such as, “You shall not trample upon (taashok) your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:13).

Long before Christians adopted this commandment as their major tenet, Jews were told, “You shall love your fellow [man] just as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Not to the extent that you love yourself, but in the way you do. Your love for your fellow man should be in the likeness (cmo) of your love for yourself. An alternative reading is that you should love a man who is like you, your fellow man.

The common translation of r-y-h as “neighbor” does not relate the word correctly. In Psalm 45:15, for example, the virgins in the king’s wife’s train are definitely not her neighbors. The translation friends also falls short, as Leviticus 19:13 won’t prohibit trampling upon one’s friend. The r-y-h sense has to do with following, going in the same direction. That sense makes for the double meaning of r-y-h: evil (to bend someone, to steer away) and friend (to bend together with someone, to have a common path unlike the others’).Thus, r-y-h is not an abstract neighbor, but someone sufficiently close that you “bend the rules” together, and deviate from the others’ road. For example, the builders of the Tower of Babel are described as r-y-h, fellows. The proper translation of r-y-h is compatriot, rather than neighbor (which co- relates the sense of sticking together) or fellow.

The critical difference between us and the Christians is whom we consider a fellow man. Modern Christians unrealistically pronounce all people fellows, and surely fail to treat them as such. But their own parable of the Good Samaritan is instructive: even a despised Samaritan could be one’s fellow if the Samaritan helped him. A fellow is one from whom help is expected. Such a definition surely excludes the Canaanites and Palestinian Arabs from the commandment to love your fellow.

What is the love enjoined to our fellows? The context clarifies: “You shall not oppress your fellow” (19:13), “You shall not hate your brother” (19:17), and the 19:18: “You shall neither take revenge, nor restrain [yourself to take revenge later] at the children of your nation.” This, by the way, refutes the claims that human vengeance is prohibited in Judaism, that it is reserved for the power of God only. Revenge is prohibited only against fellow Jews, on the double presumption of their general goodwill and efficient law enforcement. In such a society, revenge on the personal level was superfluous. But taking revenge on the enemies of Jews (even their distant offspring) is not merely a right, but an often-reiterated obligation: “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8).

The commandment of love concludes a list which parallels the Decalogue, and is therefore comparable to the prohibition of jealousy (Exodus 20:13).

The prescribed love for one’s fellow is the absence of hatred, vengeance, oppression, and jealousy. While gerim must not be oppressed, fellows must also not be hated. The Torah distinguishes between several circles of people: the closer is the circle, the more rights are accorded to it. Extended family, a closer circle, enjoys still more rights: one must respect his parents. One’s own family, the closest circle, awards generous rights to wives. Later on, when Hebrew society became strong and gerim were fully integrated, the commandment of love was expanded onto them (Deuteronomy 10:19); converts were thereafter to be treated strictly on par with native Jews.

The Torah prescribes, “The ger who resides among you in your land shall be for you like a native, and you shall love him just as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:34). You cannot be more compassionate than that. But why does the Torah, so short on words, reiterate, “in your land”? So that the ger absolutely recognizes the land as ours. And indeed the parallel Exodus 12:48: “And if a ger will reside with you, and will keep the Pesach to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised… he shall be like the native…” In order to be like a Jew, ger must be like a Jew: he must circumcise, keep Jewish customs, and to all purposes become a Jew. Then, sure enough, we must love him just as we love any Jew, including ourselves.

To summarize: Where it says, “You shall not oppress strangers,” the Torah enjoins us against arbitrarily taking the life or property of the submissive resident aliens who are loyal to Judaism.  Where it says, “You shall love your fellow just as yourself,” the Torah enjoins a positive attitude toward one’s compatriots, toward like-minded people only.

Love your neighbor, don't oppress stranger