Making insiders from outsiders

Rabbi James Stone Goodman leads Congregation Neve Shalom, a member of the Network of Jewish Renewal Communities.

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

I preside several times a month over a small synagogue that opens onto the Royal Dining Room at Covenant Place, where mostly older folks live. I get a kick out of that name. I always think I’m on some kind of cruise ship – which I am.

The kaddishim and healing prayers are deep and personal here. This is a community and,  by and large, the people who show up seem to do pretty well. They are not a gloomy group. 

They are open to anything I bring. They love the electric bands I bring in, and any kind of offering is appreciated. They hug all of the musicians after each gig – they’re musicians! Everyone wants to hug them but, of course, nobody wants to pay them.

I try to bring people in from the outside because it helps the people in the Royal Dining Room, who may not get out so much, feel less isolated, less like a stranger.

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A stranger. That word. Good Torah word.

Good French word, too: “L’Etranger,” in the Camus sense, generally translated as “The Stranger,” sometimes as “The Outsider.” Every translation is an act of interpretation. Oh, that famous line from the Camus book that is associated with the stranger: “I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.” 

Imagine the possibilities in translating that key line. Nobody wants to feel that way, that sense of stranger.

In the Torah, too, the translation for what we cite in English as “stranger” has room for play. In this week’s portion, Exodus 22:20: Don’t taunt or oppress a stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Stranger – ger in Hebrew – an outsider coming in. Ger also comes to mean a convert to Judaism.

Ger is subtle: It changes through time and use. The first use is in Genesis. G-d says to Avram: Know with certainty that your offspring will be ger (Gen.15:13). Here in Exodus, it is more of the Camus sense, I think, as in Genesis: We weren’t converts in Egypt, we were strangers there, outsiders, that for sure.

Rashi is aware of the subtlety, so he defines ger for us periodically throughout the Torah. Let’s say it is stranger, as in outsider; don’t make anyone outsiders because we were outsiders, we should know better. We’ve been there. Sometimes it’s where we are going.

The outsider-insider dynamic seems to be in our nature as human beings, to treat someone as “other.” Until we take the Torah seriously, jump into the text, walk around in it for a while, live there.

We have been taught: Don’t treat anybody as outsiders. Bring people inside, treat everyone you encounter as insiders. We are all insiders, let’s behave that way. 

I am writing this from within the portion Mishpatim, perched here on Exodus, chapter 22, verse 20, and from here there are no outsiders, only insiders. 

Hey, Camus, your characters would have been a lot happier here, on the inside. And the benign indifference of the Universe? It wouldn’t feel so harsh.