There are different types of shame. The Torah discusses a woman who intervenes when her husband is fighting with another man, and uses the word “shameful parts” when it refers to her grabbing his genitals. 3 When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden “they were naked and they were not ashamed”.4 It is only after eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that they feel shame, perhaps because they then recognise their vulnerability to inconsiderately selfish and even exploitative sexuality. There is something healthy about Adam and Eve initially not being ashamed of their bodies. Shame is more appropriate in respect of moral failure, with reference to actions, words or attitudes, than in respect of natural imperfection. Shame is often unhelpfully felt, e.g. for being “fat”, or disorganised. Inappropriate or excessive feelings of shame have made some people reluctant to embrace shame where it is useful and needed.
I wonder if shame avoidance is part of the explanation for the way people seeking asylum are being treated. Perhaps there is an underlying sense of shame, which is covered up by denigrating those whom we know deep down deserve our compassion. 5
It is tempting when refusing to assist vulnerable people to portray them as undeserving. The Torah states: “Beware, lest… your eyes will look in an evil way on your needy brother and not give him”. 6 This is interpreted to mean that, in our reluctance to help a needy person, we must not ascribe evil characteristics to the person seeking our help to justify our refusal. An example of this is the inhabitants of the wealthy city of Sodom; they were concerned about diluting their wealth if they accepted outsiders, so instead they denigrated the visitors as evil, 7 not unlike governments in Australia and Israel that use words like “Illegals” or “infiltrators” in relation to people lawfully seeking asylum. 8
In a discussion in a Sydney synagogue last week, one man asserted that not one of the Africans seeking asylum in Israel was a genuine refugee. He also expressed anger about criminal acts that have been perpetrated by African asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv. He can’t possibly know what the circumstances of the asylum seekers were in their home countries and surely he must know that blaming all members of a group for the acts of some is wrong. Could it be that his assertion that the asylum seekers are not genuine is covering up his discomfort with holding a prejudiced position?
The Torah calls for justice for the stranger 9 and particularly for a compassionate response to and protection of people fleeing oppression. “You shall not deliver a slave to his master if he seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall reside among you, wherever he chooses within any of your cities, where it is good for him. You shall not oppress him”. 10 Many of the refugees who have reached Israel are from Eritrea, where they were slaves in all but name before their escape. According to Israeli NGO, The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, “citizens of Eritrea flee a country with no civilian judiciary… and whose citizens are obligated to perform endless ‘national service’. This service is unlike the service performed in other armies and includes performing various forms of hard labour for the benefit of the regime, including: mining, paving roads and agricultural work. Eritreans who defect from national service are considered traitors and if they are caught, they are tortured and sometimes executed or tortured to death”. 11
In Australia and Israel, there are restrictions preventing asylum seekers from enjoying the benefits and dignity of work. Their conditions do not justify the choice to commit criminal acts; however we should not sit in judgement of those whose circumstances 12 are conducive to increasing crime. Instead, we should work at changing the situation. The verse mentioned above commands that former slaves should be housed “among you”. This is interpreted as cautioning against creating a separate city for the former slaves as this might lead to social unrest or “rebellion”. Instead, the former slaves should be integrated among the people. 13
It is a shame that people who have suffered so much are having doors slammed in their faces by governments. We should not accept this. We are not shameless.
1. Dignity is regarded as so important that, in our Torah reading, there is a requirement to ensure that, if someone is hanged for a capital offence, the corpse does not remain hanging overnight. Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Dignity in punishment is also emphasised in relating to flogging, where the Torah warns that excess lashes might lead to your brother becoming cheapened in your eyes. Deuteronomy 25:1-3
Dignity is also hinted at when the Torah states: “You shall not see your brother's ox or sheep straying, and you would ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother”. The words: וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם “you would ignore them” are creatively interpreted in the Talmud as referring to an elder who is unaccustomed to carrying large parcels in public so it would not be dignified for him to do so. In this case the words “you shall ignore them” are taken to mean the exact opposite of the plain in the meaning in the text: he should in fact ignore the lost object, rather than compromise his dignity. Talmud Bava Metzia 30. It comes up again in the command that Israelite soldiers have a designated place outside their camp to relieve themselves and that they carry a spike to dig a hole to cover up their excrement. Deuteronomy 23:13-14 , see Targum Unkelus to 13.
In the case of a debtor, the lender is forbidden from entering the home of the borrower to take a security, but must stand outside. If the borrower is poor and gives his night garments as security, the lender must return the night clothes every evening at sunset so that the poor person can sleep in his garments in dignity. This would be an act of kindness that the Torah predicts would lead the poor borrower to bless the lender. Deuteronomy 24:10-13.
2. Tanya Chapter 1 alludes to the problem of being depressed if one sees oneself as wicked
3. Deuteronomy 25:11
4. Genesis 2:25
5. This principle is articulated strongly in our reading this week relating to an escaped slave, discussed in the next paragraph. It is also reflected in the criticism of Amon and Moab whose male members are never to be allowed to join the Jewish people, even to the tenth generation, because they did not welcome the Israelites with bread and water on the road when we left Egypt. Instead they related to us as a threat. Deuteronomy 23:4-5, compassion for the stranger is also the subject of several commandments relating to sharing one’s crops such as not gleaning and leaving a forgotten sheaf of wheat etc. Deuteronomy 24:19-22
6. Deuteronomy 15:9
7. R. Shmelkeh of Nikolsburg. A variation of this in Yalkut Hagershuni creatively reinterprets the last words of the following verse in Genesis 18:20 about the city of Sodom: “Since the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and since their sin has become very grave,”. Literally, the verse is understood as the words of G-d about the inhabitants of Sodom. But it could also be interpreted as the words the Sodomites themselves used about poor visitors to their city, to justify their inhospitable practices - “their sin” – like the sin of the “illegals” , the “economic migrants”, “queue jumpers” or “infiltrators” is very great and this alleged sin is seen as justifying their cruel treatment. Both cited in Nachshoni, Y., (1989) Studies in the Weekly Parshah, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn New York, p.1280. This citation is from my previous article relating to these themes: http://torahforsociallyawarehasid.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/curbing-compassion-for-asylum-seekers.html August 2012
8. My friend, KL, insists that the term “asylum seekers” is unhelpful and that we should speak instead of “people seeking asylum”.
9. Deuteronomy 24:17
10. Deuteronomy 23:16-17
12. Tanya, Chapter 30
13. Abarbanel and Ralbag on these verses