President Trump’s executive order on June 20 should not end the expressions of moral outrage that arose public awareness of the deliberate separation of undocumented families entering the United States. The 2,300 children ripped away from their parents are being transported to shelters and foster care. The trauma of the “zero-tolerance” policy continues. As Jews, we must not only step into the moral breach; we should also understand the urgency of doing so in light of Jewish religious ethics. Modern Jewish philosophy invites us to see the parent-child relationship as the model for our human relationship with God. In the ongoing violence to the former, we violate the latter irreparably.
For Jews, the treatment of refugee families has reminded us of a recent past in which we were denied asylum and separated from our families. In a recent letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a number of Jewish activists emphasized this history, echoing the Torah’s reminder that we, too, were strangers mistreated by a hostile ruler. In addition to these arguments, however, Jews should use more recent philosophical traditions to understand that our relationships with others are the primary channel through which we can know God.
During the Enlightenment, Western philosophers and theologians understood that rational philosophy and natural science rendered claims to objective knowledge of God unconvincing. The end of the belief in direct access to God forced Jewish thinkers to develop new religious ideas. In the 20th century, the great Central European Jewish thinkers – Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas – argued that our knowledge of God will always be mediated through human beings. In beholding our neighbor’s vulnerability, we experience being commanded. In responding to the neighbor’s need, we become moral agents. In becoming our neighbor’s keeper, we come into contact with God.
The relationship between parent and child illustrates this process on an everyday level. Some of us are parents who have experienced responding to a small child’s need as formative of our moral selves. But whether or not we are parents, all of us have benefited from the responsiveness of caregivers who fed us, cleaned us and comforted us. This care shaped us as beings capable of giving love and taking responsibility for others. Modern religious thinkers, following strands of earlier Jewish tradition, teach us that this abject dependence we see in children is the same dependence that human beings have on God. In the tether of responsibility and empathy that flows between parents and children, modern Jewish thinkers’ insights are made manifest. Severing the tie between parents and children means cutting the cord that tethers human beings to our own humanity and to God. And that desecration has happened at the U.S. border and continues now in shelters around the country.
The U.S. doesn’t need to act based on this theology, nor should it; we live in a liberal democracy, and the First Amendment forbids any religious vision being endorsed as state policy. But as Jews called to speak out against injustice, we should draw on the valuable resources of our intellectual heritage. When our own government inflicts trauma as state policy in our name or in the name of religion, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions did in his callous and wrong-headed appeal to Christian scripture, Christian theologians rightly responded with outrage. When Jewish religious groups like the Orthodox Union endorse this same Attorney General, we have a responsibility to articulate and enact a theology that puts these fellow Jews to shame. It will not do to throw one scriptural citation against another. That is an intellectually vacuous approach to religious discourse. Instead, we need to build on the tools that were developed by thinkers who lived, as we do, in a modern civil state as members of a minority, and who they believed had a compelling vision of Jewish ethics worth sharing. If we cannot explain, in religious terms, why the current crisis is anathema to our continuing hope for a redeemed world, then we have failed to demonstrate why Jewish religious life is worth caring about.
Mara Benjamin is Chair of Jewish Studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and is the author of “The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought” (Indiana University Press, 2018).