Immigration in 2006: Would I Break the Law?

Sermon delivered June 23, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Didn’t you love those old Hebrew National commercials? You remember . . . We see Uncle Sam, and hear a voice-over about meat products having to meet the standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Then, Uncle Sam looks toward the heavens, as the voice says that Hebrew National answers to a higher standard.

The advertisement, of course, is meant to be humorous – and to sell hot dogs. A deeper meaning, though, may be derived. We are obligated to abide by the law of the land. Often, though, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. As Jews, like other religious people, we embrace the way of life that God teaches us in Torah. We are bound by countless responsibilities that the law does not require.

Thankfully, as with Hebrew National, we usually do not face a conflict. Hebrew National must abide by USDA standards, and that’s not a problem. The kosher laws and the Agriculture Department’s requirements are not contradictory. Since most of us don’t make hot dogs, other kinds of examples may be more helpful. For example, American law requires me to help provide for the poor by paying my taxes, a small percentage of which goes to programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid. Judaism, though, obligates me to engage in acts of tzedakah, righteous giving, well beyond paying my taxes. Yes, we do have to meet a higher standard.

Much more problematic, though, and thankfully far more rare, are those instances when abiding by our religious principles would cause us to break the law. Both history and current events offer examples of such civil disobedience.

Consider the religious abolitionist, who illegally assisted African Americans, escaping slavery in the antebellum south. They broke the law, but who among us would argue that they were wrong to do so?

More stark, and closer to home, let us call to mind the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. They violated the hateful laws of Nazi Germany, and of other countries in Nazi-occupied Europe. We honor them to this day.

Some cases are less morally clear. Consider, for example, the anti-abortion protester, who blocks the entrance to a clinic. American law forbids such activity. I favor those laws, and I strongly disagree with the protester. The protester, though, like many religious Americans, considers abortion to be murder. The teachings of Judaism are different. In our pluralistic society, Americans adhere to diverse “higher standards,” to recall the Hebrew National advertisement. A law-abiding American may be, to another American, a violator of divine command.

So we should not have been surprised, some months ago, when Thomas Cardinal Mahoney, Archbishop of Los Angeles, announced that he would be willing to break American immigration laws that he would consider to be immoral. Specifically, Cardinal Mahoney was referring to the draconian enforcement-only immigration Bill adopted by the United States House of Representatives. That Bill would require the deportation of all non-citizens currently in this country without legal documentation, widely believed to be many more than ten million people. Cardinal Mahoney proclaimed that he would provide sanctuary to such individuals and families, even if he would be sent to jail for doing so. Like Hebrew National, Cardinal Mahoney asserted that he and Catholics like him adhere to a higher standard. Unlike Hebrew National, the Cardinal’s faith requirements would contradict U.S. law if the House bill were to become law.

2006 is not the first time that the Catholic Church and other religious Americans have been forced to consider what we would do in response to harsh immigration laws that we might find immoral. In the mid-1980s, for example, refugees from Central America, particularly El Salvador, were threatened with deportation. These “illegal immigrants,” if you will, were escaping regimes supported by our government at that time. Cities and other municipalities were symbolically declaring themselves to be “cities of refuge,” borrowing the biblical term for towns to which people could flee if they were in violation of laws but not done anything truly wrong. Churches were providing sanctuary. In 1985, the Union for Reform Judaism, then UAHC, passed a resolution calling on our government not to deport the refugees. While emphasizing our respect for the rule of law, our Reform Jewish Union went so far as to provide resources and moral support for congregations and communities that would want to join in providing sanctuary.

Traditional Jewish endorsement of the law of the land predates the United States by millennia. In the Talmud, we are taught, dina demalchuta dina, “The law of the state is the law.” Even our ancestors, who often lived under oppressive regimes, were obligated to abide by the laws of their rulers.

Our American Jewish community has thrived, in large part because of the rule of law. American Jews have sought and received the protections of an American legal system that has granted us equal rights and afforded us opportunities of which our ancestors could only have dreamed. Refusal to obey the laws of a land that has been so good to us would require a high standard indeed, even if the United States were a benevolent dictatorship. But it is not. We live in a democracy. We bear an additional burden for upholding the laws of this land, because we are responsible for making those very laws. We elect our legislatures and governors, congress and President. Our presumption should always be obedience to the law made by our own representatives.

Our ancient Rabbis, though, recognized that laws might often come into conflict with one another. With specific regard to Jewish law, we see a hierarchy, with some laws taking precedence over others. Therefore, for example, while the activities involved with performing surgery constitute the kind of work that is prohibited on Shabbat, surgery is permitted to save a life, because the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, life saving, is more important than the requirement to refrain from labor on Shabbat. No system of law can possibly be devised not to require exception, cases that make us think of that Hebrew National ad; and we ask, “What is the higher authority?”

In times of persecution, our Rabbis dealt with conflicts between laws of unjust rulers and God’s commands. They might be faced with royal dictates that they commit acts of apostasy, eating pork or bowing down to an idol, on the penalty of death. Our Rabbis ruled that average Jews should violate God’s law in these cases. Human life is precious and to be guarded jealously. Even a Rabbi could break God’s laws, in private, if the alternative was death. However, if a leader were commanded to eat forbidden foods or worship a false god in public, that Rabbi must refuse, facing even death, lest a Jewish exemplar lead the people astray.

Thank God, we do not face such persecution today. Indeed, when it comes to the issue of immigration, we are not at risk, and neither is Cardinal Mahoney. Moreover, unlike the sanctuary controversy of the mid-1980s, the deportations contemplated today would not likely send human beings to their deaths at the hands of repressive regimes.

Nevertheless, the immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives offends our religious standards. A House of Congress has proposed a law without compassion or mercy. No guest worker program, and no possible route to citizenship, is proposed for the millions and millions of men, women and children now living in our midst without legal documentation. The matter is of deep Jewish concern. Torah teaches us, time and again, to “remember the heart of the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Repeatedly, God commands us to be kind to the stranger in our midst. No, we do not countenance lawbreaking. Yes, we are concerned about security. Tom Friedman’s phrase, “high walls and wide gates,” resonates strongly with us. We echo Emma Lazarus’ words, eager to receive the “tired, . . poor . . .[and] huddled masses;” but we must be assured that terrorists are not posing among them.

Perhaps our recent history is even more restrictive. We are all immigrants, unless we be Indians or African Americans. Jews thrived because of wide gates, because of liberal immigration laws that permitted us to seek and to find opportunity on these shores. At other times, nativist impulses of the type that plague our country today kept our people out. Most infamously, during the Holocaust, large numbers of European Jews were denied admission to this land of the free.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, that towering figure of Conservative Judaism, has declared that the clarion call, “Never Again,” does not merely mean that we, the Jewish people, will never again permit ourselves to be subject to the death and degradation that we faced under the Nazis. It does mean that, but it also calls upon us to assure that no people anywhere is treated as a stranger, as one who does not belong among us.

So, would I break the law? Like Cardinal Mahoney, I believe that I would, following the precedent set by my rabbinic forbears, who declared that religious leaders must obey God’s laws in the sight of our people, lest we lead others astray.

Let us be grateful, though, that President Bush and the United States Senate are calling for comprehensive immigration reform, rejecting the callous and draconian approach of the lower House. Let us support the President, urging him to argue more vigorously for the rights of immigrants, for wide gates to accompany the figurative high walls, even as he did when he was our Governor. Let us remember the heart of the stranger, for we were strangers, not only in Egypt, but even here in America. And let the United States adopt a law that is truly a “higher standard,” like Uncle Sam looking to the heavens.

Amen.