Your Stranger

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Peretz Rodman 01st Feb 2018

Translators sometimes stumble—and it is fascinating to take note of just where and when they do. Often, when they distort the text they are presenting, or fail to carry some feature of the original into the target language, we are afforded a glimpse of their biases or the blind spots in their vision.

In Exodus 20:10, the first verse of the two-verse Shabbat proclamation in the Decalogue, we find a list of seven sorts of beings who are to observe the Shabbat restrictions on labour, comprising oneself, one’s family, and one’s household, including the work animals. The list is consistently focused on the second-person-singular viewpoint, “you” and “your”.

Translating in a fashion that mimics the syntax of the Hebrew, the translator and scholar Everett Fox renders the list as follows: “You, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your beast, [and] your sojourner that is within your gates.”* (I have deleted a string of negatives: “not”, “nor”.)

Seven items are listed, one “you” and six more that are “yours.” It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that the Jewish Publication Society’s Torah translation, the most widely used by Jews in the English-speaking world, leaves out one of the seven references to “you,” translating the list as “you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger that who is within your settlements.” Not “your stranger”, but simply “the stranger”, using phrasing that sounds more native in the English language. The difference, however, is crucial. The author of the Hebrew text could well have chosen to say “or the stranger” (ve-ha-ger), with the same stylistic sensibility that presumably guided the JPS translation team. But instead, the Hebrew text employs the bumpier, somewhat pleonastic wording, “your alien who is within your gates” (ve-gerekha asher bish‘arekha).

The terms “sojourner”, “stranger” and “alien” represent ger, meaning someone not of the local ethnic group and thus without an obvious right to residency—and therefore someone whose stay in his current location might well be tolerated only temporarily. To say that a person is “your ger” means that you have responsibility for that person. As Jeffrey Tigay notes in his commentary to Exodus in The Jewish Study Bible, the use of the possessive pronoun here “implies that the resident alien was, at least in some cases, dependent on a specific individual”.

The Torah here is speaking to each Israelite and insisting that he step up and take responsibility for the life and wellbeing of any foreign worker whose life he controls. The Israelite freeholder is required to extend Shabbat rest even to the powerless – the foreigners, those welcomed into our midst for a limited time because of their economic usefulness, and not permanently as brothers and sisters.

Will we be like the JPS translators of the 1950s – and, to be fair, the Protestant translators who produced the New English Bible around the same time, and those who produced the New Revised Standard Version and the Catholic New American Bible in the 1980s? Will we be blind to the calling to account in our verse? Will we fail to step up to protect the resident alien in our midst, the foreign worker sometimes exploited, the asylum seeker threatened with deportation to a country hardly safer and more welcoming that that from which he fled? We must take note: he is not just “the stranger”. He is “your stranger” – and mine.

* The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 1995)

This piece was commissioned by Rabbis for Human Rights.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman is head of the Masorti Bet Din in Israel, and is a Jerusalem-based writer, translator, and teacher.

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