There are many ways in which I have encountered the stranger. From childhood, one of my favorite musicians has been Billy Joel , and one of his notable songs from the 1970’s was “The Stranger.” It is probably not coincidental that Billy Joel is at least of Jewish background, even if not particularly religious, given the many and complex forms of stranger that exist within Jewish thought. Some strangers are resident aliens who are attracted to the way of life one has, and these strangers, who one should have a fondness for and whom the Bible commands to be treated in a kindly matter, are called ger. There are still other strangers who are around us but not present with us, who want things from us but who are not really a part of us, and these strangers are called nochri. And there are still other strangers who were once a part of us who have betrayed us and become estranged from us, and these are zar, about whom our thoughts are the harshest. And yet all of these are strangers. When we think of the stranger, which of these do we mean?
It is not always easy to tell what kind of stranger someone is. Someone who comes to one’s country or community and shows a positive interest and respect for it and a desire to learn from it or imitate it is clearly a ger, and the sort of person who will not long remain a stranger to a friendly community. Likewise, someone who betrays the community and seeks to use knowledge of the community to better betray and attack it is clearly a zar, clearly a traitor and someone who one is not going to be on friendly terms with, because of the past that is no longer shared but now a source of problems between people who used to consider themselves brethren. Yet these are only the most obvious of cases when it comes to strangers. There are parts of ourselves that are strangers, such as the self-destructive urges we have. If we have stared into the void and had to fight against despair, we have seen the shadow inside of us. If we have stared into a bottle or been tempted by the lures of intoxication as a way of escape from life’s difficulties, we have met the stranger within ourselves as well, and perhaps introduced him or her to others. And if we have seen strangers who have escaped the wreck of their own backgrounds and places of origin but who wish to remake their new homes in the image of their places of origin, we have met the nochri, with whom our interactions are likely to be highly ambivalent at best.
It is a shame that the English language is so impoverished when it comes to such nuances of meaning. To be sure, we have more than one word for strangers of this kind, but such words do not seem to carry the sort of moral weight that they do in Hebrew. Stranger itself is a word that has a negative connotation to begin with. We would consider an estranged person of our own background to be some sort of rebel or traitor, against whom no violence is seen as too harsh. Yet even words like resident alien, which would be a translation of ger, do not have the sort of positive picture that ger has in Hebrew. Many people would use the word refugee of people to encourage a more positive feeling, but the ger is not a refugee but is someone who has an active draw to one’s culture and at least some desire to identify with the host community, not merely a desire to live there as a stranger on the dole as is all too often the case with a refugee. Moreover, when we feel the attraction of the stranger, we tend to think of something as exotic, the way we fetishize the beauty that we see in certain sorts of strangers who are close enough to us but also far enough from us to be attractive to those who are bored with their own native identity. Indeed, our words for the stranger do not appear to be based on some sort of moral distinction to be made between them, but rather on our level of affection for them or interest in them or their fate.
How are we to overcome this linguistic poverty? After all, the Hebrew conception of stranger offers a much better understanding of the relationship between strangers. We see the worst sort of hatred and violence and anger between those who are estranged, who once were brethren or spouses or some other close and intimate relationship and are not at odds. We ought not to be surprised by this, as if the past closeness should make the conflicts less serious when they only tend to add fuel to the fire of present hatred and enmity. Likewise, even among those who have a marked mistrust of open borders and the free passage of people, there is often a distinction made between the thoughts of the ger and those of the nachri. Even those considered to be hostile to immigration have a degree of respect for those who come to a country and learn its languages and adopt its customs, regardless of their place of origin. Even in such a time as our own, the ger is regarded with respect even by the most xenophobic among us. The real unease about the stranger and the alien among us concerns those who are either thought to be potentially hostile to us but trying to pull on our heartstrings by posing as refugees or are thought to be uninterested in becoming like us but only interested in what they can get from us while they are among us but always apart from us. And those concerns are legitimate. We need a language to discuss these varied and complex feelings, even if we have to borrow the terms from another language to make our meanings plain.
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