A Torah Perspective on National Borders and Illegal Immigration

By Nochum Mangel and Shmuel Klatzkin:

If the heavens and earth and all of mankind are created by one G‑d, what does the Torah, G‑d’s instruction manual, tell us about One World–ism? Does it recognize national boundaries as legitimate?

In the poetic song of Ha’azinu, Moses proclaims:

When the Most High gave nations their lot, when He separated the sons of man,
He set up the boundaries of peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.3

It is clear that from a Torah perspective, national boundaries are both natural and providential. They reflect a divine purpose in the world, and therefore that purpose must be upheld.

Every nation differs from every other nation absolutely in several aspects: its land, its language, its clans and its peoples.4

Such national characteristics are easily observable, though it is morally important to recognize that such stereotypes do not dictate individual behavior. Japanese and Britons wait patiently in queues for trains and buses. Compare that to the scene in a New York City subway at rush hour, or at a crowded Tel Aviv bus stop when there are only a few seats left. The Italian language is melodic, and lends itself to romantic and passionate lyrics; the German language lends itself to scientific and philosophical precision, or to the epic and the serious in poetry and song. Such generalizations reflect some real truth, which the Torah recognizes. These national characteristics, and the distinct bounded lands that give rise to them, are part of G‑d’s providential plan.

Being satisfied that the Torah recognizes the concept of borders, we can now consider the reasons people have offered for supporting and opposing keeping those borders closed, as well as the Torah’s view on the subject

The proponents for open immigration in the United States point to (among other things) humanitarian concerns, the need for inexpensive labor or labor that most citizens don’t want to do, and the energy of the self-selected who choose to come to a country because they really want to be there.

On the flip side, the proponents for limiting or denying immigration point to security concerns, worries about societal and cultural cohesion, negative influence on the sense of national purpose, exploitation of government entitlement benefits, increasing unemployment of the native population, and causing a drop in wages by increasing labor supply.

It is true that often the reasons given in support of a certain position have only been rationalizations masking the proponents’ own bigotry. But, granted that sound arguments can always be misused—are the reasons given in the American debate ever justifiable in the light of Torah? Which reasons, in their best presentation, are deemed worthy of consideration by Jewish law and teaching?


Although the Torah’s focus is on Israel, and every country has its own unique challenges and concerns, one can nevertheless extrapolate the Torah’s view from there.

Commenting on the verse “Iron and brass are your locks,”5 which is part of Moses’ blessing to the tribe of Asher before his death, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains:

The mighty men of Israel would dwell in the border towns and lock the frontier so no enemies could enter; it was as if it were closed with locks and bars of iron and brass.6

The borders posed a unique danger, and Jewish law mandated that authorities search out the real motivations of those who would enter the country. It cautioned that a deadly danger could lurk, and we should be wary of all who wish to cross it. So much so, that we are permitted to transgress the holy Sabbath for these security concerns. As the Code of Jewish Law puts it:

In a border city, even if the non-Jews approach you [ostensibly] regarding straw and hay, one must violate the Shabbat to repel them, lest they take over the city and proceed from there to conquer the land.7

Modern-day Israel, too, knows the need for stringent control of its borders. The construction of the wall separating the rest of Israel from the PA areas almost completely ended the spate of bombings that killed so many civilians a decade ago.

Obviously, the challenges facing Israel are not necessarily the same as those facing other countries such as the U.S., and they may require different and unique solutions. Mexicans and Canadians don’t pose the same threat to national security as do Hamas, Syria and Egypt. Nevertheless, the Torah recognizes that security is a real concern that needs to be addressed.

Cultural Coherence

In addition to security concerns, Jewish law recognizes that there are ideological dangers as well. Expounding on the negative commandment of not allowing idol-worshippers a holding in the land of Israel,8 Maimonides writes:

When Israel [meets the conditions for observing the Jubilee], it is forbidden for us to allow an idolater among us. Even a temporary resident or a merchant who travels from place to place should not be allowed to pass through our land until he accepts the seven universal laws commanded to Noah and his descendants, as the verse states: “They shall not dwell in your land”9—i.e., even temporarily. A person who accepts these seven mitzvot is a ger toshav, “resident alien.”10

It is not foreignness per se that is the problem, but rather a certain pernicious foreign ideology that is typified by the name “idolatry.” The reason for this is that the Torah sees idolatry as the root of evil, and portrays its effect on the Jewish nation as thoroughly destructive.11

The acceptance of the seven mitzvot is clear evidence that a person has turned away from idolatry and now accepts G‑d’s governance. It is only then, accepting the Sovereign of the land, that he can dwell in the land or pass through it.

Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–c. 1310) further explains that we must take a very broad view of the definition of a “resident alien” in the light of the achievements of Abrahamic religion in civilizing the world and taking it beyond the idolatrous mindset. Though he does not name the seven mitzvot, he still insists that those who enter the Land must share a belief in G‑d and a disciplined lifestyle that flows from it.12

While it is clear that idolatry is antithetical to everything that Judaism stands for, what needs to be asked in the present debate is whether there is something that is equivalent to that today that in the US. Is there something today that is equivalent to idolatry, something that poses a legitimate threat and is not just the imagining of xenophobes?


With regards to charity when there are limited resources, Jewish law sets clear guidelines for our priorities. Poor relatives come before others, and the poor of our own city come before the poor of another city.13 It is implicit that this principle applies not only to charity but to other economic questions as well, for limited resources will always require tough decisions to be made. And for tough decisions to be made well, a sound order of priorities is needed.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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