“Love the Stranger” – The Ger in Jewish Society

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Sacred Slogans

As debates over US immigration and refugee policy continue, activists have taken to citing the Biblical commandments to love and protect the “ger,” popularly translated as the “stranger,” as the moral basis for their respective positions. Those who do not recognize Biblical authority can dismiss these commandments as easily as they would for anything else in the Bible. But for Jews, or at least those Jews who accept the Bible as representative of divine will, the Biblical commandments to protect the stranger ought to carry religious significance. Jewish activists who invoke the “stranger” in the context of immigration or refugees are thus asserting that the Biblical protections ought to be applied in such cases, and therefore Jews have a religious obligation to support (or oppose) government policies that run counter to God’s commandments.

Setting aside the question of if Jews should demand that civil policies follow Biblical (or Rabbinic) law, Torah has more to say about the relationship between the “stranger” and society than an unconditional obligation to provide support to whoever demands. 

Let me state explicitly that I have no desire to debate immigration or refugee policy as these complicated subjects are well beyond my expertise. The specific point I am addressing here is that if it is appropriate to extend the Torah’s model of the “stranger” to immigration and refugees, then we ought to consider more of the Torah’s laws and values to see if such analogies are truly warranted.1

Becoming a Ger

The Hebrew word גר / ger relates to the root meaning to live, dwell, or reside. The Bible does not provide requirements for how one achieves this status, presumably beyond simply deciding to live among the Jewish people.2 While the Bible designates the ger as a protected class,3 it also explicitly calls on the ger to observe certain commandments such as Shabbat,4 Yom Kippur,5 and Passover.6 The ger is expected to refrain from the sexual “abominations” enumerated in Leviticus 18.7 and from worshipping Molech.8 The ger was also bound by covenant to accept the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.9 However, the Bible does not explicitly state that the ger must accept these rules as a prerequisite for attaining the protected status.

The Rabbinic tradition elaborates on the requirements necessary to become a ger, and significantly distinguishes between two different types of gerim. First, the ger tzedek or “righteous” ger is what we call a “convert” and is usually written as simply, “ger” without qualification. Space does not permit a full treatment of the laws of conversion,10 but the general rules cited here will be sufficient for the discussion at hand.

The ritual requirements for becoming a ger involve circumcision (for men), immersion in a mikvah, and a sacrifice.11 Due to the lack of a Temple and our inability to offer sacrifices, the offering of the convert is suspended until such time as sacrifices would be reinstated.12

But individuals do not simply perform these rituals on their own and become Jewish. Before undertaking these rituals, prospective converts are vetted by a Jewish court to test their sincerity and commitment and the rituals of immersion and circumcision must be performed in the presence of a court.13  It is only after these rituals are completed under a court’s auspices that a convert becomes, “a Jew in all respects.”14

The second type of ger is the ger toshav or “resident alien.” The Talmud records three opinions as to the requirements for becoming a ger tzedek. According to R. Meir, a gentile would only have to accept to refrain from idolatry. According to the opinion of “Others” the ger toshav is a ger tzedek who didn’t accept the prohibition against consuming animal carcasses not slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law. For the majority opinion of the Sages, in order to become a ger toshav one has to formally accept the seven Nohahide commandments. Unlike the ger tzedek, the ger toshav generally has a status of a gentile.15 The “perk” of being a ger toshav is that they are also protected by a Biblical commandment to be supported,16 but this would only be applicable to those who minimally formally renounced idolatry in front of a court.17

What is important in this context is that regardless of the type of ger being discussed, the status of the ger with all rights, privileges, and protections is not automatically bestowed by Torah but it must be earned through a formal process of acceptance.

Furthermore, even as Torah demands protections for the ger, there is no obligation for Jews to accept anyone as a ger and the Talmud even records times when no one is accepted as a ger. The status of ger toshav is only in effect when the jubilee is practiced, which means for practical purposes it is currently irrelevant.18 The Talmud also records that no ger tzedek will be accepted in the Messianic era, just as they were not accepted during the reigns of King David and King Solomon.19

Restrictions on the Ger

Despite the financial benefits offered to the ger toshav, they are for most purposes considered gentiles, and as such would not be considered citizens of the Jewish people with the same political rights as everyone else. And while the ger tzedek is considered, “a Jew in all respects” in the Talmud, there are some notable restrictions to the ger tzedek’s role in Jewish society.

The Bible prohibits Ammonites and Moabites from “entering the congregation” forever,20 and a temporary “nation ban” against Egyptians and Edomites.21 (In the Rabbinic tradition, “entering the congregation” does not refer to conversion, but to marriage.22) Converted women are also forbidden from marrying priests.23 

The Talmud also limits the roles converts may assume in society. Converts may sit as judges over cases involving other converts, but not over natural born Jews.24 Converts may also not serve as kings or hold any formal appointments.25 I believe we may assume that the same Rabbinic tradition which upheld these restrictions did not assume they would violate the prohibitions against “oppressing” the ger.

Conclusions

While covering all the details of the ger is impossible in such a short space, we have seen Biblical and Rabbinic sources demonstrating the following:

  1. Becoming a ger is not an automatic status; the ger must process through a formal procedure.
  2. There is no obligation to accept an individual who wants to become a ger.26
  3. The ger must commit to following Torah as a prerequisite for attaining membership.
  4. There are limitations to the civic participation of the ger in Jewish society.

Thus, if we apply the halakhic model of the ger to immigration, then the special status would only take effect after naturalization, not before, and there may be restrictions to citizenship. If we apply the underlying “values” of Torah, then at the very least we must take proactive measures to protect the integrity of the society, ensuring that the defining beliefs and norms are maintained. This would include some form of vetting of newcomers including the possibility of rejection.27

While there are sources which affirm that becoming a ger to be a beneficial change for individuals,28 whether or not the ger is considered a positive or negative on society is a matter of dispute. In the Talmud, R. Helbo states that “converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as a scab.”29 The medieval commentator Rashi explains that this is because converts are not careful in observing the commandments, and others will learn from their actions.30 Tosafot counters with the opinion of R. Avraham Ger who says that the ger is more of an expert in observing the commandments, and thus serves as a reminder to God of when the Jewish people do not fulfill His will.31

These ideas need not even be contradictory but reflective of the reality all groups face when welcoming outsiders. In the best case scenario, new members may provide greater intensity and passion while in the worst case scenario, they can also lower the quality of the group overall. In any event, there is similarly no contradiction in Torah having concern for the stranger while simultaneously being concerned with ensuring communal standards are upheld.

Notes

  1. I will say that even if the Torah’s model of ger does not apply to contemporary secular situations, this would only apply to not bestowing special privileges to a protected class. There would still be no excuse or justification for excessive cruelty.
  2. See Cohen, Shaye J. D. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. University of California Press, 2000.
  3. As seen in the specific Biblical prohibitions against mistreating the ger e.g. Ex. 22:10, 23:9, and Lev. 19:33 and positive commandments to love the ger e.g. Lev. 19:34 and Deut. 10:19.
  4. Ex. 20:10, 23:12
  5. Lev. 16:29
  6. Ex. 12:48-49 requires the ger to be circumcised in order to partake of the Passover offering and Ex. 12:19 prohibits the ger from eating leavened foods over Passover.
  7. Lev. 18:24-30
  8. Lev. 20:2
  9. Deut. 29:9-12
  10. For those interested in a comprehensive study, I highly recommend Finkelstein, Menachem. Conversion: Halakhah and Practice. Bar Ilan University Press, 2006.
  11. B. Keritot 9a
  12. Maimonides Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 13:5. While there used to be a requirement that converts set aside a payment in escrow for their eventual offering, this was practice was nullified by R. Yohanan (B. Rosh Hashana 31b).
  13. See B. Yevamot 47a-b for one description of the process. R. Eliezer also expounds on Ruth’s declaration of commitment to Naomi in Ruth 1:16-18.
  14. הרי הוא כישראל לכל דבריוB. Yevamot 47b.
  15. With the exceptions pertaining to the status of wine and oil (B. Avoda Zara 64b-65a).
  16. Based on Lev. 25:35 and Deut. 14:21, following Maimonides Hilkhot Avoda Zara 10:4.
  17. B.Avoda Zara 65a
  18. B. Arakhin 29a. According to B. Arakhin 32b, the Jubilee ceased to be observed when the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe were exiled.
  19. B. Yevamot 24b, B. Avoda Zara 3b. Cf. B. Yevamot 47a regarding being unconcerned a ger is converting in order to take advantage of the mandated economic protections.
  20. Deut. 23:4-5
  21. Deut. 23:8-9
  22. See B. Berakhot 28a where R. Yehoshua permitted an Ammonite convert to marry into the community on the grounds that the nations of Ammon and Moab no longer live in their territories. In the words of Maimonides, Sanheireb “mixed up” the nations, exiling and interspersing everyone such that these prohibitions are no longer relevant (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 12:25). That the rule is no longer enforceable for practical reason does not negate the significance of an additional restriction for even a ger tzedek who is supposed to be a “Jew in all respects.”
  23. B. Yevamot 60b. According to R. Eliezer b Ya’akov, even a daughter of converts may not marry a priest (B. Yevamot 57a).
  24. B. Yevamot 102a
  25. B. Kiddushin 45b
  26. Regarding the Syrian community’s restrictions on conversions, see Lieberman, S. Zevulun. “A Sephardic Ban on Converts.” Tradition, vol. 23, no. 2, 1988, pp. 22–25.
  27. Note that the Talmud is not unfamiliar with the risks of rejecting prospective converts as seen in the midrash regarding Timna (B. Sanhedrin 99b).
  28. For example, even though minors lack the legal capacity to consent, Jewish courts are authorized to convert minors because conversion is considered to be beneficial (B. Ketuvot 11a). Minors may protest the conversion when they become of age, but have a small window do to so (ibid). Note that this presumption of conversion being beneficial by default only applies to minors but not adults, since the latter may have already experienced what the Torah prohibits and prefer that lifestyle (ibid). Regarding those old enough to consent, one midrash describes Abraham bringing converts, “under the wings of the divine presence” (Gen. Rabba 39:16).
  29. B. Kiddushin 70b
  30. Rashi B. Kiddushin 70b s.v. Kashin Geirim
  31. Tosafot B. Kiddushin 70b s.v. Kashim Geirim

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