I’m not a ger
OK, so there’s been some teaching going about, made even more popular by a show on Israel National Radio, about “noahides” being equivalent to some entity known as a “ger”. This article is not about naming names. It ain’t about anything personal. It’s just about the issues as I see it and my stance. It’s best for me to speak for myself and not for anyone else, and not have anyone else speak for me.
So my article is titled “I’m not a ger“. For most people in the world, the next question that would pop in the head after “who gives a damn?” is “what is a ger“? In light of the rank of a person that could oppose my definition, I had better give the words of more educated men before I put forward how I define the word. So here are a number of quotes, available online and offline, that speaks of what a ger is and especially the way it is used in Torah.
“[Ger Toshab:] A Gentile who settled in Palestine and, to obtain the privileges of citizenship, abjured idolatry. He is distinguished from the Ger Tzedek who was a full convert to Judaism. (Everyman’s Talmud, by Abraham Cohen. pg 316, footnote 4.)
“Ger” – proselyte. This is one of the many passages in which the Torah requires that proselytes be treated as equals with all other Jews. Even though their ancestors did not emerge from Egypt, they have become fully fledged Jews and, provided they circumcise themselves and their children, they bring the offering along with all other Jews. (Artscroll Chumash, commentary on Shemos (Exodus) 12:48)
“Ger” – a proselyte. It is forbidden to taunt a proselyte by reminding him of his non-Jewish past and suggesting that this makes him unfit to study God’s Torah (Rashi, Sifra)? (ibid, commentary on Vayikra 19:33)
“laGer” – to the stranger, i.e., a gentile who resides in the Land as has agreed to observe the Noahide laws, but is permitted to eat non-kosher meat (Rashi). Obviously, the word “ger” in this context cannot be rendered “proselyte”, since carcass is no less forbidden to a proselyte than to any other Jew. (ibid, commentary on Devarim 14:21)
“the stranger” – According to Lev. XVII, 15, touching or eating the flesh of a nevelah is defiling both to the Israelite and the ‘stranger’. In Lev. the ‘stranger’ meant the non-Israelite how had become a proselyte in the full sense of the word, a ger tzedek. Here the ‘stranger that is within thy gates’ refers to the time when Israel would be settled in their Land and would have in their midst not only proselytes, but also men who while they had abandoned idolatry, did not completely take upon themselves the life and religious practices of the Israelites. The Rabbis called this class of resident aliens ger toshav; and this v. refers to that class, who were neither Israelite by birth or conversion, nor ‘foreigners’. See p.256. (The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by Dr J. H. Hertz, C.H. Late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, commentary of Deuteronomy 14:21)
“sojourner” Heb. ger. The resident alien. ‘He was not directed or compelled to assume a religious duty of Israel, but he was prevented from interfering with the religious practices of Israel’ (Sulzberger). In later Hebrew law, the resident alien is either a ger tzedek, a righteous proselyte, who has been received into the covenant of Abraham, and thereby enjoys the same privileges and obligations as the born Israelite; or ger toshab or sha’ar, ‘the stranger of the gate,’ the alien squatter who remains outside the religious life of Israel, but who has undertaken to adhere to the seven Noachic laws that are binding upon all men who desire to live in human society; see pg 33 (ibid, commentary of Exodus 12:19)
One who is born a Jew forfeits his title if he becomes a ben nekhar [“son of alien values”], if he becomes a pagan, estranged from Judaism. Conversely, one who was born a pagan can attain full equality with native members of the Jewish nation as soon as he enrolls himself and his family into the Jewish covenant of God. The Jewish state grants citizenship with all the pertinent civil rights … even to an individual who does not become a Jew as long as he subscribes to the obligations emanating from his vocation as a human being and thus becomes a ger toshav [lit., “a sojourning stranger”].
A ger tzedek [lit., “righteous stranger”], an individual who has actually become a Jew, may make the Passover offering …. (Terumas Tzvi, a translation of texts from the commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary on Exodus 12:48.)
Jastrow’s dictionary of the Talmud in its definition of “ger” calls ger tzedek a full proselyte, and a ger toshav as one who renounces idolatry to get limited citizenship in Israel. (I see proselyte and convert as synonymous, i.e., full converts to Judaism, for all intents and purposes a Jew.)
Also Soncino’s translation of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin folio 96b, translates ger toshav as “resident alien” and ger tzedek as “righteous proselyte”. In the relevant footnotes, it defines ger toshav the same as Jastrow, and ger tzedek as one who accepts all the laws of Judaism for no ulterior motive.
Be aware that there are two types of gerim.
1) The ger toshav “the stranger-sojourner.” He lives in the Land of Israel, but isn’t Jewish. He observes the Seven Noachide laws, as any non-Jew is obligated to do.
2) The ger tzedek “The righteous convert.” He is a convert to Judaism and is a full-fledged Jew. (http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/bonchek/archives/mishpatim59.htm)
OK. After all of those quotes, that last one speaks best for how I view things when it comes to the “ger” issue. But I’m going to use modern english to describe my point of view, a point of view which I believe to be firmly established in tradition, as was confirmed by the evidence above and a post in the AskNoah forum. Before I do, let me just tell you about some dictionary entries and rabbinical definition.
I’ll share Rashi’s definition of ger as seen in his commentary of Exodus 22:20.
Every expression of a stranger ([Heb. ger]) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there. (quoted from Rashi’s commentary on chabad.org http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9883#showrashi=true)
I have a Hebrew dictionary at home which states the following:
ger is a man who, either alone or with his family, leaves his village and tribe, because of war (2nd Samuel 4:3), famine (Ruth 1:1), pestilence, blood-guilt, etc, & seeks shelter and sojourn elsewhere, where his right to own land, to marry, & to participate in the administration of justice, in the cult, & in war is curtailed: sojourner, alien Genesis 15:13; ….
Here are a few words from Rambam, oft quoted by others from the opposite point of view.
What is meant by a resident alien [Heb. ger toshav]? A gentile [Heb. goy] who makes a commitment not to worship false deities and to observe the other [six] universal laws commanded to Noah’s descendants. He does not circumcise himself or immerse. We accept this commitment and he is considered one of the pious gentiles.
Why is he called a resident [Heb. toshav? Because we are permitted to allow him to dwell among us in [the land of Israel], as explained in Hilchot Avodah Zarah.
We accept resident aliens only during the era when the Jubilee year is observed. In the present era, even if a gentile makes a commitment to observe the entire Torah with the exception of one minor point, he is not accepted.
(quoted from Issurei Biah Chapter 14 from http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/960662/jewish/Issurei-Biah-Chapter-Fourteen.htm, with further changes by me as informed by the Hebrew version of Mishneh Torah at http://www.mechon-mamre.org)
A person who formally accepts these [seven] commands is called a resident alien [Heb. ger toshav]. This applies in any place. This acceptance must be made in the presence of three Torah scholars. (quoted from Laws of Kings and Wars, Chapter 8, Halacha 10, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188353/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-8.htm- important note: this passage says that the acceptance of a ger toshav is accepted in any place, not any time. This, based on Rambam, it still has no legal force in our days.)
So my understanding of ger is almost like one that I mentioned before. He is a person who is not a native Jew that has left his own community to dwell or reside amongst the Jews. There are two legal statuses of a ger: 1) ger toshav – a non-Jew who resides amongst Israel (or a Jewish community) and officially and formally vows to keep the Seven Commandments of the descendants of Noah (called by people these days, “the Noahide laws”) in front of certain Jews; 2) ger tzedeq – a former non-Jew who now has been naturalised by the proper traditional methods and is now a Jew.
As has been shown before in the quotes of Rambam, this legal status, that of ger toshav, no longer exists for as long as there is no Jubilee (yovel), something that has many other things needed that are not around today without Temple or Sanhedrin.
Now one thing that should be clear by most, if not all the quotes that I’ve mentioned, even by the previous paragraph. A ger in the Torah sense is a non-Jew who is dwelling amongst a Jewish community in one of two senses, but it is always someone who has a formal relationship and legal (or halakhic) status in Israel.
This inevitably leads to another conclusion. Not every Gentile is a ger. Why? Because the vast majority of Gentiles just live and are officially linked to their own lands, not Israel. So a German who lives in Germany may just have links to his own country. A Englishman who relocated to Canada and naturalised there would just be a Canadian. These people may have no links to a Jewish community and may not even live amongst one. So these people are not classed as gerim (plural of ger).
This leads to another conclusion. Even Gentiles considered righteous for knowingly or unknowingly keeping the seven commandments are not gerim. We don’t need to worry about the ger tzedeq because according to what was said above, this is just a former Gentile turned Jew. But with regard to a ger toshav it involves a couple of things. Firstly there needs to be the proper legal (or halachic) structure available to formally establish an individual as a ger toshav. The lack of a temple, Jubilee and Sanhedrin and maybe other factors, makes the formal status of ger toshav defective or invalid for now. Secondly, many of the Gentiles who accept the seven laws still have no strong links to a Jewish community. I’m not just talking about people that claim to love Israel or its Torah. There is nowhere that states that this love makes a person a ger. Sometimes all a Gentile will have is some regular or irregular dealings with a rabbi or knowledgeable Jew who is willing to teach them or answer their questions.
Now as I write this last part, I think of the word ger and how it is used in the Jewish Bible. For example, when Abraham said that he was a ger (sojourner from another place) and a toshav (dweller) in the land to those that were permanently residing there, I can’t imagine him meaning the following: “I actually live somewhere else – I don’t live or reside here – and I intermingle with a totally different country, but because I happen to know a Canaanite or two that instruct me on Canaanite life, I can now be classed as having a legal status there.” Do not misunderstand me! I’m not belittling the devotion of those Gentiles that choose to learn from a rabbi with any regularity. There is so much good that can come from such a devotion. This article has nothing to do with such devotion, if it is devotion to God’s Torah and to God himself. But the word ger or ger toshav has a lot more meaning than a righteous gentile, even a righteous gentile taught by a rabbi. It is a legal (or halachic) status that involves living or sojourning in the land of Israel, amongst the covenant people, the Jews (without repeating myself before about the legal structure needed).
Looking at the uses of the word ger [toshav] in the Jewish Bible, there seems to be a difference between this non-Jew and the Gentile that has no residence status in Israel. It’s like in Deuteronomy 14:21 where meat from an animal that died of natural causes can be given to a ger, i.e., a ger toshav, that non-Jew that actually lives in Israel, or sold to a total foreigner. There is a difference.
This sort of difference, but more significantly between a ger toshav, a righteous gentile who is not a ger toshav and other gentiles, can be seen in Rambam’s words from his Mishneh Torah, Law of Kings and Wars, Chapter 8, halacha 11.
However, if he [a gentile] fulfills [the seven commandments] out of intellectual conviction, he is not a resident alien, nor of ‘the pious among the gentiles,’ nor of their wise men. (http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188353/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-8.htm)
As can be seen there, Rambam separates the ger toshav from the “pious among the gentiles”.
All of this is to say that many Gentiles who accept the Seven Laws may be righteous Gentiles, and some of them may get to learn from a rabbi by asking the odd question or visting him often. But I believe there is more to being a ger toshav than just that. I believe that the evidences that I’ve given above confirms that.
I’m not a ger
I’m a Gentile that doesn’t live in a Jewish community and I don’t live in Israel. I keep the seven commandments because they were commanded by God to Adam and Noah and then to Moses in the Torah and I try to be an all-round decent person. I learn from rabbis and Jews when I get the chance.
Now that summary means that I’m not a ger in any way, whether a fully naturalised one, or the one that just sojourns formally in the midst of the Jews.
Equating the ger toshav with a “noahide”
I’ve seen it happen enough times by rabbis and those who may not know better. They will equate the terms ger toshav and “Noahide”. And I’m of two minds regarding such a situation.
You see, although there is plenty of evidence for what ger toshav means, the word “noahide” is …. well, it’s just messy. In the same sentence, it can be used so ambiguously that you can’t tell if the speaker is talking about the bog standard Gentile or the religious devoted follower of the God of Israel who is Gentile. For example, you’ll often hear of the Seven Commandments referred to as “The Noahide Code”. What should “noahide” mean there? Is the laws that are obligatory upon all Gentiles? Or the laws that religious individuals who call themselves “Noahides” keep in order not just to keep the basic seven but additional moral principles, rites and practices seen in the Jewish 613 commandments? When people talk about building “noahide communities”, it doesn’t appear that this is talking about any and every Gentile, but rather Gentiles who hold to a certain set of beliefs.
Speaking bluntly, “noahide” is a newly created non-Hebrew word that is derived from the Hebrew name “Noah”. Being non-Hebrew word, an innovative one, people can reinterpret it as they want. Works like that of Rabbi Broyde and the commentator of the Artscroll Talmud collection use the words “noachide” and “noahite” to refer to Gentiles in general, being a true expression of the original legal meaning of the hebrew term which means “descendants of Noah”, those that aren’t Jews. There are people like Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh who spoke of a Noachide religion and equated his “Noachide” with “the proselyte [ger] of the gate” spoke of in the Jewish Bible. So if some rabbi or some gentile wants to come along and define the English word one way or another, what can we do?
It is this ambiguity which is another reason why I distance myself from that word, “noahide” and its different versions.
Some may then ask, “David, are you a noahide?” The best response I can give is “I don’t know what you mean.”
What’s the attraction?
I wonder to myself, what is the attraction? Why do Gentiles want to be seen as this ger identity? Why have certain rabbis attracted a following by making it seem like righteous Gentiles, regardless of whatever link to Israel, are automatically the ger, sometimes making it seem like this ger character is all over the written and oral Torah?
It would be unfair for me to try to read the minds or express the inner desires of Gentiles who are strangers to me. So in this passage I will only speak for myself. If it’s irrelevant to you, then this section just doesn’t apply to you and that’s fine.
There is a mistaken mindset that may have caused certain Gentiles to become Jews. It was that God only had a special love for the Jews, and to the rest of the world He was either mildly indifferent or just didn’t love us Gentiles as much as Jews. And some Gentiles may have become Jews in order to be closer to God. Being a Gentile, a bog standard Gentile, was simply not enough, so the best way to ascend up the spiritual scale was to become a Jew.
A similar mindset is that proximity to Israel, the Torah observant Jews, God’s holy and chosen people, can also put a person in a better situation. Sometimes it feels like being close to such a holy people and a powerful, spiritual heritage uplifts a Gentile. Being a bog standard non-Jew, a common Joe Bloggs non-Jew, just isn’t enough in one way or another. But then I hear this teaching about the ger, a status – a special status – of a non-Jew that is in one way or another close to Israel, affiliated. And wanting more “spirituality” and “closeness to God”, I would hear certain rabbis teach that gerim have extra laws to keep, extra responsibilities, more than the keeping of the seven laws, or just plain old human decency; there’s talk of a sabbath that a ger/”noahide” is allowed to keep (that, in and of itself could attract me with me christian background, but it would attract anyone keen on “spirituality”). There are some who may say that a bog-standard Gentile can only keep the basic seven, but a “ben noah” (understood as the modern “noahide” or this ger) is allowed to keep additional laws from the Jewish 613 commandments, according to the way how some people interpret a statement of Rambam’s.
Now all of this would attract me on many different levels, on the level of ego – wanting to be better than others – and/or the thought that having a title or status somehow makes me better, and/or an honest desire to draw close to a God I may really really love, thinking that being a ger somehow accomplishes something in that direction.
Now I don’t need to go into the second possibility much – the belief that a title or status means something – because it’s a fact of life. We are not all the selfless, perfectly-minded individuals. Some people think that because they have a label they are automatically better before man and God. The last possibility (a yearning for God) is a powerful one though. The earnest desire to be right in God’s eyes can cause a person to refine himself to be a great human being. But that desire can be twisted to the point where people will push God himself aside to do what they think he wants, to the point where Gentiles almost cast aside being a Gentile to look more and more like Jews rather than just settling on being one or the other.
With these forces in play with me (remember, I’m speaking for no one other than myself – if you can’t relate, don’t worry about it), I can see why I’d be interested in this ger stuff. Linking hands with Israel in a quasi/pseudo-formal way or a “spiritual” way, I would feel elevated already.
And the fact that teaching can come from the mouth of an enthusiastic rabbi, that seals the deal! You’ve got such teaching coming from a person who seems authoritative and maybe is authoritative, at least amongst his own community of Jews.
In light of all this, why am I not sold to this ger idea?
Apart from the evidences I gave above for the fact that my circumstances make it that I’m not a ger in a real literal sense, there is more. And here again, I can only give my personal opinion. If you think the content of my words coincide with Torah messages, then good! If not, then ooops! The reason I’m not sold on the ger idea is this: Righteousness is not dependant on proximity to Israel. That’s not to say proximity to the righteousness of the good Jews won’t help; good example can really help a person to flourish in terms of their own lifestyle. But righteousness in and of itself has nothing to do with proximity to Israel. Good deeds, righteousness, is seen in the contents of a person’s acts and lifestyle. A Gentile can be close to Israel and be a wicked person. A Gentile can be far from Israel and be the most honest, giving and sincere person you’ll ever meet. They may not even have heard of Israel. But, like Abraham, they look out to help the poor and the stranger, or they fight against injustice. A Gentile, from the outside, can look like any other Gentile when in a crowd, but when the crowd starts moving in a wicked direction, you’ll notice these individuals going against the trend, maybe in their own quiet or loud way.
I can guess what some are thinking already. “David, to be a pious one from among the nations a Gentile needs to accept God’s revelation of the Seven Laws to Noah or to Moses according to Minhat Eliezer or Rambam. No one in Jewish tradition contradicted these statement.” Yeah, the titles and the belief again. Maybe there is a difference between making the world a better place by doing good deeds, avoiding wrong deeds, and being a “pious one of the nations”. With one, just doing good deeds, belief isn’t necessary. With the other, being a pious one of the nations, belief is necessary. Maybe. It seems that way to me anyway.
Are you finished yet?
OK! OK! I’ll finish this off. It’s been a long one, huh?
I’ve given my evidences about my viewpoint about ger toshav, ger tzedek, and why I am neither. According to one rabbi I spoke to, this sets me in the category called “idolator” or akum (a Hebrew term meaning one who serves stars and constellations, i.e., an idolator). This is even though I don’t actually worship idols. Maybe another title, huh? But I really couldn’t care less.
Do you want to know what I’m interested in? Maybe not. OK, I’ll tell you anyway. I’m interested in knowing God’s law for Gentiles and keeping it, knowing the basics and building from there, just being a decent bloke to my neighbours, a decent person in general. Yes, for me personally, I love God and his truth so much, so deeply. But my expression of it is different to others. I try to set a clear dividing line between what is commanded and what is beneficial but not commanded, and what is necessary for other reasons (I’m not saying I’m anywhere close to getting it totally right). I am not a teacher. I can only speak for myself, right?
So this ger business may be fine for others. But I believe there’s been some wrong teaching about the subject, to be blunt. I’m happy that I’m not alone in that conclusion, but what would I do if I were? Still stand up for what I think is right, I hope.
I’m not a ger in the ways set forth by classic Jewish law as far as it has been shown to me, and as far as I have read it myself. And it doesn’t matter much to me that I’m not. I’m a Gentile, a non-Jew; no clear, strong, or formal link to the community of covenant Israel or the Torah observant Jews. And I still have a purpose, a God-given one. And you know what? With or without a title or status, I’m gonna fulfil it to the best of my ability, so help me God.
- Posted in: God ♦ Noahide Commandments
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