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There are two types of gerim in Jewish law – a ger tzedek who converts to Judaism from another religion, and a ger toshav or resident alien who lives in Israel, but does not formally convert to Judaism.
Last year (Insight Israel, Vol. 1, No. 3, February 2001) I wrote about the conversion controversy in Israel which relates to the first type of convert. On February 20, 2002, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the Interior Ministry must register Conservative and Reform converts converted in Israel as Jews. The Conservative and Reform movements immediately declared victory but, as is frequently the case in Israel, things aren’t as simple as they seem. Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas party has refused to register the converts and is in danger of being cited for contempt of court. Sadly enough, both Chief Rabbis have urged him to continue to defy the Supreme Court decision.
What will happen next? Some have suggested eliminating the “nationality” entry from Israeli identity cards, so that no-one’s religion will be listed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has asked Communications Minister, MK Ruby Rivlin, to formulate a conversion bill that will outlaw Conservative and Reform conversions and thus effectively nullify the Supreme Court decision and placate Shas. The Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism, which includes the Schechter Institute, has called on the Prime Minister to abandon the attempt to formulate such a law.
It is too soon to predict the final outcome, other than to say that this controversy will probably continue for many years to come.
This month, however, I would like to discuss the other type of ger, the ger toshav or resident alien. I have chosen this topic because it is related to Pesach and to the Exodus from Egypt (see below) and because it relates to the 160-250 thousand foreign workers (no–one knows the exact number) currently working in the State of Israel. Of that number, over half are here “illegally”. They work in construction, agriculture and geriatrics. The main problem is that work permits are issued to the employers instead of to the workers, who hand over their passports to the employers. If they leave their employer for a better job or because he has not paid them, they are immediately rendered “illegal”. This system has led to much abuse and to many workers being deported.
A. Ger Toshav – A Resident Alien
The Bible is not familiar with a ger tzedek or righteous convert. In the Bible, a ger is a stranger or resident alien of non-Israelite origin living in Israel. Such a ger is not an ezrah (citizen) and not mei’ahekha (from your brothers) and the rabbis call him a ger toshav or resident alien.
II) General Attitude to the Ger Toshav
The Bible repeatedly stresses that a ger toshav must be treated like a citizen, must be loved, and is loved by God:
III) Specific Laws Which Protect the Ger Toshav
Yet the Bible does not satisfy itself with generalizations. It lists a whole series of specific rights to which Gerim are entitled:
Thus we see that the Bible defends the rights of gerei toshav not just in general terms but through an entire list of specific mitzvot.
IV) Specific Obligations of the Ger Toshav
But the biblical attitude towards the ger toshav is a two-way street. Society owes him various things, but he owes society various things as well. There must be reciprocity:
V) Current Applicability
To what extent do these laws apply today? Should the foreign workers in Israel today be considered gerei toshav? There is no clear-cut answer. Maimonides (ibid.) says that the laws of the ger toshav only apply when the Jubilee year is in effect. Since there is no Jubilee year in our time, there is no law of gerei toshav. The Ra’abad of Posquieres (ibid.) disagrees and would consider at least some of these laws valid today.
We do not need to resolve this argument. It is enough for the State of Israel to adopt the spirit of these biblical and rabbinic laws, as follows:
As we celebrate Pesah, the festival of freedom, we must remember the words of Exodus 22 (v. 20): “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
I) Foreign Workers in Israel Today
1.Jerusalem Post, August 21, 1998, p. 16
2.The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Sept. 8, 2000. pp. 16-19
3.Jerusalem Post, December 29, 2000, p. B5
4.Ibid., January 4, 2002, p. A5
5.The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Feb. 1, 2002, pp. 10-13
II) Gerei Toshav
R. Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, Philadelphia, 1990, Excursus, 34, pp. 398-402
R. Ariel Picar, Deot/Amudim 12 (December 2001), pp. 4-5
R. Naftali Routenberg, Or Hamizrah 39 (Tammuz 5751), pp. 259-264
All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:email@example.com. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.