Stranger – Ger

Armin Langer

The commandment to protect the ger, often translated as stranger, is asserted several times in the Torah. The book of Exodus requires the Israelites ‘not to do wrong to a ger or oppress them’ (22:21). Leviticus teaches that a ger who resides with Israelites shall be treated as an Israelite citizen, and that the people of Israel should have ‘one standard for ger and citizen alike’ (24:22). But what exactly is a ger? Throughout the centuries, Jewish tradition has offered various meanings of this biblical concept.

The early Rabbis distinguished between ger tzedek (‘righteous alien’), that is, a non-Jew who becomes a Jew through conversion, and a ger toshav (‘resident alien’), that is, a non-Jew who lives among Jews and accepts the Noahide Commandments (Gen 9:8–17). Some leading Rabbis like Rashi argued that ger applies first to these Noahides. Others, like Maimonides, understood ger most of all as a reference to converts, since Jews did not form the majority in any society and therefore did not have the chance to oppress anybody except converts.

Some contemporary Orthodox Rabbis in Israel apply the term to local Arab and Palestinian populations, while other Liberal Rabbis in the US use it to describe non-Jewish fellow travellers. This article will present the evolution of the term ger from the Bible through Rabbinic times, introduce the reader to some of the traditional debates on the figure of the ger, and finally discuss the modern applications of the term. But first, it will present the etymology of the Hebrew word ger.

1 The many meanings of the biblical ger

1.1 Etymology of the word

The term ger has been translated into English in various ways, such as ‘stranger’ (e.g. Isaac Lesser 1845; JPS 2006; Koren Jerusalem Bible 2010), ‘sojourner’ (e.g. Everett Fox translation 1995), ‘foreigner’ (e.g. Living Torah 1981), or ‘proselyte’ (e.g. Metsudah Chumash 2009). The precise connotation of ger can vary depending on the specific verse or passage in which it appears. Nevertheless, it consistently refers to an individual who is not originally part of the Israelite or Jewish community but now resides within a community influenced by Israelite or Jewish customs, or is a member thereof.

The Hebrew word itself is derived from the root ג"ור (gimel, waw, resh), which Hebrew linguist Wilhelm Gesenius translated as ‘turning aside from the way’. Derivations of this root are used to express concepts around dwelling, such as the word לגור (lagur), meaning ‘to reside’, or התגורר (hitgorer) to ‘get together’. The term ger is the noun form of this verb and is used in the Torah in a variety of contexts.

1.2 Ger toshav and ger tzedek

Rabbinic tradition relates that there are two different categories of gerim (plural of ger) in the Hebrew Bible. These two categories became known as ger toshav and ger tzedek and describe distinct groups (Finkelstein 2006: 102, 666). Ger toshav (גר תושב) refers to a non-Jew who has taken up residence in the land of Israel and has agreed to abide by the seven Noahide laws. These laws, which in Jewish tradition are considered to be the basic moral and ethical principles that God gave to all humanity, include prohibitions against idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, eating flesh taken from a living animal, and establishing courts of justice (Gen 9:8–17; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:5). It should be noted that the connection of the ger toshav to the Noahide Laws is a Rabbinic tradition and not explicitly stated in the Bible itself (Novak 2011: 11–35).

Judaism connects the concept of ger toshav to the year of yovel, also known as the year of Jubilee. This year was a time of special laws and regulations relating to the ownership and use of land in the Land of Israel. During the year of yovel, all land that had been sold or transferred was returned to its original owner (Lev 25). It was also during this special year that the status of the ger toshav was confirmed: any ger toshav who wished to live and/or remain in the land of Israel was required to (re)affirm his commitment the Noahide laws (Lev 25:23–34; Bavli, Avodah Zarah 64b). Normative Judaism stopped counting the yovel years following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE which led to the dispersion of Jews and the end of Jewish sovereignty, so this practice lost its relevance. Medieval scholar Maimonides questions whether there could be a ger toshav when there is no more yovel (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kochavim 10:6).

Although the idea of ger toshav primarily applies to non-Israelites dwelling in a society where Israelites form the majority, an intriguing reference exists in the Hebrew Bible. Abraham identifies himself as a ger toshav when negotiating with the Hittites to secure a burial site for his deceased wife, Sara (Gen 23:1–4). This illustrates an instance where the term’s meaning aligns with the broader concept of being a resident alien. Another instance for the usage of ger toshav in relation to Israelites is Lev 25:35. This passage instructs the community to support the impoverished Israelites who are unable to sustain themselves, treating them as if they were a ger toshav. Here, the figure of the ger toshav is invoked to emphasize the responsibility of providing assistance and support to fellow Israelites in times of need.

The second category of ger is known as ger tzedek (גר צדק). This label refers to a non-Jew who has formally converted to Judaism. A ger tzedek is a full member of the Jewish community, with all the rights and obligations of a Jewish person. Several post-biblical Hebrew terms derived from the root letters of ג"ור are closely linked to the concept of conversion: gerut (גרות) pertains to the ‘state of being a convert’, describing the transformed status of an individual who has converted to Judaism. Geirut (גירות) also means ‘conversion’, specifically referring to the act of converting to Judaism. It derives from the same root as ger and is frequently employed in discussions involving Jewish Law and practices. Giur (גיור), synonymous with ‘conversion’, is often used to describe the process of formally becoming Jewish through conversion.

The term ger tzedek is a Rabbinic neologism but it is derived from the Bible. As medieval scholar Rashi explained in his commentary on Exod 12:48, this verse presents a scenario where a ger tzedek is participating in the observance of Passover, thus where a non-Jew converts to Judaism. While the nature of the ger’s participation in rituals during that time may not align exactly with the later concept of conversion, it potentially hints at the emergence of the phenomenon. It was only in the Rabbinic period that the concept of conversion became more formalized, as this article will explain later (section 2.1).

1.3 Protection of the ger in the Torah

The Torah encompasses a range of provisions dedicated to safeguarding the rights and welfare of gerim. These include the ger’s right to observe the Sabbath day and to rest just like a native-born Israelite (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14). Furthermore, the ger is entitled to the same legal protections and rights as a native-born Israelite, including the right to a fair trial and protection from injustice (Exod 12:49; Lev 24:22; Num 9:14; 15:16). Gerim are also allowed to own property in Israel (Lev 25:45–46).

The ger is included among the vulnerable members of society who are entitled to receive charity and support from the rest of the community (Deut 14:28–29; 16:11; 24:19–21). They are granted hospitality, since Israelites are commanded to show kindness to the ger, providing food, clothing, and shelter as needed (Exod 22:21; Lev 19:33–34; Deut 10:19). Jews are obliged to sustain and rescue the ger based on Lev 25:35. Medieval Torah scholar Ibn Ezra (on Deut 27:19) noted that scripture highlights the vulnerability of gerim as they lack allies, leading mistreatment of them to occur privately. These marginalized groups lack the power to defend themselves or bring their plight to public attention.

Numerous times, the Torah reminds the reader not to oppress the ger in connection with Israel’s historic memory of oppression in the Pharaoh’s Egypt. For example, in Exod 22:21, it says: ‘You shall not wrong a ger or oppress them, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt’. Similarly, in Deut 10:19, it says: ‘You shall love the ger, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt’. Emphasizing Israel’s own history as ‘gerim in the land of Egypt’ is a recurring argument in these commandments around protecting the ger. The anonymously-published medieval work Sefer ha-Chinuch, Book of Education (431:4), explains that the references to Egypt should remind Jews that they were ‘previously burnt by this great pain that there is to every person who sees themselves among foreign people and in a foreign land’. Upon remembering the Jewish experience with oppression, Jews would show mercy on any person who experiences oppression now.

Scholar of Jewish studies Shaye J. D. Cohen (2001) observed that there exists a distinction among the source materials within the Bible in terms of their emphasis on safeguarding the ger. In the earliest layers of literary composition, the legislator addresses the social inequality of gerim. Like the widow and orphan, who are vulnerable to mistreatment, the ger is also at risk and thus requires support. In contrast, the later priestly sources focus primarily on establishing legal parity between the ger and the native population. Expressions like ‘a single law shall apply to both you and the ger’ (e.g. Num 15:15) are frequent in these priestly texts.

According to tractate Bava Metzia 59b in the Babylonian Talmud, warnings against oppressing the ger occur thirty-six or, according to another opinion, forty-six times in the Torah, making it one of the most frequently reiterated commandments. Rabbi Eliezer the Great says in a baraita, a Mishnaic teaching incorporated in the Talmud, that the commandment is repeated so often because of ‘evil inclination’. He did not elaborate on this thesis. Traditionally, Talmud commentators, including contemporary Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, argue that this baraita refers to the ger’s evil inclination. They suggest that if Jews mistreat the ger, the ger will abandon the Jewish community and ‘is prone to return to his previous way of living’, that is, to their original status filled with ‘evil inclinations’ (Bava Metzia 59b.15). An alternative understanding, preferred by this article, suggest that ‘evil inclination’ here refers to the Jews’ evil inclination to oppress the ger, and that the commandments are there to challenge this inclination.

1.4 Discrimination against the ger in the Torah

While the Torah contains several provisions that protect the rights and welfare of the ger, there are also passages that reflect a certain degree of discrimination between the ger and the Israelite. One of the most challenging differentiations is the possibility of gerim becoming permanent slaves. Leviticus 25:45–46 states that gerim can be owned as property and passed down as inheritances to future generations. This provision implies a level of inequality compared to Hebrew slaves, who must be set free in the year of yovel (Lev 25:54). Also, Deut 23:20–21 allows Israelites to deduct interest from loans to gerim but not to other Israelites. This is a difference in economic treatment.

Furthermore, the Torah includes several ceremonies and rituals that are restricted to native-born Israelites or to members of the priestly tribe of Levi, such as the Passover sacrifice (Exod 12:43–45) and the service in the Tabernacle/Temple (Num 1:50–53; 3:10; 8:19), which are not accessible to gerim. The Torah also prescribes gerim to not to eat hametz, leavened foods, on Passover (Exod 12:19); not do work on Shabbat (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:13); or not do work on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:29). These commandments can be understood as forms of discrimination, although they were not meant as such. They also relate that the Torah understands ger most of all in the sense of a ger toshav and not in a sense of ger tzedek.

Another aspect that can be evaluated as a restriction of ger rights is the requirement for the ger tzedek to undergo circumcision: male gerim are required to undergo circumcision in order to fully join the Israelite community (Gen 17:12; Exod 12:48). Later in Jewish history, this requirement for gerim leads to conflicts, especially for Jewish Christians trying to convert Gentiles to Judeo-Christianity. This issue raised questions about whether circumcision should be a prerequisite for Gentile believers entering the Christian fold, leading to theological debates and differing interpretations (Langer 2019: 57–61).

It is important to note that many of these provisions reflect the particular religiopolitical context of ancient Israel and were not necessarily intended to be discriminatory. However, they do highlight the fact that the ger was seen as a somewhat distinct category within Israelite society, with certain differences and restrictions placed upon them. Nonetheless, the overall emphasis in the Torah is on treating the ger with kindness and fairness, and on including them as members of the Israelite community.

1.5 The figure of the ger in the Prophets and Writings

The word ger is also used in other books of the Hebrew Bible outside of the Torah, such as in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. In these books, ger is used to refer to foreigners or sojourners who lived among the Israelites, often in a peaceful and cooperative manner, thus more in the ger toshav sense. Many of these sources criticize the Israelites for not respecting the Mosaic commandments on protecting ger rights (e.g. Jer 22:3; Mal 3:5; Zech 7:10).

To emphasize respect for the gerim, Isaiah says that God will bring gerim to the Holy Mountain of Jerusalem and let them rejoice in God’s house of prayer (56:6–7). In a novel extension of these values, Ezekiel prophesies that, in the future, gerim ‘shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel’, and gerim will be provided with land within the tribe where they reside (47:22–23). On the other hand, the book of Ezekiel expanded on the restriction of ger rights by prohibiting gerim from marrying a kohen, a member of the priestly order (44:22).

However, in the Prophets and the Writings, one can also find other, non-literal usages of this term. When 1 Chronicles describes King David’s collections of materials for the construction of the Jerusalem temple, David is quoted blessing the Eternal’s greatness by saying that: ‘For we are gerim with You, mere transients like our fathers; our days on earth are like a shadow, with nothing in prospect’ (1 Chr 29:11).

In addition to its literal meanings, ger is also used symbolically in some passages in the Hebrew Bible. In Ps 39:23, the psalmist describes themselves as a ‘ger with You’, symbolizing a sense of isolation, disconnection, or spiritual estrangement from God. In Ps 119:19, the psalmist says, ‘I am a ger on the earth; do not hide your commandments from me’. Here the psalmist is expressing a sense of being a ger in a world that does not fully understand them. In Ps 119:54, the psalmist says: ‘Your statutes have been my songs in my dwelling as a ger’. This verse employs the concept of the ger to convey the notion of the psalmist's temporary residence in the world, likening their dwelling to that of a ger toshav.

2 Defining the ger in the Talmud

The approach to the ger in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud has certain differences, although there is also a great deal of continuity and development between the two. In the Hebrew Bible, as described above, the ger is usually perceived as a marginalized individual who needs protection from the Israelite community. However, the Talmud elaborates a more comprehensive framework of legal and ethical guidelines dictating the Jewish community's interactions with gerim.

A notable disparity between the two approaches lies in the Talmudic emphasis on the formal conversion process for gerim to fully integrate into the Jewish community. This is reflected in the various requirements and procedures for conversion that are outlined in the Talmud, such as circumcision (if male); immersion in a mikvah, the ritual bath; and acceptance of all commandments of the Torah. Jewish studies scholars Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi (2018) argued that by standardizing the position of conversion and turning the ger into a full Jew, the Rabbis created a binary model of Jew versus Gentile.

2.1 Ger and formal conversion (formalizing gerut)

During the early Rabbinic era, several Gentiles underwent conversion to Judaism. Classics scholar Louis H. Feldman (2003) argued, drawing from sources like ancient Jewish historians Philo and Josephus and the Christian gospels, that the Jewish community displayed a propensity to welcome new adherents, although active proselytization was absent. These sources point to a considerable number of conversions to Judaism during in the Second Temple period. This era witnessed a significant influx of conversions to Judaism, with ancient Jewish sage Rabbi Eleazar stating that ‘the Holy One, Blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations, only so that converts would join them’ (Pesachim 87b), suggesting that the dispersion of Israel was intended to attract converts to their civilization.

The Talmud in Yevamot 47b describes the procedure of conversion in detail: first, members of the Beth Din, the court consisting of three observant Jews, inform potential converts about the challenges Jews face as a marginalized minority and the many mitzvot (commandments) that Jews must observe. They make the candidate aware that if they do not follow the mitzvot, they will face punishment, including karet – that is, the divine punishment of extirpation – for eating forbidden fat, and stoning for breaking the Shabbat laws. After the court outlines the conditions, if the male candidate for conversion agrees, they perform circumcision on him. Following his recovery, he is immediately immersed in water. Once this immersion process is complete, he is considered akin to a born Jew in all aspects. For women, the procedure involves immersing them in the mikveh’s water.

The passage in Yevamot makes it clear that the ger is not allowed to join Judaism out of ulterior motives. Yet, other passages in the Talmud prove that there were also more lenient approaches to this question: in Shabbat 31a, the ancient sage Hillel did not have a problem with converting a non-Jew who wanted to join Judaism in order to eventually become a High Priest. Ancient sage Rabbi Hiya readily accepted a non-Jewish woman who wanted to marry one of his students, according to Menachot 44a in the Talmud.

Conversions out of ulterior motives are rejected by many Jews today. The normative sixteenth-century legal codex, the Shulchan Aruch, categorically rejects conversions for ulterior motives, including professional and personal ones (Yoreh Deah 268:12). Twentieth-century Orthodox Rabbi Moses Feinstein argued that conversion based upon an ulterior motivation increases the likelihood that the ger would not accept all the commandments (Igerot Mosheh, Yoreh Deah I, no. 157, 160; Even Haezer III, no. 4). To reconcile this tension, the Tosafot, medieval commentaries, on Shabbat 31a propose that Hillel was certain that the abovementioned ger who converted to become High Priest would ultimately go through conversion for heaven’s sake.

The Talmud has in general a more exclusive understanding of the ger’s status than the Bible, as the previous paragraph illustrates. In Bechorot 30b, the Sages even say that it is forbidden to admit a convert who accepts all the Torah except one commandment, even if it is only one Rabbinic precept. This stringent approach is in contrast with the more lenient biblical requirements of a ger. Yet the Talmud too emphasizes the value of protecting gerim. In Gittin 57b, the Gemara adds that ‘some of Haman’s descendants studied Torah in Bnei Brak, and some of Sisera’s descendants taught children Torah in Jerusalem, and some of Sennacherib’s descendants taught Torah in public’. By pointing out that descendants of the Israelites’ historic enemies are now members of the Israelite community, the Talmud embraces respect for converts, regardless of their origins. Elsewhere, Rabbinic literature praises gerim for submitting to God without having witnessed all the lighting and thunder at Mount Sinai, unlike Jews who needed these extraordinary signs (Midrash Tanchuma on Lech Lecha 6:32).

2.2 Polemics against gerim

While the Talmud contains different positive statements regarding gerim, it also reproduces polemics against them (Lavee 2018). The Talmud portrays several converts in a negative light, among others Rabbi Yehudah ben Gerim, whose name means ‘son of converts’ and who collaborates with the Roman occupiers (Shabbat 33b). Ancient sage Rabbi Chelbo is quoted in Kiddushin 70b saying that ‘converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as a leprous scab’. Rashi interprets this analogy as referring to the converts’ potential lack of meticulousness in adhering to mitzvot. Building on Rabbi Chelbo’s statement, the Talmud teaches in Yevamot 109 that ‘evil after evil will befall those who accept converts’.

Offering a more inclusive take on Chelbo’s teaching, Rabbi Avraham Hager in the Tosafot (on Kiddushin 70b) explains that ‘converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as a leprous scab’ because ‘they are experts in the details of the commandments and are meticulous in their fulfilment […] which reminds the Holy One, Blessed be He, of the sins of the Jewish People, who do not act according to His will’. Thus, Chelbo’s comment should posit that through their dedication to Judaism and active choice to embrace it, converts inadvertently highlight the shortcomings and potential laxity in observance among born Jews.

In considering these critical remarks about gerim, it is important to remember that the Talmud reflects a variety of attitudes the Jewish community held at the time. The Talmud contains a wide range of opinions on diverse topics, and not all these opinions are necessarily in agreement with one another. Not all Jews necessarily lived up to those ideals of the Torah and later Rabbinic literature emphasizing the importance of treating the ger with kindness.

3 Legal definitions of the ger

3.1 The theoretical debate on the ger toshav

The term ger toshav continued to be used in Rabbinic literature to refer to a non-Jewish resident who lives among the Jewish people. Within the Talmud, Avodah Zarah 64b presents two alternative viewpoints regarding the commandments that a ger toshav must adhere to. The first opinion emphasizes the necessity for the ger toshav to refrain from any form of idolatrous practices and to follow the Seven Noahide Laws, outlined in Exod 20:2–4 and Deut 5:68, and mentioned above. The second opinion stipulates that the ger toshav should observe all the 613 commandments in Rabbinical enumeration, except for the prohibition against consuming kosher animals that died in non-ritualistic ways.

While the Talmud presents a divergence of opinions on the Halakhic requirements for a ger toshav, Maimonides codified in his twelfth-century normative legal codex Mishneh Torah that the key prohibition from which a ger toshav must refrain is idolatry. In Maachalot Asurot 11:7, a discussion on the laws around forbidden foods, Maimonides writes that a ger toshav is ‘one who accepted upon oneself the seven Noahide commandments […]. His wine is forbidden to drink but permitted to derive benefit from […]. And the same applies to all gentiles who are not idolaters, such as Muslims’. Elsewhere in the Mishneh Torah (Melachim uMilchamot 8:10), Maimonides confirms that a ger toshav is a Gentile who lives among the Jewish people and has accepted upon himself the Seven Noahide Laws. Maimonides further notes that ‘anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfilment of these seven mitzvot and is precise in their observance is considered one of ‘the pious among the gentiles’ and will merit a share in the world to come’ (Melachim uMilchamot 8:11).

It should be noted that these conversations in Halakhic sources on the ger toshav were only theoretical discussions, as Jews did not form the majority in any society and did not have non-Jews living among them. Even though there existed a formal ritual for Rabbinic recognition of a ger toshav during Talmudic times, which involved the ger toshav candidate declaring not to worship any idols in front of a Beth Din (Avodah Zarah 65a), this practice gradually faded away. As mentioned above, the formal recognition process for conferring the legal status of ger toshav ceased with the discontinuation of the year of yovel following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the loss of Jewish autonomy and self-governance (Bleich 1995: 161). As the practical importance of ger toshav was lost, the regulations around ger tzedek gained more attention.

3.2 Halakhot around the ger tzedek

In the Sefer haMitzvot, a book on the 613 Jewish commandments, Maimonides outlines the 207th mitzvah or commandment, which says that God has instituted a commandment to extend love towards converts due to their embrace of the Torah within the Jewish community. Maimonides supports this sentiment with Midrashic references that draw parallels between this affection for converts and the love that believers are directed to demonstrate towards Hashem. Maimonides further emphasizes that the mistreatment of converts is prohibited, emphasizing a connection to the memory of the Egyptian experience. Instead, he underscores the imperative to cherish gerim, as their choice to unite with those who worship the singular true God is paramount.

In the Mishneh Torah, the book of Issurei Biah (Forbidden Intercourse) 13:17, Maimonides declared that even if a Beth Din did not check the potential convert’s background and did not inform them about the mitzvot and the punishment for the failure to observe them, if the candidate was circumcised and immersed in the mikvah in the presence of three Jews, their conversion was valid. Maimonides adds that ‘even if it is discovered that he converted for an ulterior motive since he got circumcised and converted, he has departed from the category of Gentiles, and we view him with scepticism until his righteousness is revealed’. Thus, a person becomes fully Jewish through gerut.

This argument is also found in the Shulchan Aruch. The section of Yoreh Deah 268 of this Halakhic codex outlines the requirements for a non-Jew to undergo conversion to Judaism and adds further details to the list prescribed by the Talmud. It asserts that, once a person converted to Judaism, they remain a Jew forever. Even if they abandon Jewish practices, that will not make them a Gentile again but a Jewish apostate. The Mishneh Torah’s and the Shulchan Aruch’s teachings reflect a comprehensive approach to gerim as converts, emphasizing the significance of support for them and the procedural aspects of the gerut.

4 Modern applications

4.1 Revisiting the ger toshav in Israel

As previously mentioned, the concept of ger toshav lost relevance after the destruction of the Temple, given the changed circumstances in which Jews were no longer the majority in any society. However, the establishment of the State of Israel brought about a significant shift, as Jews enjoyed sovereignty in a country once again. This shift led to discussions about the potential application of the ger toshav concept, particularly in the context of Israel’s political and societal landscape.

During much of its history, Israel’s political culture was influenced by secular Zionist ideologies. However, Israel also is home to a religious right-wing that has gained much prominence especially in recent years. Adherents of religious Zionism have proposed reintroducing the idea of ger toshav and applying it to Arabs and Palestinians living in Israel and the West Bank territories that were soon to be annexed. This proposal would entail redefining their status, stripping them of citizenship and relegating them to the biblical category of resident aliens who are tolerated but do not possess political rights (Lustick 2022; Masalha 2007: 195).

Among others, religious Zionist Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (2018) recommended that Arabs should enjoy the status of a ger toshav only if they recognize Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel. In his perspective, those who refuse to acknowledge Jewish superiority might be seen as supporting violent terrorism and violating the Noahide commandment against murder. There is opposition to this analogy too: human rights activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman (2019) protested the idea of labelling Palestinians as gerim and urged not to ‘look at those who lived here way before the State of Israel as foreigners’. Instead, Ascherman suggested viewing Israeli Palestinians as reim, neighbours.

Apart from applying the concept of the ger toshav to Arabs and Palestinians in Israel, supporters of the Third Temple Movement, who believe in the creation of a Jewish theocratic state, have advocated for all non-Jews living in Israel to follow the Noahide commandments. There is a growing movement of ex-Christians in Israel, particularly Filipino immigrant workers, who identify as Noahides. Religion scholar Rachel Z. Feldman (2018) described their commitment to becoming a ger toshav as a new Judaic faith. These discussions reflect the complex interplay between religious, political, and social factors in Israel’s evolving landscape.

4.2 Revisiting ger toshav in the US

As previously mentioned, there exists a historical connection between the concept of ger toshav and the year of yovel, a practice specifically applied within the land of Israel. This historical association raises the question of whether the designation of ger toshav should extend to individuals outside the land of Israel. However, in the Diaspora, particularly within non-Orthodox American Jewish communities, the concept of ger toshav has been reintroduced, albeit in a modified context. As early as 1956, chief ideologue of the Reconstructionist movement Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan suggested that the status of ger toshav should be reapplied. He suggested that the ger toshav should be a symbol for anyone who renounces ‘idolatry’ and seeks ‘salvation as a way of ethical advancement’ (Kaplan 1956: 479–480).

Since Kaplan, a growing number of Rabbis have contemplated working with the concept of the ger toshav. For instance, Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael (n.d.) created a Ger Toshav Certificate for ‘members of the Jewish community as ‘fellow travellers’, people who are not Jewish but who are committed to supporting the Jewish people and being an ally’. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Joy (2017), a Halakhic and historical inquiry into interfaith marriage, makes extensive use of the idea of a ger toshav in halakhically justifying marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

In a similar spirit, Jewish studies scholar Shaul Magid (2014) proposed addressing the reality of intermarriage ‘by making space; physically, liturgically, and ritualistically, for the new ger toshav, God fearer, or psycho-semite’. Magid suggested innovative considerations of liturgy and ritual inclusion to foster the integration of non-Jewish partners and friends within the Jewish spiritual community. The concept of ger continues to be a dynamic and contested issue in contemporary Jewish thought and practice, reflecting the ongoing dialogue and diversity of Jewish traditions and experiences. This is also true for narratives around the ger as the racialized other.

4.3 Ger as the racialized ‘other’

In the Jewish anti-racist activist world, it became commonplace to refer to the ger narrative to frame anti-racist activism. In this context, ger is interpreted as the racialized ‘other’, as one could see during the 2020 summer racial justice protests in the United States. Racial justice activists may refer to the biblical commandments about the ger as a way of emphasizing the importance of justice, equality, and dignity for all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or background. By drawing on this tradition and invoking the commandments regarding the ger, these activists seek to highlight the importance of solidarity and empathy across different communities and identities (Langer 2022).

Yet, it can be problematic to describe Black people, or any other marginalized group, as gerim, which in the Jewish tradition is often used to refer to members of an outgroup. While the concept of the ger is rooted in the idea of extending kindness and compassion to those who are different from oneself, it can also be interpreted as reinforcing a sense of ‘otherness’ or marginalization (Langer 2022). Labelling members of any racialized or marginalized group ‘strangers’ is not the solution to racialization and marginalization but strengthens the racialization and marginalization themselves. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1985) called this process ‘othering’. Spivak described how this action reduces the ‘stranger’ to someone who belongs to the socially subordinate category of the ‘other’.

For this reason, it is important to be mindful of the language and terminology that is used when discussing issues of social justice and equality. While drawing on the Jewish tradition and its teachings can be a powerful way of connecting with a shared moral and ethical framework, it is important to do so in a way that is respectful, inclusive, and sensitive to the experiences and perspectives of all individuals and communities.

4.4 Ger as the vulnerable ‘other’

In addition to advocating for racial justice, many Jews have embraced the figure of the ger to promote immigration justice. In these discussions, the ger is equated with immigrants or refugees. By invoking the language of ger, readers and listeners are reminded of the biblical imperative to extend hospitality and compassion to those who are different from ourselves. It could be argued that, just as gerim were individuals from outside the Israelite community adhering to Israelite norms, immigrants today are expected to abide by the norms of their host societies (Langer 2022: 31). This interpretation of ger as an immigrant works well with Rashi, who teaches in his commentary on Exod 22:20 that ‘wherever ger occurs in Scriptures, it signifies a person who has not been born in that land where he is living but has come from another country to sojourn there’.

However, while using the term ger in current immigration debates can be beneficial, there are also valid reasons why it might be challenging to employ this language. Considering the ger as an immigrant raises questions about how to reconcile such an interpretation with passages in the Torah that explicitly discriminate against gerim, as mentioned above. Applying the biblical treatment of gerim to modern circumstances could potentially be seen as endorsing a social hierarchy which deems discriminating against immigrants ideal. This brings to light the complexity of drawing parallels between ancient texts and contemporary situations, and how interpretations need to be considered thoughtfully and ethically in the context of evolving societal values.

5 Conclusion: embracing the ger

In conclusion, the concept of ger in the Hebrew Bible and its subsequent development within the Talmud and various interpretations throughout Jewish history reflect the evolving dynamics of inclusivity, identity, and justice. From its origins as a legal category to its symbolic resonance in addressing marginalized individuals and promoting social justice causes, the ger offers a lens through which to understand the values and complexities of the Jewish tradition. As contemporary debates continue to unfold, invoking the figure of the ger challenges us to navigate the intricate interplay between tradition and the evolving needs of a diverse and interconnected world. In striving to embody the Torah’s injunctions of compassion, kindness, and respect for the ger, Jews today engage in an ongoing conversation that bridges ancient wisdom with the pursuit of justice and humanity in the present and future.


Copyright Armin Langer ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)

The author would like to thank the Bud Shorstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida for their support of this research.


  • Further reading

    • Hayes, Christine. 2007. ‘The "Other" in Rabbinic Literature’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. Edited by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 243–269.
    • Hayes, Christine. 2022. Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage from the Bible to the Talmud. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Rabinovitch, Nahum Eliezer. 1966. ‘A Halakhic View of the Non-Jew’, Tradition 8, no. 3: 18–23.
    • Sagi, Avi, and Zvi Zohar. 2007. Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew – Structure and Meaning. London: Continuum.
    • Wasserman, Mira B. 2017. Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Works cited

    • Ascherman, Arik. 2019. ‘Putting the "Vav" Back into "Ger V’Toshav": Khayei Sarah’, The Times of Israel.
    • Bleich, J. David. 1995. Contemporary Halakhic Problems. Volume 4. New York: KTAV Publishing House.
    • Cohen, Shaye J. D. 2001. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    • Feldman, Luis H. 2003. ‘Conversion to Judaism in Classical Antiquity’, Hebrew Union College Annual 74: 115–156.
    • Feldman, Rachel Z. 2018. ‘The Children of Noah: Has Messianic Zionism Created a New World Religion?’, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 22, no. 1: 115–128.
    • Finkelstein, Menachem. 2006. Conversion: Halakhah and Practice. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press.
    • Kaplan, Mordecai. 1956. Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers. New York: Reconstructionist Press.
    • Langer, Armin. 2019. ‘"A Barbaric, Bloody Act" – The Anti-Circumcision Polemics of the Enlightenment and Its Internalization by Nineteenth-Century German Jews’, Body Politics 7, no. 11: 55–74.
    • Langer, Armin. 2022. ‘Beyond Jewish Racial Justice Activism: Can Jewish Tradition Guide Us in Times of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter?’, Journal of Jewish Ethics 8, no. 1: 25–41.
    • Lau-Levie, Amichai. 2017. ‘Joy: A Proposal’, Lab/Shul.
    • Lavee, Moshe. 2018. The Rabbinic Conversion of Judaism: The Unique Perspective of the Bavli on Conversion and the Construction of Jewish Identity. Leiden: Brill.
    • Lustick, Ian S. 2022. ‘Annexation in Right-Wing Israeli Discourse – The Case of Ribonut’, Frontiers in Political Science 4.
    • Magid, Shaul. 2014. ‘Should Rabbis Proselytize Non-Jewish Spouses? A Response to JTSA Chancellor Arnold Eisen’, Zeek.
    • Masalha, Nur. 2007. The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Palestine-Israel. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
    • Melamed, Eliezer. 2018. ‘Ger Toshav: Obstacles and Aspirations’,
    • Novak, David. 2011. The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2nd edition.
    • Ophir, Adi, and Ishay Rosen-Zvi. 2018. Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Raphael, Geela Rayzel. [n.d.]. ‘Ger Toshav Certificate’, Ritualwell.
    • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1985. ‘The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives’, History and Theory 24, no. 3: 247–272.

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