The Rabbinic Concept of Ger Toshav (5-part series)
How does the Torah want us to relate to minorities? Are rights and privileges based primarily on essence and status, or on residence and behavior? How are these sorts of questions affecting contemporary Israeli and American politics and how should they? In this five-part series, we will probe in depth the rabbinic notion of the ger toshav, a non-Jewish resident within majority Jewish space. Beginning with the Biblical ger, we will see how Jewish sources attempted to construct the notion of an upstanding, non-Jewish citizen of a Jewish polity and society. We will follow the discussion through classical rabbinic sources, medieval and modern attempts to synthesize an unruly canon, and explore the category's ongoing vitality in contemporary Israeli discourse as well as its applicability to controversies around immigration and citizenship in the contemporary United States.
Part One: In or Out? Biblical Definitions of the Ger
In this session we will look at the biblical category of the ger—often defined as the stranger or resident alien. What is this person’s place in the community of Biblical Israel? What are the ger’s privileges and responsibilities? In what ways are they a part of and not a part of the people of Israel?
Part Two: From Stranger to Convert: Turning a Biblical Outsider into a Rabbinic Insider
In this session, we will examine how the Rabbis appropriated and transformed the ger. Having seen the Biblical material in depth, we will now look at how Rabbinic sources attempt to resolve inconsistencies in the Biblical treatment of the ger. Along the way, the Rabbis create two types of gerim and two types of outsiders who can enter into the Jewish community—the ger toshav (a non-Jewish resident in Jewish communities) and the ger tzedek, the righteous convert who begins a Gentile and becomes a Jew.
Part Three: When Gentiles are Like Jews
In week three, we will survey rabbinic texts that emphasize times and places where the Gentile/Jewish boundary is dissolved. Specifically, in what areas of law and practice is a ger toshav treated identically to a Jew? Put another way, when does the rabbinic tradition say that essence and status are incidental and residency or behavior are all that matter? When are rights independent of political power? We will look at issues of civil law application and various forms of religious participation, among others.
Part Four: When is Essence Unavoidable?
In week four, we will look at rabbinic texts that divide between Jews and Gentiles of all sorts, including the ger toshav. When is it appropriate to treat citizens and non-citizens differently? We will look at issues of power, authority, jurisprudence and marriage, among others.
Part Five: Where Do We Go From Here?
Building off of everything we have learned, how do we proceed? Is the category of the ger toshav useful or fruitful in thinking about Gentiles living in the Jewish state of Israel? Can it point us to a set of baseline commitments we make to resident aliens and non-citizens more generally in the United States? We will use this final session to carve out some possible models for tackling these thorny questions.