In this week's Torah portion, Abraham approaches the Hittites after the death of his wife, Sarah, to negotiate the purchase of a burial site. He opens the conversation by saying, "I am a resident stranger amongst you." In Hebrew, the word for stranger is ger (גר), and its proper translation is filled with uncertainty.
According to scholars, the meaning of ger in the Hebrew bible is "sojourner, temporary dweller, new-comer" (from A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Brown, Driver and Briggs). That definition appears to make perfect sense in the context of Abraham with the Hittites. He is living in a land that is not his birthplace. He has no inherited rights to land or burial, so he must procure those rights through bargaining a price for purchase.
However, in rabbinic Hebrew, the word ger is understood differently. To the rabbis, a ger is a convert, someone who has joined the people of Israel.
It's not hard to see how the two meanings could be blended, or how one could be transformed into the other. All converts were, at one time, people who were strangers (i.e., non-Jews) within the Jewish community. When the Torah speaks of the "strangers" who lived among the Israelites during their wandering through the desert (e.g., Exodus 12:19, Numbers 15:20), it is easy to imagine that the text is speaking of the "mixed multitude" of Egyptians who came with the Israelites out of Egypt and decided to join them.
Even in this week's Torah portion, when Abraham calls himself a ger, both meanings can make sense. Abraham is a stranger living among the Hittites. Abraham is a convert to Judaism; in fact, he is the very first convert. The text can be understood either way.
The problem, though, arises in translating other texts that use this word. Repeatedly, the Hebrew Bible commands us to "love the ger":
The ger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.
– Leviticus 19:34
[God] upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the ger, providing him with food and clothing.
– Deuteronomy 10:18
Thus says Adonai of Hosts: Deal in true justice and show love and compassion to each other. Do not abuse the widow, the orphan, the ger and the poor…
However, if the word only means "convert," then we will find that there is nothing in the Bible that commands us to love and show compassion to anyone outside our own nation and tribe. That does not seem possible to us. The Bible proclaims the God of Israel to be the only God – the God of all the world. How could it tell us to be indifferent to non-Jews? The Bible says that all human beings are created in the image of God. How could it not command us to love every image of God, not just those from our own people?
This is a challenge for our own times. We are living in a Jewish community that has increasing numbers of gerim, in both meanings of the word. In the congregation I serve, and in Jewish congregations across North America, there are unprecedented numbers of men and women who have decided to join the Jewish people. Many of them made that decision because of their decision to marry a Jew. Many of them decided to become Jewish without having a Jewish spouse. The ger who is a convert is among us and we are commanded to love him or her just as we love the person who was born a Jew.
We also are a Jewish community that has unprecedented numbers of non-Jews in our midst. These most often are the men and women who attend our services and participate in our community, not because they are Jewish, but because they are part of a Jewish family. Many of these "gerim" have decided to raise their children as Jews. Many donate generously to the Jewish community. Some find that the spiritual experiences they have in the synagogue are compelling and meaningful in ways that they never found in the religion of their upbringing. Many grew up without any religion to speak of.
There are many reasons why such non-Jews decide not to convert. Some have maintained a loyalty to the religion of their birth. Some do not wish to upset their families by formally leaving their religion. Some find that they do not wish to convert because they do not feel compelled to do so by their personal beliefs, even if they find Judaism to be beautiful and meaningful tradition for their families.
Yet, it is true that such non-Jewish participants in the Jewish community make us a better community and their commitment helps others to live better as Jews. The ger who is a non-Jew is also among us and we are commanded to love him or her just as we love the person who was born a Jew or the person who has converted to Judaism.
And this, perhaps, is what Abraham is reminding us in this week's Torah reading. He says, "I am a resident ger among you." Do not read ger as "stranger" and do not read it as "convert." Instead, understand that Abraham is telling the Hittites that they should deal with him justly and treat him as they would treat their own people. He has come to merit such treatment because he has made himself a part of their community in loyalty and in kindness. He is a ger. And so we should treat all of our gerim, whether they have formally converted or not.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Chayei Sarah: Living a Whole Life
Behar: Do Not Wrong One Another