Timing really is everything. A few weeks ago, I posted on my blog a diatribe on the subject of Judaism’s failure to deal with the ger toshav, the resident stranger who lives with the community. Here’s a link to that blog posting "Equal Rights to Rites for All."
Yes, it is a controversial position within the Jewish community. The role of non-Jewish spouses and family members continues to be a makhlokhet in the Jewish community. Few congregations have become as liberal as I have suggested (I endorse full rights of participation in ritual activities by persons who are truly a ger toshav, yet for whatever reason, have not chosen the path of conversion.)
How interesting, then, that the most important and powerful words in Torah regarding this question appear in this week’s parasha, Shelakh L’kha.
To be fair, let us place the words in context. What has preceded has been the sending of spies to scout out the land, their fearful, negative reports (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) and the resultant consequence that G"d decides to punish the people in that no one of the present generations who came out of Egypt shall enter into the promised land, save Joshua and Caleb. After G"d doles out this punishment, the people stubbornly try to make up for their failure, failing to realize, however, that once again, they are going against G"d’s words. They had their chance and the blew it. G"d no longer protected them, and they suffered harshly in their attempt.
Immediately following this, G"d continues instructing the people on what to do when they enter the land. It is as if the previous things had not happened at all. Commentators try to spin this as G"d trying to offer hope, that although most now living will not get into the promised land, the future generations of Israel will. They even go so far as to suggest that the commandment for tzitzit, which appears at the end of the parasha, is part of this process of G"d reminding the people that G"d is still with them, and G"d’s promises will be kept. There’s a whole musing in this someday.
After the punishment (which included not only being prevented from entering the promised land, and utter defeat for the people who still chose to try and go on to the promised land, yet also death by plague for many who failed to heed G"d’s instructions) G"d nonchalantly continues with instructions of how to properly offer animal gifts once settled in the land. After these instructions, which specify different amounts and accompaniments for different types of animals to be sacrificed or used a burnt offerings appear that words that so interest me.
It starts by saying, referring to the rules just given, that:
15:13 "Kol ha-ezrakh ya’aseh-kakha, et eileh l’hakriv ishei reiakh ni-kho’akh l’Ad"nai"
"Every citizen, when presenting a gift of pleasing odor to the L"rd shall do so with them." (JPS)
Notice that it does NOT say "every Israelite." It says "Ha-ezrakh," which means "the native." In fact, the very derivation of the word "ha-ezrakh" makes suspicious even the contention of those who chose to translate it as referring to the native Israelite. The root of the word, zayin-resh-khet, means "to rise" so the word can be looked upon as meaning "one who has arisen." Imposed upon this meaning are usually the additional words "from the native soil" but there’s only inconclusive contextual proof for this addition to the word’s meaning. JPS utilizes a broader definition, referring to one who was clearly a free-born tribesperson, entitled to a stake in the land as befits tribal status.
In any case, when it comes to eretz Israel, there’s an awful lot of confusion about exactly who the "natives" are. Even the first, Avraham, was an immigrant! So what does it mean to be a "native"?
One could possibly infer, from the fact that the following verses then speak about the "ger toshav," the resident stranger, that this is indeed a separate class from "ezrakh" or native. This isn’t clearly or even obviously the case, but I won’t argue that here.
Here’s how the JPS translates the next 3 verses
14: And when, throughout the ages, a stranger who has taken up residence among you, or one who lives among you, would present a gift of pleasing odor to the L"rd–as you do, so shall it be done 15 by the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the L"rd; 16 the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you."
Now let’s just look at this plainly. It clearly permits the resident stranger to voluntarily participate in ritual sacrifice. (Later scholars try to limit the scope of this by interpreting v. 16 to imply that this is a specific case, for this law and this ritual only. I, personally, find that difficult to exegete from the text, and can only think of attempts to do so as eisegetical-reading back into the text what you want it to say.
"Surely the Torah didn’t want us to allow anyone to partake in the sacred rituals of the Jewish people." That’s the sort of thinking that has brought us to where we are today, where hundred, if not thousands of people who would truly qualify as a ger toshav, a resident stranger, and who wish to participate in ritual, are denied that opportunity on the basis of their not being a member of the tribe. I see this discrimination as in clear violation of the Torah’s intent as set forth in this parasha.
"How can we permit a non-Jew to hold a Torah, to say words that speak of the covenant, or our chosen-ness?" My response is "how can we not permit it, if someone, as a ger toshav, so chooses?"
In ancient times, it was quite customary for travelers to worship at the local temple, and to offer gifts to the local gods as well as their god. This even in a time when people believed in the existence of more than one G"d. A house of worship is a house of worship, was the attitude. When in Rome, as they say…
"This makes a mockery of belief." Does it? In our modern sensibilities, we all (or most of us, at least) believe we are all praying to the same G"d, perhaps just different manifestations. While I might not choose to profess my faith in G"d through the use of Xtian liturgy that includes specific reference to a certain itinerant rabbi/carpenter from Nazareth, I might certainly choose to express myself with other pieces of their liturgy in addition to that of my own faith system. "Aha!," you say. "You wouldn’t mention Jesus. Well, how can we allow a non-Jew to speak of covenant, of our special relationship with G’d?" Somehow I suspect that if I chose to go into a church and utter a prayer using Jesus’ name, even if all there knew I was a practicing, un-baptized Jew, no one would stop me. They wouldn’t question my motivations, and if they did, I would respond. Now, the reality is, I would not do such a thing because I would not be doing it with appropriate kavanah, intent, but rather with less meaningful intentions. Yet how are we to determine or judge the intent of others?
If the resident stranger wants to make the modern equivalent of a sacrifice, which is the sacrifice that comes from our lips, who are we to stand in judgment of their motives? They are moved, for whatever reason, to be a participant in the Jewish community, and feel moved to say the words of a particularistic Jewish prayer/blessing, or desire to partake in a particularistic ritual (like handling the Torah.) According to the text of the Torah in Bamidbar/Numbers 15:14-16, that ger toshav should be permitted to do so, provided they do it the same way as everyone else in the community.
I just can’t see those verses being interpreted any other way, and I am saddened that for so long we have used these verses meant to be inclusive to be exclusivist instead.
We’ve stood up for civil rights for people of color. We’re standing up for rights for the GLBT community. How can we ignore the community of gerim toshvim in our midst and deny them their Torah-given rights?
The time has come that there shall be one law for us and the strangers who reside with us.
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester