The Ger, Inclusion, and True Religiosity
I recently had the opportunity to deliver a shiur on the topic of inclusion of people with disabilities. As a model for a Torah approach to this issue, I looked at the mitzvot relating to the ger. One of those mitzvot occurs in Parashat Ekev, the mitzvah to love the ger: “Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Devarim, 10:19).
The ger of the Torah is, at the pshat level, the resident alien, the person who is not a citizen but resides in our land. Because she lives among us, we are responsible to ensure that she be given equal protection under the law, and we must protect her from possible abuse. The ger is an outsider, someone vulnerable and easily excluded, but because she is among us, we must treat her like one of us.
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the Torah’s ger not as a resident alien but as a convert. Living as they did after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews no longer had sovereignty, the categories of identity were based not on citizenship and geography but on religious affiliation. The ger was someone who came from outside our religion but now, having converted, she is now one of us, and we must ensure that she is not mistreated because of whence she came.
The mitzvot regarding the ger – whether the prohibitions against afflicting and oppressing her or the mitzvah to love her – are all sourced in the reason that we too were strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot, 22:20 & 23:9; Vayikra, 19:34). When we were powerless, we knew what it meant to be marginal, to be outsiders. When we have power, we can never forget those who are in similar circumstances. Such people can easily become invisible. Our historical memory must compel us to see such people and to ensure that they are treated as full equals.
The principles expressed here are readily applicable to people with disabilities, people who are indeed one of us but who are easily marginalized and overlooked by those with power, by those making the decisions and allocations and setting communal priorities. In such cases, it is not always easy to evoke the empathy that the Torah calls for. However, if it is not possible to call upon a shared past history, we can nevertheless call upon a shared future. As we teach our students during our immersive training on disabilities: The world is not divided into those with disabilities and those without; it is divided into those with disabilities and those who do not yet have disabilities. As we grow old, we start to lose some of our normal physical abilities. We might be the person who is wheelchair bound and needs a ramp. We might be the person with failing eyesight who needs a large print siddur.
I find that I must remind myself of this message. When I am standing in the supermarket line and the elderly lady ahead of me is taking forever to make change and I start getting all worked up – “I can’t believe how long she is taking! I need to get out of here. I can’t wait this long!” – I must remember that in 20 years that person could be me. What would I hope from the people standing behind me in line if I were that person? And you know what? That little bit of empathy completely changes my perspective. It is to remember that we all will be strangers in the land of Egypt.
But that is not the whole story, for in this week’s parasha, the Torah gives another reason for this mitzvah:
For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who regards not persons, nor takes any reward. He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Love you therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Devarim, 10:17–19).
We must have concern for the ger, the Torah is telling us, because God loves the ger. If we are to strive to be like God, to live a Godly life, then we must love the stranger; we must care for the orphan and the widow.
The theological point implicit in these verses is spelled out in a statement of Rabbi Yochanan at the end of Megillah (31a):
Rabbi Yochanan said: Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is God of gods… the great, the mighty and awe-inspiring God…” And it is written afterwards: “He upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.”
God’s greatness, Rabbi Yochanan is telling us, is not expressed by God’s total otherness or by God’s withdrawal from this world. God’s greatness is in paying attention to each individual, to the unnoticed, to the small and forgotten.
There is a profound lesson here regarding what true religiosity means. For so many people, to be more religious means to act in ways that are particularistic, are ritual-focused, and serve to distinguish a person from the normal society around him or her. Heightened scrupulousness about kashrut or wearing distinctive clothing makes a person more frum, while not cheating in business, not lying, and working at a homeless shelter might make a person more ethical but not, in this reckoning, more religious.
This problem is of course not a new one. Isaiah – as we read just two weeks ago – calls out to the people: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Lord… Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah, 1: 11, 17). It is a problem that continues to plague us today. It manifests itself in the rationalizing of some people to act immorally because they are so scrupulous in ritual matters. And it manifests itself in the issuing of halakhic rulings which set unnecessarily high bars for ritual performance and participation, seeing these – and not the demand for inclusion, the protection of those most easily rejected and marginalized – as the religious realms that need to be most protected.
It is not hard to guess at the reason for this. Ritual, particularistic acts make a person feel different, singled out, special. In very visible and real ways such a person stands out from the society surrounding her. She can tell herself that she is better than those who act and look like everyone else. More to the point, it creates a distinct identity. There is nothing special about acting ethically – that’s universal. Even non-Jews do that. To act and dress differently, however, well, that’s what makes one Jewish. What else is holy, what else is being like God, if not to be separate and different from the world?
Rabbi Yochanan tells us that if this is how we are thinking then we’ve missed the boat. Without a doubt, the ritual, particularistic laws are a core part of our obligations and religious life. But if we really want to be like God, we would do well to look at the passage about the ger. For God’s expression of God’s greatness and complete otherness is in God’s ability to take care of those forgotten individuals, to do those basic ethical deeds that everyone else is too important to attend to. To live a Godly life is to live a life with exquisite attention to the poor, the disenfranchised, and the suffering.
Rav Moshe Feinstein says this better than I ever could. According to one opinion in the Talmud by which we rule, a ger cannot serve in a position of authority. Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked if, given this, a ger could serve as a Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Moshe responds:
However, in practice you should now, that the mitzvah of “and you shall love the ger,” requires us to bring them (converts) close and to be lenient regarding all these things. Therefore, after great thought, it appears that we need not consider such appointments in our time like appointments of authority… (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 4:26).
Rav Moshe concludes that this is not a position of authority since a Rosh Yeshiva’s power comes from an agreement between parties (the students’ parents and the school) and is not imposed perforce from above. What is key, though, is that when faced with a conflict between the mandate of caring for the ger and the rule excluding the ger from certain roles, Rav Moshe, while never compromising on the rigorous application of halakha, states in no uncertain terms that it is the mitzvah to love the ger that must guide us and that we must be the most strict about. This is what it means to be like God and to live a Godly life.