The idea for this paper on Ger Toshav came late one night when I received a phone call from a friend who was horrified that her husband had been asked to be a witness for a ketubah (Jewish wedding certificate) of a couple about to intermarry. In her opinion, although the groom had done mikvah (ritual bath), he was not prepared to call himself a Jew. The rabbi, however, had considered him a Ger Toshav, someone who had allied with the Jewish people, and was willing to perform the marriage.
I called the rabbi who was doing the wedding, who happened to be a friend of mine, and asked her to explain her rationale. I had never heard of the category of Ger Toshav and was interested to hear her interpretation. Marsha, the Rabbi, said that she was trying out this new formula as a way to deal with intermarriage. "Conversion is a scary word and most people are not ready to give up their past identity. However, many non-Jews have agreed to raise their children Jewish and affiliate with the Jewish people." was Marsha's reply.
When I reflected on her words, I thought back to my experiences with synagogues and community. Yes, inevitably in just about every situation there had been a non-Jew who had never fully converted, but was accepted as part of the community. I was intrigued enough to investigate the traditional ramifications of the status of Ger Toshav and see if there were truly grounds for creating a new category of people who affiliate and live with us.
There are five places where Ger Toshav is mentioned in the Torah (Exodus 12:45, Lev. 25:6, Lev. 25:40, Lev. 25:47 and Lev. 25:55). This term Ger Toshav is translated as "temporary resident," "landed immigrant," or "resident alien," in other words it means someone who has a "green card" and is accepted into the society except for a few key privileges.
I believe a case can be made for the establishment of a redefined category of Ger Toshav. These days we are confronted by the alarming statistics of intermarriage and just do not know what to do with the numbers of unclassified people that join our ranks. There are thousands of people who have married Jews, having agreed to raise their children Jewish, or who are participating in our communities without undergoing formal conversion. We are uncomfortable calling them Jews, yet they need to be welcomed into our community and their status clarified. It is our responsibility to educate and welcome the resident alien. We need all the allies we can get.
I am suggesting that we borrow from our tradition, which has taught us that there are ways besides formal conversion to affiliate with our communities. I offer the following ideas for practical application of the resurrection of the Ger Toshav category:
1. A mikvah for the non-Jewish man or woman before the wedding, given a stated intention to raise future children as Jews and to live as Jews. This person would be called a Ger Toshav and may or may not officially convert immediately. He or she would, however, be granted full status as a Jew (if he or she were so inclined) if after the required seven years he or she had lived in this manner.
2. A study program for intermarried couples, or non-Jews who were interested in Judaism, culminating in a public ceremony at the end of the process to welcome these Ger Toshavim into our communities. The ceremony may or may not include a full mikvah (ritual bath). However, I would suggest that water be used in some respect, perhaps as a footwashing ceremony (as Abraham welcomed his angelic guests). The participants would be encouraged to make some sort of offering to the synagogue, symbolic of the sacrifices that the resident alien used to make to the Temple. These people will be taught the Seven Noachite Commandments* and be encouraged to follow them and peruse further study.
3. Even if no formal study program is undertaken, but the non-Jew has shown love, support, and loyalty over a period of time, some ceremony to admit him or her into our ranks is in order. At Achayot Or, a women's community that meets once a year, a non-Jew was "woven" into the community. The person was put into the center of the room and a red ball of yarn was passed from person to person while entangling the non-Jew. In this way she was symbolically bound to the community and woven into the fabric of our lives. She then read a statement of her commitment to the community. She made a donation to the group and she received presents on her confirmation as an official non-Jewish member of a Jewish group, a resident alien or Ger Toshav.
These proposed ceremonies would be sponsored by the community as a way to welcome these allies, to encourage their study, to recognize their affiliation, friendship and support. This ceremony is not an individual conversion process, but a welcoming and sanctifying of the resident alien in our midst.
The creation of this new status would by no means preclude the conversion process. In fact in some cases, if the process is taken seriously, this could be seen as a half-way step to full conversion. This solution is an attempt to clarify the status of those who love and support us and join our communal ranks.
*Seven Noachite Commandments
1. Thou shalt not engage in idol worship.
2. Thou shalt not blaspheme God.
3. Thou shalt not shed innocent blood of any human being nor fetus nor ailing person who has a limited time to live.
4. Thou shalt not engage in bestiality, incestuous, adulterous or homosexual relations nor commit the act of rape.
5. Thou shalt not steal.
6. Thou shalt establish laws and courts of law to administer these laws, including the death penalty for those who kill, administered only if there is one testifying eye witness.
7. Thou shalt not be cruel to animals.