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The Torah Prohibition against Oppressing the Ger

The prohibition against oppressing a Ger (convert), which appears in Parashas Kedoshim, recalls the redemption from Egypt: “If a Ger shall live among you in your land, you shall not persecute him. The Ger who lives among you shall be as a citizen with you, and you shall love him as yourselves, for you were Gerim in the land of Egypt – I am Hashem, your G-d” (Vayikra 19:33-4).

The prohibition is already noted in Shemos (22:20): “You shall not wrong the Ger and you shall not oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. The Mechilta understands that this refers to monetary wrong and to general oppression (see also Maseches Gerim 4:1).

In the present article we will discuss whom the Ger of the Pasuk refers to, and to whom the instruction is intended. In addition, we will discuss whether the status of a Ger (on some level) applies to non-Jewish citizens of Israel today.

The Value Behind the Prohibition

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch notes that the Pesukim of Shemos and Vayikra use both singular and plural forms in addressing the nation. In Parashas Mishpatim the instruction is addressed to “you,” in the singular, whereas in Kedoshim the “you” of “you shall not wrong him” is in the plural. He understands this as addressing both the individual, when using the plural (society is made up of many individuals), and the state or society as a unit (the singular).

In his commentary to Kedoshim, Rabbi Hirsch stresses the basic idea of human dignity in the instruction:

“The great, meta-principle is oft-repeated in the Torah that it is not race, not descent, not birth nor country of origin, nor property, nor anything external or due to chance, but simply and purely the inner spiritual and moral worth of a human being, that gives him all the rights of a human being and of a citizen. This basic principle is further protected against infringement by the additional explanation … your entire misfortune in Egypt was that you were considered foreigners and aliens. As such, according to the views of other nations, you had no right to be there, had no claim to property, to homeland, or to a dignified existence. It was permissible to do to you whatever they wished. As Gerim, your rights were denied in Egypt. This was the source of the slavery and wretchedness imposed upon you.

“Therefore beware,” so runs the warning, “of making human rights in your own state conditional on anything other than on the basic humanity which every human being as such bears within him/her by virtue of being human. Any suppression of these human and civil rights opens the gate to the indiscriminate use of power and to abuse of human beings as was seen in the whole horror of Egyptian mishandling of human beings that was the root of abomination of Egypt.

“Do not ‘wrong,’ Do not ‘oppress’ … means to be illegally deprived of material or spiritual possessions … [thus, the full implication is] – Neither by words nor by deeds shall you hurt a Ger… [and] here the admonition against discriminating against Gerim is directed primarily to the state as such. It may not practice any discrimination and injustice against Gerim simply because they are Gerim. It may not impose heavier taxes nor grant lesser rights than it does to the native-born; and in no way may it restrict them in the free exercise of any means of gaining their livelihood.… The main point is not to limit where he can live, and not to take away his possessions.”

Gerim as Converts to Judaism

The Talmudic interpretation of the instruction sees the Ger as being a GerTzedek – a non-Jew who converted to Judaism and lives among the Jewish people as a full brother: “Somebody who oppresses a Ger transgresses three prohibitions… “you shall not wrong a Ger,” “if a Ger shall live among you in your land, do not wrong him,” “you shall not wrong each person his fellow” – and a Ger is included in ‘your fellow'” (Bava Metzia 59b).

The inclusion of a Ger in the concept of amitecha (your fellow) clearly indicates that he is a Jew among Jews.

This interpretation emerges from the examples given by the Midrash for cases of oppressing the Ger. The Sifra mentions: “You should not tell him: `Yesterday you worshiped idolatry, and today you have entered under the canopy of the Shechinah…’ Just as an ezrach refers to somebody who has accepted upon himself the entire Torah, so too the Ger refers to somebody who accepted upon himself the entire Torah” (Sifra, Kedoshim 8:2-3).

The Rambam (Lo Taaseh 253) Chinuch (63) and the Semag (172-3) follow similar lines, explaining that the Ger refers specifically to a full convert to Judaism. This is also the interpretation adopted by later halachic authorities.

Although the Torah forbids wronging and oppressing every fellow Jew, the verses add a special prohibition against wronging the Ger – the convert to Judaism – because of his special vulnerability. The Ger left behind his family and friends. He lacks the social protection that most of us cherish. The Torah recognizes his weakness, and offers him special protection.

It is notable that according to this interpretation the parallel between the exile of Israel in Egypt and the condition of the Ger in Israel is not precise: the Jewish people were not accepted into the Egyptian nation as converts, in contrast to the Ger tzeddek who is accepted into the Jewish people. Yet, the similarity of the conditions – of a stranger living among a strange people – is sufficient for the Torah to warn us against oppressing the Ger, “for you were Gerim in the Land of Egypt.”

Gerim as Non-Jewish Citizens

Some commentaries to the Torah interpret the Ger as referring to a non-Jewish citizen who has accepted only some mitzvos and who lives among Jews – a GerToshav (rather than a GerTzedek). Foremost among these commentaries is Ibn Ezra (Shemos 22:20), who explains that the non-Jew living among Jews has no family to rely upon, and he is thus vulnerable to oppression and to wrongdoing by regular (Jewish) citizens.

He adds that the non-Jewish foreigner is also more vulnerable to false testimony being brought against him.

According to Ibn Ezra the instruction to protect the Ger in Parashas Kedoshim follows the instruction to honor the elderly, for both are weak. He explains: “Just as the elderly Jewish person must be honored for he lacks strength, so you are warned concerning the Ger, for your strength is greater than his. He lacks strength, since he is in your land and jurisdiction.”

This broader interpretation of the warning to care for Gerim is also present in the Yerushalmi (Yevamos 8:1). Relating to a GerToshav, Maseches Gerim (3:4) teaches that he must be permitted to live on a fine plot of land, where he will be able to work and earn a living (though Maseches Gerim derives this from a different verse).

The Ger Toshav Today

A GerToshav is a non-Jew who accepts the seven Noahide Mitzvos. Although this is partially true of many non-Jews, and in particular of Arabs, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 64b) followed by the Rambam (Issurei Biyah 14:7) stipulates that this acceptance be made before a Beis Din. Moreover, we also find that the status of a GerToshav is reserved for times when the Yovel is practiced (Erchin 29b; Rambam, Avodas Kochavim 10:6).

In spite of these qualifications, some authorities, dating to the first days of the State and even earlier, ruled that non-Jewish minorities living in Israel have the status of a GerToshav, and must therefore receive basic or even equal rights to Jewish citizens.

This was the opinion of Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog (Shut Heichal Yitzchak, Even Ha-Ezer 1:12), who wrote that “an entire nation that accepts upon itself the upkeep of the seven mitzvos receives the status of a GerToshav even today.” Rav Herzog extended this ruling to include even Christian Arabs living in Israel (“The Status of Minorities in Halachah [Hebrew],” Techumin 2 p. 172), and his approach has been cited and adopted repeatedly by Israeli courts of law in giving non-Jews equal rights to Jews (see also the opinion of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Shut Mishpat Kohen nos. 58, 61, as based on the Meiri).

Yet, this remains very much a minority opinion in Halachah, and other authorities both earlier and later (see Ha-Pardes 26 pp. 7-13) ruled that non-Jews today are not given the status of a GerToshav, both because the Yovel is not practiced and because the non-Jews did not declare their acceptance of the mitzvos before a Jewish beis din.

In addition, a fundamental principle of becoming a GerToshav is the acceptance of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. Concerning many Israeli Arabs, such an acceptance remains questionable, and therefore their status as GereiToshav remains more than questionable.

At the same time, even without the full status of a Ger Toshav, the Raavad (in his glosses on the Rambam) writes that a non-Jew who keeps the seven mitzvos is permitted to live on the land, and the Ritva (Makkos 9a) notes that mitzvah-observant non-Jews retain a partial status of a Ger Toshav.

The State regards it is part of its basic democratic nature to give all citizens equal rights. In addition, international law and treaties obligate the State of Israel to bequeath equal rights to all citizens, and it is possible that this international treaty and agreement will be binding even according to halachah. A broader discussion of this idea requires an article unto itself.

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