In the rather cut-and-dry world of the Bible, one was identified by the people one was born in to, and kept that identity regardless of where one lived or whom one married. Israelites were Israelites by birth and anyone else was a ger, literally a “stranger”; there was no conversion process as we understand it today.
Like modern-day resident aliens here in the United States, the biblical ger living in ancient Israel agreed to follow Israelite laws and customs. In fact, Numbers 15:14-16 actually commands that they are to be allowed to bring sacrifices to G-d despite not being Israelites: “The same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you (verse 16).”
As we adjusted to being in the Diaspora during the talmudic era, our rabbinic sages adapted the concept of “stranger” (ger in Hebrew) in to two categories: the ger tzedek (literally the “righteous stranger) who is the equivalent of the biblical ger and who we today categorize as a convert to Judaism, and the ger toshav (literally the “resident stranger”) who was understood as one who lives peacefully among us but does not accept all of our laws and customs nor necessarily refrain from their own while among us (see Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 124:1).
As time went on, and we became the clear minority living amongst an often-hostile majority rather than them living amongst us, circumstances made that distinction between gerim somewhat irrelevant. You were either one of us or one of them and anyone from either side who chose to live on the other side of the divide became a literal stranger to their family and community.
Times changed, though, and today us and them live beside each other in legal and cultural equality. In fact, many of them actively seek to live with us, and it will surprise no one that whether someone is accepted as a ger tzedek or a ger toshav today is very subjective. The cut-and-dry communal criteria used in the biblical world have been supplanted by the sliding scale of individual belief and affiliation. We live in an age where one can self-define as halachically, theologically, culturally, ethnically, politically or socially Jewish. One’s family, friends, rabbi, their congregation’s membership committee, demographic researchers, the Federation, the government of Israel and, most importantly, even they themselves may define their status between the two gerim differently at the same time.
For the vast majority of our diverse community today, being a Member of the Tribe is more socially weighted on personal desire than committed adherence and this is an altogether new reality with no halachic or historic precedent for the Jewish community. Our communal institutions adopt terminology to reflect this new paradigm such as “open,” “welcoming” and “inclusive” that convey a message of honoring chosen identity in anyone who decides to dwell with us, whether by birth or by choice.
So if our institutions can adapt their terminology to this new social reality, perhaps we should do it individually as well. After all, in an age where we regularly “friend’ someone we have never met in person, perhaps we should refer to someone who chooses to join our community as something more than a “stranger.”
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)