Immigration in Judaism - Dr. Marvin Sweeney, Professor of Hebrew Bible.

Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 11AM

Immigration in Judaism - Dr. Marvin Sweeney, Professor of Hebrew Bible. Professor Marvin Sweeney offers context for the role of the immigrant in the Hebrew Bible for the Interfaith Weekend of Compassion and Prayer for Unaccompanied Migrant Children.


Marvin A. Sweeney
Claremont School of Theology
Academy for Jewish Religion California

Immigration of foreigners into the land of Israel is well-recognized in Judaism. Although modern American culture separates issues of state from issues of religion, the Hebrew Bible does not differentiate between them. The Bible employs the plural Hebrew term, gerim (singular, ger), which means “resident aliens” in biblical Hebrew and “converts” in rabbinic Hebrew. Gerim, “resident aliens,” are foreigners who live in the land of Israel in biblical times and converts to Judaism from the rabbinic period through modern times. In the Hebrew Bible, gerim are expected to worship YHWH while they reside in the land of Israel (Lev 20:2; cf. Ezek 14:5-8).

They were expected to observe Shabbat (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14); the religious holidays (Deut 16:11, 14); and to fast on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:29). They were allowed to present offerings at the Temple (Lev 17:8; 22:18; Num 15:14), and if they were circumcised, they could offer the Passover lamb (Exod 12:48-49; Num 9:14). Gerim were subject to the laws of religious purity (Num 19:2-10); incest (Lev 18:26); and some of the laws of Kashrut (Lev 17:10; but see Deut 14:21). Examples of gerim include Doeg the Edomite (1 Sam 21:8); Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11:11); and Ruth (Ruth 1-4).

Although the Bible recognizes gerim, it does not require Israel to seek them out so that they might come to the land of Israel. But once gerim are resident in the land, Israel is expected to grant them equal protection under the law (Deut 1:16; cf. Deut 4:17; 27:19). The Torah reminds Israel that they were once gerim themselves (Gen 15:13; 23:4; Exod 2:22; 22:20). Genesis 12, which portrays Abram and Sarai in the land of Egypt during a period of famine, illustrates the vulnerability of gerim in a foreign land when Abram is compelled to identify Sarai as his sister to avoid being killed by Egyptian men who would take her.

The memory of Israel’s experience as gerim informs the Torah’s expectations concerning Israel’s treatment of gerim. Israel is therefore expected to see to the welfare of the gerim (Lev 19:34; Deut 10:19). As foreigners, gerim might acquire wealth (Lev 25:47), but most are assumed to be poor and vulnerable (Exod 20:10; 23:12; Deut 5:14). Gerim were therefore granted the rights of the poor in Israelite society, viz., they were entitled to a share of fallen fruit in the vineyards (Lev 19:10); the edges of the fields (Lev 23:22); the gleanings of the harvest (Lev 23:22); the tithe of the third year (Deut 14:29); and the produce of the Sabbatical Year (Lev 25:6). Gerim, like Israelites, could serve as debt slaves (Lev 25:45-46), but Israelites could not serve as debt slaves to gerim. But an Israelite could serve as a hired laborer to a ger ((Lev 25:50).

Gerim might ultimately be assimilated into Israelite society, depending upon their background. Isaiah 56:1-8 permits foreigners to become a part of Israel if they observe the Shabbat and the other requirements of Israel’s covenant. Edomites and Egyptians could be admitted to the congregation of YHWH in the third generation (Deut 23:8-9), but Ammonites and Moabites were forbidden even in the tenth generation (Deut 23:4). The example of Ruth indicates that there was disagreement at least on the status of Moabites in the Bible. Such laws indicate that Israel established criteria by which gerim might be permitted to reside in the land of Israel. Such examples also became the paradigms for conversion to Judaism in the Hellenistic and Rabbinic periods.

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