There have always been Jews-by-association. Nowadays this term, JBA for short, is a catch-all category for people who hang out with Jews, including people who gravitate toward Judaism, have many Jewish friends or are partnered with someone Jewish. But the only thing that is new is the name.
Throughout our history, there have been categories of people who cast their lots with the Jewish people but, for a variety of reasons, were never fully integrated into Judaism. Some may have wanted to become fully Jewish, others not. But common to all of them was that they walked a common path with Jews.
This week’s portion teaches us about one of these categories of Jewish followers, the ger toshav, the stranger who lives among Jews. Amid a section about offering sacrifices, we read that “there shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages” (Numbers 15:15). The obligations of the ger toshav were not equivalent to those of an Israelite in every manner of the law, but in this particular sacrificial offering, the Torah tells us that “the same ritual and the same rule shall apply” (Numbers 15:16).
In Leviticus 19:34, there is even a rationale for treating the ger toshav like an Israelite: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The presence of this group of people was perhaps a daily reminder of the lessons we learned from our enslavement.
These resident strangers were even included in the ceremony of covenant when the community heard the law from Moses in Moab (Deuteronomy 29:9-11): “You stand here this day, all of you, before [Adonai] your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials … even the stranger within your camp — to enter into the covenant.”
Just as they were not full Israelites, they were not considered foreigners, either. We learn in Deuteronomy 14:21 that it is acceptable to give the resident stranger meat that is traif, or not kosher, but not to sell it to a foreigner. The ger toshav did not need to follow every letter of the law, yet was given a special status within the Jewish community.
While today we invite such fellow travelers to formally convert, in the Torah there was no mechanism for such a transition, since conversion as we know it did not exist at that time. So these strangers among us were left as they were — people who clearly cast their lot with the Jewish people. Others who walked a Jewish path in the Torah were the erev rav, the mixed multitude who left the slavery of Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites. Later in our history, during the Second Temple period, there was a category of Jews-by-association called “God-fearers.” Like those in the other categories, they were people who aligned themselves with the Israelites.
We just celebrated Shavuot, the holiday when we study the Book of Ruth. Ruth was also a Jew-by-association. She married one Israelite, followed her mother-in-law back to her people after his death and then married a second Israelite. She is hailed as the first convert, but historically, the formal conversion process was not yet established. What she did do was utter the words, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16). She declared herself a fellow traveler.
In our time, there are countless people residing within Jewish communities who consider themselves fellow travelers. Since the early centuries of the common era, we have offered a way for people to become fully integrated into Judaism: conversion. But as that category has become increasingly solidified, there has been less space for people who don’t fit neatly into one group or the other.
Conversion should be celebrated. But we should also celebrate those who would have been gerei toshav. People walk the path with the Jewish people because they love someone Jewish or simply feel an affinity with Judaism. Many are helping to raise Jewish kids, keeping this tradition thriving into the next generation.
Let this season of Ruth be an invitation to appreciate our many fellow travelers.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.