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Friday, April 22, 2011

Bamidbar 9:14 – Who is a “Geir”? And do we care?

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If online activity is any indication, huge numbers of non-Jews are observing Pesach – perhaps more this year than at any time since the Exodus. 

Lots of these people consider themselves “Hebrew Christians” (often called Messianic Jews, but I don’t use that term, since most are admittedly not Jews), and when they’re talking about Pesach, one verse comes up time and time again – Bamidbar (Numbers) 9:14:

וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַי־הֹוָ־ה כְּחֻקַּת הַפֶּסַח וּכְמִשְׁפָּטוֹ כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה חֻקָּה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְלַגֵּר וּלְאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ

If a GEIR dwells with you, and he makes a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, according to the statutes of the Passover sacrifice and its ordinances he shall make it. One statute shall apply to you, to the GEIR and to the native-born citizen.

These folks claim the word “geir” means they ought to be included in observing Pesach.  In fact, they feel downright offended if we suggest that we don’t WANT to include them, or that they ought not be included.

The word geir can be a confusing one, and I have deliberately not translated it.  It comes from a root meaning to “dwell” – and we’re told in the Haggadah that Yaakov went down to Mitzrayim “lagur sham” – to dwell there.  In Mitzrayim, then, he was a geir.

In my reading, I’ve come across two types of “geir” – a geir toshav, a non-Jew who happens to be living among Jews, and a geir tzedek, a righteous convert – in English, a proselyte.  For the most part, a geir toshav is not obligated in things, while a geir tzedek is obligated in almost everything.

Rashi and other primary Jewish commentators interpret the word “geir” in the verse above to mean a convert, and indeed, this is its contemporary usage.  Perhaps before Rashi’s time, it was more common for non-Jews to hang about at the edges of Jewish encampments, but I’d imagine that in the centuries before and after Rashi, with Jews being so unpopular in medieval Europe (and indeed, around the world), that either type of geir would have been a rare thing.

These days, it’s nothing to read the word as GEIR and see it as meaning a convert – and it’s nothing to assume that, of course, there will be one law for geirim and born Jews.  Why the heck should we draw an arbitrary line when there are so many wonderful geirim breathing life into our communities… and, sadly, so many born Jews who don’t even know the first thing about their Jewish heritage?

But here’s the thing I realized, while puzzling over the interpretation of this word:

How you translate the word GEIR actually makes very little difference in terms of Christian attachment to this festival.  Either way, their interpretation just doesn’t hold together.

As I said, these messiah-following non-Jews lay claim to the word “geir,” add themselves in retroactively with the eirev rav (intermingled Egyptians who came out of Mitzrayim) and decide they are equally entitled to observe Pesach.

Entitled, indeed, but mysteriously enough, not obligated.  Any claim that they are OBLIGATED to keep Passover is already a little iffy, because they also believe they are redeemed only through their messiah’s blood.  In the words of one congregation, “We keep the commandments out of wanting to demonstrate our love and devotion for our Creator… [not] to earn salvation or make our Creator obliged to us in any way.”

In other words, their observance, as a “demonstration of love,” is entirely voluntary.  It strikes me as rather bizarre that they can ignore the rest of Bamidbar – no, the entire rest of the Torah – which states unequivocally that Pesach is utterly obligatory on all of bnei Yisrael and on geirim.

An obligation is an obligation whether or not you feel like observing it.  Whether you “feel the love” or not, Pesach is coming, so you’d better get your houses clean (Shemos 12:15) and your sacrifices (Bamidbar 9:11) ready.  Nowhere at all is it presented as optional or dependent on your current mood and level of devotion.

In fact, devotion plays a surprisingly small role in Jewish observance.  One of the interesting things I learned early on is that Judaism suggests there is a greater reward for obligatory service than for voluntary service.  Why?

Having volunteered for various things in my life, I can tell you that it’s a good, good feeling.  You get up in the morning all purposeful, feeling like you’re making a difference in the world – feeling inspired, holy.  Maybe not every time you volunteer, but in general, don’t you get just a little self-righteous, knowing you’re doing your part to better the world? 

Well, that marvellous feeling is a REWARD.  It is perhaps THE reward for volunteering.  Because it feels so good, Judaism teaches that our reward from Hashem does not necessarily need to be so great.

On the other hand, how does an obligation feel?  Say, the obligation to be standing upright, reasonably alert, and strapped into a pair of tefillin in time for a 7 am minyan?  Pretty icky, most days, I’d imagine.  There is no marvellous feeling, and most days, you might not come away with the sense that you’ve changed the world much one way or the other.

Look at the Jewish concept of charity:  or rather, tzedaka.  Charity is a bad translation, or rather, translation through a Christian lens.  As caritas, it is identified with the “agape” type of love; the inclination of one’s heart.  Whereas, as tzedaka, it is identified  most closely with justice through its root word, צדק, tzedek.  As Wikipedia puts it, “unlike philanthropy, which is completely voluntary, tzedakah is seen as a religious obligation”.

Tzedakah, prayer and, yes, the commandments involved in keeping Pesach have NOTHING whatsoever to do with feeling good, with feeling inclined, or devoted, with love or any particular feeling at all…but we do it anyway. 

It occurs to me that these people’s understanding of the word “statute” in the verse above (I’ve often seen it translated as “law”) is highly flawed if they believe that it refers only to an optional devotion. 

Imagine if you said there should be one “traffic statute” for born Canadians and immigrants.  Makes sense!  We really should all stop at red lights – it doesn’t matter where you were born.  But imagine if, by “statute,” you meant, “stop if you feel like it.”  That’s what they’re doing with the word “statute” in this verse.  That’s why we do it anyway, regardless of how we’re feeling about it on that particular day.

So we do it anyway, and we are rewarded anyway.  Not, as that one church website suggests, because “our Creator is obliged to us in some way,” but because Hashem is a God who keeps promises – He gave us these observances, and he is obliged to himself.

We do not “earn salvation” through Pesach or any other particular mitzvah; our salvation is assured because we are judged with love by Godly standards of righteousness, which are both infinitely more exacting and infinitely more merciful than any justice we could ever imagine ourselves.

Often, the holiday is its own reward, and certainly, I have felt blessed to be surrounded by loving family and friends, clever and cute children (each one cleverer and cuter than the next!), enjoying rare leisure time and occasionally, a bit of pleasant spring weather (not this year, I’m afraid).

Please don’t think I’m belittling feeling, of devotion, love – we are, after all, commanded to love God; what a crazy paradox, and a complete drash in itself for another day.  I really believe Judaism could use a bit more love and a ton more kavannah (intentionality in mitzvah observance). 

Nevertheless, I do believe – and I guess this is what makes me “Orthodox,” despite any kicking and screaming I do over the label – that observance comes first.  That when we accepted the Torah, we said “Naaseh” before “Nishmah” – “first, we will do it… and only then will we listen”; figure out what it all means and how we can bring feeling into it without losing the essential actions of this religion, which is so much more than a faith.

One final thought, which occurred to me last week in the depths of scrubbing:  some of those most vehement about their right to claim Jewish festivals would probably also be most vehemently against diluting Christian beliefs and celebrations, whether to secularize them or to superimpose meanings which distort their unique nature. 

Easter isn't simply a "spring holiday" and Christmas isn't primarily a "gift-giving holiday".   Christians adamantly defend the "reason for the season," and I’ve felt their pain at the idea of bland, meaningless but inclusive "seasonal" celebrations stripped of any Christian symbols so as not to offend anyone (except maybe Christians).

This thought left me wondering what it will take to finally earn us the right to protest the misappropriation of our own, God-given, festivals.  Alas, I sense this is a losing battle, and all I’m doing is sitting on the sidelines, chronicling the story as it unfolds, when what I really ought to be doing is… laundry.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I find myself in quite the mess.....I love Torah but I am not a Jew. Christians look at my lifestyle and accuse me of being a Jew. You might look at my lifestyle and accuse me a Christian. I do not call myself a Christian and I do not go to church on Sunday and I do not celebrate Easter or Christmas which I consider to be pagan holidays. I believe as a believer in Yeshua/Jesus that I should celebrate the holidays he kept. He was a Jew. He kept the Torah. So I do not fit in anywhere. Jews do not want me and Christians do not want me. So, my husband and I do the best we can alone. We read Torah. Every Torah cycle we put a bit more into practice.

Kristina said...

Delurking to comment. I tried earlier but there was some error, so here's basically the same thing but shorter.

I have a few issues with your response. First, I think that more Christians observing Pesach demonstrates a shift in thinking from "you killed our Christ" to "your traditions are the basis of our faith and we honor and respect them", which I fail to see as a bad thing.

Second, we are are a Christian Family with a Jewish Daddy. Daddy is not very observant at all, but when we got married, I decided to keep Passover for him so that our children could have a connection to their heritage from his family, and so that they could understand what we consider to be a story of foreshadowing in addition to a story of divine providence.

As a religion major, one of my final thesis papers was on Messianic Jews, who suffer for lack of tolerance from both Christians and Jews. Christians who refute their adherence to Jewish laws and Jews who refute their acceptance of Christ.

To me, it comes down to this. There are Spanish Jews and Russian Jews and Indonesian Muslims and Greek Christians. These people are permitted by their religious communities to keep both a religious adherence and a cultural identity. While, admittedly, the lines between culture and religion are blurred to the point of not existing in Judaism, we see in Humanistic Judaism that there is a claim to a culture and a tradition absent a faith in a particular deity. Why then would you deny people their cultural heritage in addition to their faith?

Your comments about Christmas are a little off track, too. There is a huge difference between Christians observing Passover as a religious holiday and the mainstream media/commercialism totally hijacking a religious event and turning it secular. While there may be additional meaning for Christians in the Passover, there is also the orthodox meaning of the fulfillment of a covenant to care for a people. There are still the same questions, the same plagues, the same authority over the night. That is completely different than Jewish children being bombarded with stories on TV and images in the media about some imaginary man in a blue suit who is all about "giving and love, the true spirit of Passover".

I can understand where you want to remain separate and unique as a part of an elect people, but in this case, I fail completely to see the harm.

Jennifer in MamaLand said...

@Kristina - so sorry your original post was lost, but I'm glad you tried again!

I have trouble with secular humanistic Judaism, too, if that helps (why do I doubt it does?). My grandparents weren't religious, and my father's parents were big into building today's "humanistic" or "cultural" Judaism.

The big question there is, WHICH Jewish culture will be preserved? Jews have been part of every culture, as you point out. Should secular Jews preserve their Spanish traditions or German traditions or Russian traditions? Should they eat gefilte fish or bagels and lox or celebrate Mimouna, the Sephardic festival that follows Passover?

I have come to believe that there IS no cultural Judaism, and that Jews of many different cultures have been bound together solely by halacha, Jewish law - basically, the primacy of Torah is the only thing Jews have in common across the ages and geographical distances.

This is something non-Jews DO NOT share. Muslims may affirm their belief that Moses was a prophet (thanks!) and Christians may feel that the "Old Testament" makes great background reading to understand the character of God - though most use it to distort His character and contrast Him with a loving "New Testament" God. None have a committment to Jewish law - to actually DOING what the Torah says, as opposed to simply enjoying it as literature.

(by the way, some movements of Judaism also omit this detail - those are movements I have chosen to move away from, to some extent)

I wonder to what extent Judaism really is "the basis" of modern Christianity. Considering Jesus never ate brisket, wore a kippah, had a bar mitzvah, or spoke Hebrew, I still don't know if emulating contemporary Jewish practice in Christian homes is necessarily the best way to get in touch with Christianity's roots. Judaism has changed at least as much in the last 2000 years as Christianity has and even archaeologists and historians would be hard-pressed to recreate the Judaism he knew in his lifetime.

(The Passover Seder itself is ancient, but much of its texts and practices are of medieval origin.)

Is there any harm in it? Definitely for Christians, who are being misled into thinking these observances make their faith deeper or more authentic. (shouldn't it be able to stand on its own? shouldn't its rituals be rich and fulfilling enough? is there no Christian way besides a Seder to "get" the concept of a God who keeps His promises?)

As for Jews, as a Jew who grew up accused of Christ-killing in my nice Catholic neighbourhood, I guess it's nice to have Christians as friends. But I fear it comes at the cost of "smoothing" over all our differences, either by adding Christian meanings to Jewish practices or by removing niggling particularities that legitimately divide our faiths.

Sorry this is so long! Hope it helps answer some questions, though no doubt it raises others...

Jennifer in MamaLand said...

@Anonymous:
I don't "accuse" anybody of anything, faith-wise. We are what we are, right?
However, beyond saying "Jesus was a Jew," I think you should see my previous comments AND familiarize yourself with a little about modern Judaism.
See how Torah is lived on a daily basis by today's Jews, but understand that even the Biblical parts of it, like the festivals, are VERY different from what Jesus would have known.
Recreating "the holidays he kept" without drawing on "new" rabbinic traditions, ie from the last 2000 years, is going to be very difficult and not likely to be authentic.
I really believe people who worship Jesus, by any name, should concentrate on building a strong and vibrant church with its OWN traditions, not just trying to copy the traditions of another faith.
I don't think anybody wins that way.

Kristina said...

Thanks for the response! I struggle with humanistic Judiasm, too, (and if I'm being honest, I struggle with very Reform Judaism, too) so we definitely have that in common.

It sounds like as much of a struggle for you ("which Judaism will survive") as it is for us (Joel Osteen vs. the Pope vs. those crazy funeral protesters).

It's interesting to hear your perspectives. I think that especially protestant Christianity uses a lot of "external concepts" in a search for experiencing God. I don't see that as bad. (By the way, thanks for typing that. I didn't want to offend you by writing it out or come off as pretentious by writing G-d or Ha Shem so I managed to write that whole giant blurb without saying "God" once! I was impressed.)

There's a lot of protestantism that is overly-apologetic, IMHO, about other religions and wants so desperately to seem inclusive that they do fail to stand on their own. It's an issue, so you're right about that.

And, I also see how Modern Judaism has nothing to do with the basis of Christianity. Then again, what does Temple and Pre-Temple Judaism have to do with Modern Judaism? Do you think Moses would be completely confused if he showed up at a Seder? I'm fairly confident he would. I think he'd also be confused why the shabbat service was so bloodless. (Being fair, I'm pretty sure Jesus would walk out of most of our services in the first 4 minutes, too) However, without Judaism, we can't claim messiahship for Christ since it's all based on OT prophecy. I know you guys don't need us, but we need you, in a manner of speaking :)

I could go on indefinitely, but I won't- my religious conversations tend to get lengthy since it's what I study- but thanks for the response, I love hearing other perspectives.

Anonymous said...

There are some Messianics or Hebrew Christians who believe that what God commands in the Torah still applies today, as it says "for all your generations". There are those that believe the Torah was not done away with or replaced by Yeshua/Jesus. However, they pick and choose what commandments they will keep and don't really know much about what Jewish beliefs actually are. Because the foundation of their beliefs are still from Christianity. If they really studied the Torah and what it says about the promised messiah they would realize that the Christian Jesus does not fit the Tanach's description of the messiah at all. The two religions are in reality very different. I agree that Messianic "Jews" or Hebrew Christians don't fit in mainstream Christianity either although they are still part of the Christian faith.

Anonymous said...

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