Today and yesterday we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Because of this, the Ten Commandments are read in synagogue. Many communities also read from the Book of Ruth because Shavuot is supposedly the day of King David’s death, and he was a descendant of Ruth.
The story of Ruth is an interesting one: she is a Moabite woman who marries into an Israelite family, only to have her husband, his brother, and his father die and leave the women to support themselves. Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, decides to return to Israel, her homeland, and urges her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Oprah, to go out and find new husbands. Oprah, Ruth’s sister-in-law, heeds Naomi’s request and leaves, but Ruth responds with the following:
“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you” (1:16–17).
She promises to stay with Naomi, her mother-in-law, until death—to take on her faith and to embrace her people. This passage is seen as one of the first conversions to Judaism; the formal conversions that exist today in Judaism involving mikveh did not come into existence until a later period.
Personally, I find the passage to be a beautiful expression of love and a complete willingness to take on Judaism. And the fact that her conversion is simply an oath raises the issue of the problems that Judaism is having today about drawing the line between Jew and non-Jew, converts that count and converts that don’t. In an article called “Welcoming Converts to the Jewish People,” Dr. Marc Engel, rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, a prominent Orthodox synagogue in New York, discusses how the Orthodox movement is becoming increasingly stringent with its conversion process to the point of insensitivity in some cases (like Israel’s Chief Rabbi refusing to accept conversions from the Diaspora). He writes about how only a portion of the people who want to convert are eventually allowed to convert, and how that is detrimental to Orthodox Judaism because it only accepts converts that come from Orthodoxy.
Rabbi Engel ends with an emphasis on the idea that, although historically Jews have been cautious to accept converts because, unlike many other religions, Judaism is based on the idea that the righteous of all religions will have a place in the world to come, conversion is a phenomenon that cannot and should not be ignored. He says that for the honor of Halacha (Jewish law), the Jewish community must embrace those non-Jews who make the decision to enter the Jewish community, rather than push them away: let those who wish to become Jews become Jews and enter our community. And Rabbi Richard Hirsch, Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, a Rabbi from all the way across the Jewish spectrum, agrees. He says that acceptance and outreach to converts is incredibly meaningful and important, and emphasizes that “one who converts joins the Jewish people, taking on the culture, history, traditions, and rituals of Judaism as well as the faith of Jewish religion. The operative verb here is ‘belonging.'” Just as Ruth’s pledge of faith allowed her to be accepted into the Jewish community (she went on to marry a Jew and supposedly create the line that led to King David), so should others’ pledges of faith lead to a welcoming and sense of belonging.
It’s interesting to me that the text does not explain why Ruth converted; was it for the sake of her mother, for herself, or for some other reason? Maybe the fact that no reason is given has significance in itself: it does not matter why someone wants to convert to Judaism, only that they, like Ruth, are willing to take Judaism as a religion and a community upon themselves and embrace it.
Happy Shavuot/Chag Sameach!