‘Wherever you go, I shall go… Your nation will be my nation, your God my God…’
Despite the conventional wisdom that Judaism attempts to “push away” converts,
and despite the many horror stories about aspiring converts who were alienated,
discouraged and even “turned off” by the roadblocks they experienced at the
hands of a bureaucratic and insensitive Orthodox rabbinate, Judaism as depicted
in the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, truly welcomes those who desire
to enter the fold. It shows that Jews by choice are worthy of much
The heroine of this story of “autumnal” romance – with its
sub-plots of the tragedy of living in an assimilating and destructive exile
versus a rags-to-riches redemptive life in Israel – is a convert to Judaism. She
is not an ordinary convert: She is a Moabite convert.
The Bible demands
that Moabites never be enabled to become Jewish, but our rabbis teach that it
was the religious court led by Boaz that ruled that this prohibition applied
only to male Moabites.
Jewish tradition maintains that King David (who
was born and died on Shavuot) was the progenitor of and prototype for our
anxiously awaited Messiah. Is it not mind-blowing that his pedigree harks back
to Ruth, a Moabite convert? Moreover, is it not remarkable that we read of the
odyssey of a Jew-by-choice specifically as part of our celebration of the giving
of the Torah at Sinai? Clearly, throughout the Book of Ruth, Judaism is urging
our friendly attitude toward sincere converts.
This sacred text sets the
stage for what is expected of the convert as well as of the people around
him/her. Ruth’s initial motivation had a great deal to do with her deep
affection for her mother-in-law, Naomi. The Halacha (Jewish law) is to accept
converts, even if what initially sparked their Jewish interest was a personal or
romantic interest, as long as by the end of the process they have sincerely
become enamored with Judaism as a philosophy and lifestyle.
authoritative words of Shabtai Ben-Meir Hakohen; 1621–1662: “Everything depends
on the assessment of the judge” as to whether the candidate is now sufficiently
interested in Judaism. Indeed, many of the official Israeli religious courts are
more predisposed to accept converts who wish to marry a religious Jewish
Naomi felt it incumbent to explain to Ruth and Orpah (Naomi’s
other daughter-in-law) that since it was biologically impossible for her to have
more sons, she would not have husbands for them. Moreover, she was returning to
Israel in a penniless state for she “has been struck down by the hand of God,
and her lot is a bitter one” (Ruth 1:13). When Ruth nevertheless made her
commitment, Naomi accepted her as a daughter.
This is reflected in the
Talmud, which teaches that one must explain to the would-be convert that the
Jews are a persecuted people – but once the aspiring Jew says he knows that, and
still feels unworthy, he is to be accepted as a Jew at once. This is because it
is a mitzva to convert, and a mitzva must be done as soon as
Ruth’s commitment is likewise what is required today: “Your
nation is my nation” reflects the acceptance of the Jewish nationality, its
history, culture and allegiance to a specific land as expressed through ritual
immersion – “rebirth” – and circumcision for males. “Your God is my God”
reflects the acceptance of the commandments. However, no talmudic sage maintains
that the convert must initially be thoroughly conversant with all the 613
The conversion candidate must be informed of several of the
more stringent laws and several of the more lenient laws. The religious court is
not to be heavy-handed or exacting. Conversion is seen as the beginning of a
process and not necessarily its conclusion.
When Ruth joins other
indigent Jews to glean the leftover or forgotten sheaves of the harvest, she
sees the kindness of Boaz and asks. “Why have I found grace in your eyes, so
that you singled me out [for protection and sensitivity]? I am a stranger.”
Boaz, perhaps a bit embarrassed by his burgeoning amorous interest, responds by
comparing Ruth to the first Hebrew, the primary Jew-by-choice, Abraham: “All
that you did for your mother-in-law has been told to me; you left your father,
your mother and the land of your birth for a nation which you did not know
yesterday or the day before” (Ruth 2:10,11; Genesis 12:1).
Hence, it is
not at all surprising that Rabbenu Sa’adia Gaon invokes the biblical imperative
to “love the stranger” from the moment an individual shows interest in Judaism.
Maimonides also takes the commandment to love the Lord to mean that “one must
attempt to make God beloved to the gentile world” by exposing His great deeds
and just laws to all of humanity. Ruth joins Jethro as a prototypical gentile
who must be inspired by the teachings of our Torah.
The writer is the
founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and
chief rabbi of Efrat.