A few days ago on Shavuot, many of us had the pleasure of listening once again to the reading of the Book of Ruth, one of the most beautiful stories ever written.
As the Sages remarked, it is a book that does not deal with questions of purity or impurity, or of ritual law. It is rather entirely a story of acts of hessed – lovingkindness – of the way human beings help others who are in need.
The story therefore echoes the theme of Shavuot, the giving of the Torah, since the Torah itself begins and ends with hessed: God clothes the naked at the beginning, and buries the dead at the end.
But there is another way this gentle saga is connected to the story of the events at Mount Sinai. It was at Sinai that we entered into a covenant with God and thereby became God’s people; that is what made us Jews. Who is a Jew? Whoever stood at Sinai, which is why the legend says the souls of all Jews who were to be born were present at that time.
Similarly, Ruth enters into that covenant and becomes a Jew. She too stands at Sinai at that moment. Ruth is often thought of as the very epitome of the convert. By presenting a convert as the ancestress of David from whose progeny the Messiah is to emerge, the book makes a positive statement about converts and conversion. Judaism is not a matter of race; anyone with any background can enter and become one of God’s covenant people.
Furthermore, the process as presented in the Book of Ruth is not a long and complicated one. Neither is conversion long and complicated according to the later Halacha that developed, even though a rabbinical court is part of the process today, which was not the case in early times.
Ruth, a Moabite, joined the people of Israel when she decided to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi back to Bethlehem. She said at that time, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). This two-part declaration indicates that converting to Judaism has both ethnic and religious meaning. One accepts the God of Israel and all that implies, but one also identifies with the People of Israel, its history and destiny. Belief without such identification is not sufficient.
In Second Temple times and even somewhat thereafter, conversion was common as people began to search for an alternative to paganism, and Jewish monotheism was the major alternative available. This changed when Christianity became dominant and Judaism, especially after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, went into decline.
For many years, indeed for centuries, conversion to Judaism was not a major concern. At times, it was even forbidden by the rulers of the lands in which Jews lived. There were converts here and there, but the numbers were not significant. After the emancipation, conversion from Judaism was all too prevalent, but conversion to Judaism was still uncommon.
However, in more modern times, especially in lands where Jews live freely, conversion became much more common – and now, in Israel, Europe and the Americas, conversion is a major part of Jewish life. Unfortunately, it has also become a matter of great controversy among various Jewish denominations.
The mixture of religion and politics in Israel and the granting of an official status exclusively to Orthodoxy here has greatly complicated the matter. The position taken by the Chief Rabbinate, making extreme and halachically unwarranted demands, has proven a difficult obstacle in the task of converting the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish olim from the former Soviet Union.
Those Orthodox rabbis who would show greater understanding and flexibility are often prevented from serving in the official rabbinic courts. Efforts made during the previous government to broaden the ranks have not been effective and now are in danger of being overturned altogether by the new government.
Thanks to judicial decisions, conversions performed in Israel by non-Orthodox groups are recognized by the Israeli government, although not for purposes of citizenship.
Furthermore, the fact that such conversions do not permit one to marry in Israel – since official marriage is in the exclusive hands of the rabbinate – discourages people from going that route.
Judaism is a religion of hessed and love. Entry into it by those non-Jews who choose to do so should also be an act of hessed and love.
The appropriate Jewish approach to conversion, demonstrated by the Book of Ruth, was shown in the famous stories of non-Jews who approached Shammai and Hillel. One such person offered to convert if he could be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai repulsed him, while Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.
Now go and learn” ( Shabbat 31a). Some converts are quoted as saying, “The irritability of Shammai would have driven us away. The patience of Hillel brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 15).
Instead of welcoming people with open arms, all too often the authorities here imitate Shammai. Conversion becomes an ordeal, as an obstacle that must be overcome.
Years ago the Neeman Commission, of which I was a member, suggested a way to embrace the FSU aliya. It called upon the Chief Rabbinate to appoint rabbinical courts that, while observing the requirements of Jewish law, would also be sufficiently understanding of the situation and would follow the way of the House of Hillel – rather than seeking ever more stringencies that would only place obstacles in the way of the sincere convert. The Chief Rabbinate rejected that proposal, and has not changed its attitude since then.
As one who has been deeply involved in the conversion process both in the Diaspora and in Israel, I can testify that when properly conducted, conversion can indeed be a process of hessed and can lead to the creation of devoted Jews, committed to Judaism and the welfare of the Jewish people.
The Book of Ruth pointed the way. The teachings of Hillel demonstrated how we should act toward those who seek out Judaism. We must not permit these lessons to be forgotten today. The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is
The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).
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