Ruth – or anti-Ruth?

Two opposing trends exist with regard to conversion – one liberal and welcoming, the other Orthodox and insular.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE STORY of Ruth highlights the biblical custom of gleaning, mandated by Torah law in the portions of Kedoshim and Ki Teitzei.
Landowners gathering in their crops were obliged to be deliberately negligent and not gather in every last stalk. The edges and corners of the fields and the stalks that fell to the sides were to be left for the gleaners – the poor and the strangers in need of sustenance. Symbolically, the edges of the field were for society’s peripheral people, who were welcomed with the harvesters into normally off-limits fields.
Ruth, of course, is among the most peripheral of society’s peripheral people, the most other of others – a penniless migrant widow from the disdained Moabite nation, and a woman as well, cast, as she enters Boaz’s field, into an environment of rough farm workers.
Yet Boaz, inviting her in, speaking to her directly, initiates her journey from the periphery to the center – to the very center of the Hebrew people, to becoming the “mother of royalty” and the ancestor of the Messiah. And not because the wealthy landowner Boaz took pity on her, but because he noticed her initiative, her will to cross borders in the name of faithfulness, love and loyalty.
Since the canonization of the book bearing her name, Ruth has been recognized as the quintessential convert, the virtuous woman who joined the Jewish people not for the sake of marriage – though of course a good marriage was her reward – but out of sheer love. Ruth, we are taught, shows how much the Jewish people has gained from its acceptance of converts.
Yet, at the same time – going back to the story of Israel sinning with the Moabite and Midianite women in the portion of Balak – there has always been an opposite trend among the Jews, one of exclusiveness, of rejection of strangers in our midst, and of heaping obstacles on the path of conversion.
In recent years, this trend has come to a head, with converts being scrutinized by Orthodox rabbinic authorities not only before they are accepted, but even decades later. Their children, after a lifetime of living as Jews, may find their Jewishness rejected when they come to marry other Jews (even though retroactive cancellation of a conversion is contrary to Jewish law). Even Jews whose parents and grandparents were Jewish have had their Jewishness or their fitness to marry Jews called into question.
I believe that several factors lie behind this trend, including a growing insularity in the Orthodox community, the power given to the Orthodox Rabbinate by the establishment in Israel, the tools given it by modern means of data collection, and its fear of assimilation.
However, one may also see in it a reaction to the simultaneous strengthening, particularly in the liberal movements, of the opposite trend in modern Judaism, that modeled by the Book of Ruth. Here we find a welcoming of converts on a scale unknown, perhaps, since the Second Temple period. This ties in with a trend among these movements to loosen the strict controls on marriage and divorce traditionally exercised by the rabbinic authorities, and with a groundswell of rejection of those controls by secular, liberal and even liberal Orthodox couples in Israel.
Under these circumstances, Orthodox authorities may feel that they cannot assume the young people who come before them to marry are fully Jewish according to their criteria. In Israel, that means many couples cannot legally marry in their own country.
In the Diaspora, it means that Orthodox and liberal Jews who wish to marry each other may have to choose sides – the Orthodox partner leaving the fold, or the liberal partner undergoing an Orthodox conversion (a lengthy and not always successful process).
I fear that the Jewish people is splitting into two groups, one of whose members will not marry the other’s, and I find this deeply worrying for the future of the Jewish people.
The “Ruth” tendency has brought my own family riches. My daughter and sister both married converts, who have become observant Jews and parents of Jews. From a human and feminist point of view, I find the “anti-Ruth” tendency of today’s Orthodox rabbinic authorities – the rejection of peripheral Jews and others of all kinds – profoundly disturbing. Yet, arguably, the inclination to exclusiveness has functioned to preserve the unity and persistence of the Jewish people.
Is it inevitable, then, that the Orthodox will ultimately sever ties with the rest to form their own island, forcibly taking the greater part of Israel’s Jews with them? Or can another way be found?
Deborah Greniman, an editor, writer and translator, is Managing Editor of ‘Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues’ and Senior Editor of English-Language Publications at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.