‘Your nation is my nation’: Reading the Book of Ruth - opinion

Ruth’s declaration are an important primary source for the validity of conversion to Judaism and its requirements.

 THE LATE Rabbi Ovadia Yosef teaches a lesson at his home in Jerusalem, 2013. The rabbi ruled that in most cases a declaration of Jewish status is all that is required of olim, and investigations are not halachically necessary. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THE LATE Rabbi Ovadia Yosef teaches a lesson at his home in Jerusalem, 2013. The rabbi ruled that in most cases a declaration of Jewish status is all that is required of olim, and investigations are not halachically necessary.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

On the holiday of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth and encounter the dramatic plea of Ruth, the Moabite woman, to her mother-in-law, Naomi, begging to return with her to Israel and not be left behind – “Your nation is my nation, your God is my God.” This story and Ruth’s declaration are an important primary source for the validity of conversion to Judaism and its requirements.

It is hard to read this story in our day and age and not consider the significant challenges that conversion and Jewish status present to the modern state of Israel. According to the latest statistics, there are approximately 500,000 Israeli citizens who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return (that recognizes patrilineal descent) and are not recognized as Jewish by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Let us be clear: the majority of these olim consider themselves to be Jewish and are not concerned with their halachic status. The second generation is born in Israel and is Israeli in every way, and at times not even aware there is a question of whether they are fully Jewish or not. When does it become significant? When they want to get married. The state has no problem collecting their taxes, providing them with medical care and education and requiring them to risk their lives in the army, while at the same time denying them the right to marriage with their chosen beloved and in their land.

Despite the fact that I am an Orthodox rabbi and would never perform a wedding for someone who is not Jewish according to Orthodox standards, I am ashamed and appalled that our country denies this basic right to my fellow citizens. I feel the same way about secular Israelis who are denied the right to marry who they choose and how they choose. At the very least, a normative option of civil marriage must be made available to all.

To do better

BUT WHAT is even more disturbing is that Halacha could also do better than Israel and its Chief Rabbinate are doing today. The haredi-controlled rabbinate has adopted a hard-line position on Jewish status and conversion, a position which is at the root of the injustice many of our brothers and sisters face for no reason other than having a foreign accent. More lenient positions exist, even within mainstream Orthodoxy.

For instance, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that in most cases a declaration of Jewish status is all that is required of olim and investigations are not halachically required. And Rabbi Eliezer Melamed has ruled that conversions can be considered valid even if the convert did not intend to be Orthodox.

When one considers the current statistics, that only 1,500 of those 500,000 ineligible citizens are converting yearly, it becomes clear that it would take a miracle to address their predicament with conversion alone. But when one realizes that many of them actually are reliably Jewish and that there is a relatively easy way to convert those who are not it becomes clear that marriage is the crucial moment.

THE BOOK of Ruth is featured in conversation with medieval depictions of the story. (credit: Courtesy)THE BOOK of Ruth is featured in conversation with medieval depictions of the story. (credit: Courtesy)

It is not too late to provide a solution for those individual olim who desire a halachic Jewish wedding. We must accept credible declarations of Jewish descent without investigation. We must provide accessible conversions for those who intend to practice traditional and cultural Judaism. The halachic foundations exist and have wide support in religious Zionist circles.

These are our long-lost brothers and sisters. They have already declared “Your nation is my nation” by moving here. Can we find in ourselves an open heart to hear their declaration of “Your God is my God?”

The writer is the founder of Hashgacha Pratit, which broke the monopoly of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on kosher supervision, and of Chuppot, providing Orthodox wedding ceremonies outside the Rabbinate.