Remembering Ruth

A major theme running throughout the book of Ruth is loving kindness.

Eli Yishai 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eli Yishai 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The public reading of the Book of Ruth gives Shavuot, a holiday with many dimensions of meaning, yet another facet of profundity. At the center of the book is Ruth’s physical and spiritual journey away from Moabite culture, her embrace of the Jewish people via her mother-in-law Naomi and her subsequent remarriage to Boaz.
A major theme running throughout the book of Ruth is loving kindness. There is the loving kindness conveyed by Ruth to Naomi by her decision to abandon her homeland and follow her mother-in-law to the land of Israel. There is Naomi’s reciprocal compassion for Ruth, first in her attempt to convince Ruth not to leave all that is familiar for a foreign land and people, and later in her endeavor to help Ruth integrate into circa 1100 BCE Judean society. And there is Boaz’s kindness towards Ruth and Naomi.
Today over three millennia later, non-Jews are still following in Ruth’s footsteps. Thousands are abandoning the religion into which they were born and raised and choosing to tie their fate to the Jewish people and to live in the first Jewish state in nearly two millennia.
Unfortunately many of the converts who come to the modern State of Israel encounter not the loving kindness and warmth of modern-day Boazs and Naomis but the passion for red tape, the thickskulled callousness and the xenophobic fears of bureaucrats, religious functionaries and other assorted government lackeys, close-minded rabbis and uncaring politicians.
This fact was evident from a new report released ahead of Shavuot by ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life. ITIM, an organization founded by Orthodox Rabbi Seth Farber to navigate the incredibly complex and aggravating maze of bureaucracy created by a state-funded Orthodox Rabbinate that sees its duty not so much as serving the public as protecting a stringent, uncompromising form of Orthodoxy from “corruption” by outside sources – including by converts to Judaism whose intentions are perennially suspect.
And this fundamental suspicion of converts – or prospective converts – has infiltrated into the ranks of the ostensibly non-sectarian Interior Ministry, whose job is to implement immigration policy not scrutinize the authenticity of an individual’s spiritual faith.
One of the latest bureaucratic hurdles erected by the Interior Ministry, under the guidance of Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi Shas party, targets couples living in Israel in which a Jew married a non-Jew in a civil ceremony. According to a new policy adopted by the ministry, this non-Jewish spouse who shows an interest in converting to Judaism is ineligible to apply to do so for a year-and-a-half after coming to Israel.
In another measure recently adopted by the Interior Ministry, children of converts who wish to immigrate to Israel must allow their parent to be submitted to an extensive interrogation – including a detailed letter explaining the motivation for conversion, the amount of time spent preparing for conversion and proof that both before and after the conversion the parent lived within a Jewish community.
But perhaps the most aggravating measure adopted by the Interior Minister requires that converts undergo an interrogation like the one described above not just to immigrate to Israel but even to receive a student visa to study at a yeshiva or some other institute of Jewish studies. Inexplicably, converts who come to Israel on a student visa to study at a secular institution – a university or a college for instance – do not need to undergo such an interrogation.
In this sort of atmosphere of suspicion it should come as no surprise that the number of conversions performed in Israel by the state-funded conversion authority and the IDF’s NATIV project have been on the decline since 2008, as documented in ITIM’s report.
Instead of adopting arbitrary decrees that cause incalculable anguish to individuals whose only crime is a love of the people of Israel, the Interior Ministry and other government bodies should pay to the public reading this Shavuot. They have a lot to learn from the Book of Ruth’s message of loving kindness.