Have You Read This Book?

The WORD – 5/24/12.  I just read a very interesting book about a young woman throwing herself at the feet of an older, wealthier man.  No, not THAT book!  I am talking, of course, about the Book of Ruth, which we will read this weekend as part of our Shavuot observance.  (See Chapter 3 for the scene described above).

Despite being an ancient text, the story of Ruth truly speaks to the modern reader.  Ruth was not Jewish, but she was married to a Jewish man in the diaspora.  Sound familiar?  The family fell on hard times and had to give up their home.  Even after the death of her husband, Machlon, her connection to Judaism deepened.  So, when her mother-in-law Naomi tried to send her back to her Moabite family, Ruth responded with words that are still spoken today at every Jewish conversion ceremony:

Do not ask me to leave you, and to return from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried (Ruth 1:16-17).”

Naomi welcomed Ruth into the Israelite community and eventually the people ofBethlehemaccepted her as well.  A prominent member of the community – Boaz – married her and their great-grandson wasDavid, the second King of Israel.

Ruth has always been held up by the rabbinic tradition as the ideal convert.  For many years, any woman who chose to become a part of the Jewish community was given the Hebrew name Ruth for ritual purposes.  Despite the high esteem in which she was held, though, it seemed as if the rabbinic approach to conversion was moving further away from the story of Ruth.

After all, Ruth was inter-married before she even considered making her own personal commitment to our people.  For many years, the Jewish community made intermarried families feel uncomfortable.  So, even if the non-Jewish spouses were interested in Judaism, they were denied access to the Jewish community.

Further, Ruth was a widow when she eventually committed herself to our people and our God.  For many years, rabbinic authorities were dubious of such candidates for conversion.  They wondered why this person was suddenly interested in converting to Judaism.

In the Middle Ages, the rabbis were right to be wary of potential converts.  Depending upon where he lived, a rabbi could be executed for trying to convert someone from the majority religion to a minority religion such as Judaism.  However, we no longer live in such an age.

Today, people are looking for meaning in the marketplace of ideas.  Today, people are looking for spirituality in an increasingly electronic world.  Today, people are looking for a traditional foundation upon which to build a moral life.  And Judaism has all those things.

We shouldn’t be surprised when non-Jews who are married to Jews are attracted to Judaism.  We shouldn’t be surprised when people searching for moral grounding find it in Judaism.

Instead, we should embrace them and teach them even more about our tradition – the way that Naomi embraced and taught Ruth.





About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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