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Interpreting the Book of Ruth as a Story of Interfaith Marriage
“Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, express her commitment to Naomi — and to Naomi’s people and God. With them, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with that of the Jewish people, and recognized the God of Israel as her God.
Ruth is often spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course, this wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an introduction to Judaism class; she didn’t appear before a Beit Din, a rabbinic court; and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikvah.
The timing of her declaration is noteworthy. When she made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband, Naomi’s son Machlon, was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon was, to use today’s terminology, an “interfaith marriage.”
I can only imagine that Ruth’s deep affection for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the marriage, Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was — making Ruth feel valued and loved.
So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If only she were Jewish …” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel —that she’s not quite good enough. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth.
While the text may go out of its way to highlight Ruth’s outsider status by calling her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth,” beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her family in Moab to go to Israel with Naomi.
Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents — and the community as a whole — could be as nonjudgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of her son’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and eventually choose to become Jewish. In fact, we see this happen all the time — someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish.
Of course, even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are nonjudgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner will convert — some because they practice another religion; others because they decide for different reasons that conversion isn’t for them. And that’s OK, too. If we want to be a truly welcoming community, we need to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves — to treat them like Naomi treated Ruth. As Naomi must have realized, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she was, not for what she wanted Ruth to be.
At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth bears Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” is the great-grandmother of David, a great King of Israel and, according to tradition, the progenitor of the Messiah.
As Shavuot — the holiday on which the Book of Ruth is read in synagogues — approaches, we need to join together to celebrate Ruth, along with those in our Jewish present who also weren’t raised as Jews. This includes those who have chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community. All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. Go to interfaithfamily.com/philadelphia for information about activities, resources and an upcoming Interfaith family trip to Israel subsidized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.