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The Book of Ruth: An Exemplary Model for Conversion Experience
The book of Ruth is read at this time of year on Shavuot. Traditionally an agrarian holiday celebrating the barley harvest, Shavuot also represents the sacred marriage between Israel and the Divine.
The themes of harvest and relationships are also present in the book of Ruth, which is a story of people from different faiths and cultures joining together out of love and support for one another.
Ruth, a Moabite woman, marries an Israelite who has come to Moab with his family to escape famine in Israel. While there, Ruth's husband, his brother and his father die. Ruth chooses to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, as she returns to Bethlehem, her home city. The story is a symbolic journey from famine to abundance, alienation to connection, from death to rebirth.
The story is also one of loyalty to family, alliance with the Jewish people, as well as providing the exemplary model for conversion to Judaism. Ruth utters her famous phrase to Naomi: "Where you go, I will go; where you will be, I will be; where you sleep, I will sleep; your people are my people, your God my God." This has been a basis for the conversion experience. Ruth not only embraces her mother-in-law, but also the culture and religion that older woman comes from.
What's missing from this story is the interfaith lens through which we view contemporary society. We never know what the Moabite traditions are that Ruth left behind. We don't know if she continued with any ancestral traditions -- foods and holidays, for example. Did she write letters to her loved ones? Did she miss her Moabite family and community at all -- her siblings and parents that we, as readers, never learn about? Or was her break from Moab so radical that it's as if her family died?
This total break is why Ruth, traditionally, has been held up as the model for conversion. She has, at least according to the text, severed ties with her past, starting all over in a new land, just like Abraham.
Today, most contemporary interfaith couples, even when a conversion takes place, don't have a complete split with what came before. They continue to celebrate holidays with their extended families. Ruth's sister-in-law, Orpah, does return to her family of origin, and we never hear from her again. The world in the text seems black and white in terms of choice: If one joins a new culture or faith, one cannot stay connected to the traditions he or she grew up with.
As the story progresses, we find Naomi mentoring Ruth in the customs of the Israelites -- how to glean in the fields, how to seduce a husband and how to acquire her rights.
The text doesn't indicate that Ruth had any problem adapting to her new culture, but we never really know. And at the end of the story, she gives birth and is given credit as the ancestor of King David.
The story, though, leaves room for our imaginings concerning the details and nuances of Ruth's life: Does Ruth take her child to visit her relatives? Or teach any Moabite lullabies or other customs to her child? Does she have any internal conflicts about the path she's chosen?
We can imagine that at some point she reflects on how her life has progressed. Although she was a loyal Israelite, she may have missed her family. And though she embraced a new culture, she may have taken some traditions from her family with her.
For those of you who have converted or are living in a Jewish household, we know that the reality of our lives has more subtle shades of gray than Ruth's black-and-white experience.
As we read and honor her journey at Shavuot, we can reflect and honor our own paths. Celebrate your marriages, honor the wisdom of your ancestors and give gratitude for your abundance.
Rabbi Rayzel Raphael is the rabbinic director of InterFaithways: Interfaith Family Support Network.