Wednesday, November 26, 2014 Kislev 4, 5775

Reading Ruth: A Shavuot Text Study

June 3, 2014
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In the spirit of Jewish learning, we are introducing what we hope will become a recurring feature of the Jewish Exponent: a talmudic-style contemporary discussion of a Jewish text. For this Shavuot-centered learning, we reached out to local female rabbis and educators across the religious spectrum to respond to a text study prepared by Rabbi Leah Richman, community engagement specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The responses we received are below. We would love to hear your commentaries as well. Share them with us by commenting on this article.

Rabbi Leah Richman
Community Engagement Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

 

Ruth Chapter 1:8-13

And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each woman to the house of her mother, may Hashem do kindly with you, as you did with those who died, and with me. May Hashem give you, and may you find rest, each woman in her home,” and she kissed them, and they raised their voices and wept. And they said to her, “Rather, we will return with you to your people.” And Naomi said, “Return, my daughters, why should you go with me, do I still have sons in my womb that could become husbands for you? Return, my daughters — go — because I am too old to be with a man, for even if I had hope, and if I was with a man this night, and gave birth to sons would you wait for them till they were grown?”

Ruth Rabbah 2:16
“Return my daughters — go ...” Rabbi Samuel ben Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yudan bar Chaninah: Three times it is written “return … return … return,” parallel to the three times that we push away a convert. And if they trouble themselves further (to convert), then we receive them. Said Rabbi Yitzchak, “No stranger slept outside” (Job 31:32) — one should always push away with the left, and bring closer with the right.

In the Book of Ruth, Naomi encourages Ruth and Orpah to return to their families in their native land of Moab rather than follow her to the land of Judah. After telling them to return three times, Orpah agrees and turns back. Ruth, however, insists on following Naomi, becoming the prototype in Jewish tradition for the authentic Jew by choice. The midrash teaches that based on this text, we should push a potential convert away three times before accepting him or her. If the potential convert still insists on joining the Jewish people, he or she is following in the footsteps of Ruth, as opposed to Orpah.

In Ruth Rabbah, Rabbi Yitzchak brings a challenge to the tradition of pushing a convert away. He quotes a verse from the Book of Job that celebrates being warm and welcoming — a verse that praises an open tent. He then says, “One should always push away with the left and bring closer with the right.” This advice is quoted from Sotah 47a where it is used to suggest that in reproving a person who has sinned — or a child who has misbehaved — one should be strict but not too strict. This midrash clearly shows a tension in our tradition between wanting to be welcoming and encouraging of those who would like to become Jewish, and wanting to be sure potential converts are committed to living a Jewish life. In today’s world, this tension is felt keenly in the American Jewish community. How do we truly follow the advice of the Talmud and “push away with the left and bring close with the right?”

   

Rabbi Beth Kalisch
Spiritual leader of Beth David Reform Congregation

 

The Jews who I am honored to say studied with me for conversion were deeply committed to becoming Jewish. One was a busy executive whose Jewish wife had accepted years ago that her children would be Jewish but her husband would not be. He took everyone by surprise when, so many years after their wedding, he started meeting me before work, Jewish books packed in a briefcase among financial documents.

Another student was a young newlywed whose Jewish husband had told her that his Jewish identity didn’t matter to him. She decided that it mattered to her, traveled to Israel by herself and fell in love with the land and its people. English was her third language, but she took an introduction to Judaism course and read Jewish books with a dictionary in hand. Both of these converts did this despite a culture in which interfaith marriage is commonplace, religion is frequently denigrated and everybody is always busy.

With my “left hand,” I tell conversion students about anti-Semitism and about the responsibility of mitzvot, and I require a significant commitment to study. But in rabbinic expression, the right hand is more powerful than the left. We need to do more to welcome conversion among those who, like Ruth, have already cast their lot with our people.

The tradition of not distinguishing between Jews by birth and Jews by choice is an important one, but it sometimes prevents us from honoring and appreciating our communities’ own Ruths. Those who peer in at the edge of the tent should know that not only are they welcome, but that they, too, can become our leaders and our teachers.

Rabbi Elisa Goldberg 
Director of Jewish Community Services at Jewish Family and Children’s Service and co-president of the Board of Rabbis

Discussions about conversion often focus on boundary issues — who is in, who is out and who decides. But an even more fundamental question is: Why do people choose to become Jewish? Why did Ruth join the Jewish people? Why do people convert today? And why do those of us raised Jewish make Jewish choices?

I am not the first to point out that we are all Jews by choice and, as Americans, we are free to choose how we express our Judaism or even whether we want to remain Jewish. It is our freedom to choose that presents the biggest challenge to Jewish life today: How do we encourage people to keep choosing Judaism?

There are no simple answers, but I find inspiration in this quote from Job: “No stran­ger slept outside, and my doors were always open.” It is not only important to look at how we open our doors and to whom, but also to understand where those doors lead — to the beauty, wisdom and meaning within Judaism.

Last month, when we sat at our seder tables, we opened the richness of generations to find deeper understanding and purpose in our lives.
As a chaplain, when I make a misheberach, a prayer for healing, for someone lying in a hospital bed, I am opening our tradition to find the solace, connection and holiness within.
Ruth made her choice to join the Jewish people. Like Ruth, may we make our Jewish choices with courage, creativity and kindness.

Barbara Hirsh
Director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

 

In this excerpt (1:8-13), an Israelite woman and her two daughters-in-law, each widowed, struggle with a difficult decision and each exhibits remarkable kindness. Naomi repeatedly urges Ruth and Orpah to return to their families of origin, demonstrating her willingness to make the return journey to Bethlehem alone in spite of the dangers such travel might pose.


The need for her repeated entreaties points to the younger women’s reluctance to leave Naomi even though her advice is prudent. Ultimately, Orpah makes the reasonable decision to return to Moab. Ruth, in contrast, insists upon accompanying Naomi, “returning” to a place she’s never been and facing dim prospects as a foreign widow.

As the repeated use of “return” illustrates, careful choice of language underscores themes in the story. Chesed, referring to exceptional kindness and loyalty, appears three times in the Book of Ruth. Ruth’s act of chesed in remaining with Naomi is later reciprocated by Boaz who, perceiving Ruth’s outstanding character, responds by agreeing to act as a redeeming kinsman by marrying Ruth and producing a son with her.

Ruth stands out as a person who embodies chesed. Despite the ancient disadvantages of gender, widowhood and Moabite origins, her unusually kind and loyal behavior qualified her in the eyes of tradition to be the ancestor of the future messiah of the line of David.

 

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