Nearly everyone who has read the Bible has heard of the story of Ruth. It’s a lovely story, and has a good narrative. Ruth’s story is both a romance and the epitome of the convert’s story. The story goes like this:
Naomi has a husband and two sons. They move out of Israel for better economic conditions.
Her sons marry non-Jewish women.
Her sons and her husband all pass away. The sons and their new wives don’t yet have children.
Naomi decides to return home to Israel. She tells both daughter-in-laws to go back to their families. One, Orpah, follows her mother-in-laws’ advice. The other, Ruth, says that she will follow Naomi. More specifically, she says, “Your Gd is my Gd.” The two women leave for Israel where Ruth works hard to take care of them by gleaning the wheat that is left for the poor. She is noticed by the field’s owner, Boaz, who just-so-happens to also be related and can marry her under kinship redeemer laws. (It’s such a classic love story, isn’t it?) The two end up wed, and Ruth’s great-grandson ends up being none other than King David.
As my two year -old says: Ta da!
Now, what you don’t see is Ruth being asked why she might choose Judaism. Sure, she married into it, but she didn’t have to make it her own. In this case, she owned it. She claimed HaShem as “elochai” (literally, “my Gd”). Her story serves to remind us to be kind to strangers and outsiders….and converts. Although you’re not supposed to single out converts, but accept them. According to one article I read, it’s a mitzvah to convert:
This sacred text sets the stage for what is expected of the convert as well as from the people around him/her. Ruth’s initial motivation had a great deal to do with her deep affection for her mother-in-law, Naomi. (The halacha is to accept a convert, even if what initially sparked their Jewish interest was a personal or romantic interest, as long as by the end of the process the convert has sincerely become enamored with Judaism as a philosophy and lifestyle [BT Shabbat 31; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:12].
In the authoritative words of the Shakh [Note 23], “everything depends on the assessment of the judge,” as to whether the candidate is now sufficiently interested in Judaism. Indeed, many of the official Israeli Religious Courts are more predisposed to accept converts who wish to marry a religious Jewish person.
Naomi felt it incumbent to explain to Ruth and Orpah that since it was biologically impossible for her to have more sons, she would not have husbands for them. Moreover, she was returning in a penniless state to Israel for she “has been struck down by the hand of God,” and her lot is a bitter one [Ruth 1:13]. When Ruth, nevertheless, made her commitment, Naomi accepted her as a daughter.
This is reflected in the Talmud’s teaching that one must explain to the would-be convert that the Jews are a persecuted people – but once the aspiring Jew says he knows that, and still feels unworthy, he is to be accepted as a Jew at once. This is because it is a mitzvah to convert, and a mitzvah must be done as soon as possible [BT Yevamot 47b].
It is no coincidence that my blog is named, “Following Ruth”. I even have an email address with “faithlikeruth” as the username. For me, Ruth has always been an example for me. She pursued her heart’s desire. She did what was right, and not just what was expected of her (which was to go back to her childhood religion.) Gd blessed her for it.
I wish I could say that I have never been asked by someone born-Jewish why I was converting, as if they themselves could not find a redeemable reason for someone to want to join the community. I’ve gotten it more than a few times, and seen it dozens more. For example, just the other day I read a post on Jew in the City‘s Facebook Page (1/8/14):
She shared this link and wrote: “So from what I heard, he has a modern Orthodox manager who has exposed him to observant Judaism. If Harry converts, future All Star??? ”
What is frustrating is some of the comments that followed. Some asked why he was converting… as if there always has to be a reason other than the fact that Judaism rocks.
One wrote, “there is a concept of “zera Yisrael” which does not make the person Jewish (with a Jewish father) but means that according to some (like Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky) that we should try to encourage them to explore their Jewish heritage as opposed to most prospective converts who we try to discourage at first.”
I wrote a few comments, but none have been liked at all. Which isn’t really surprising. JITC’s section on conversion is anti-conversion:
While Judaism accepts converts, we discourage them because taking on Judaism is such a huge commitment. If someone wasn’t born Jewish, they have no obligation to assume all that responsibility. Judaism does not require others to join us in order to secure a place in Heaven.
And didn’t David call the Torah a “delight” ?! Tehillim (Psalms) 119
Although one guy’s comment on this article is, in a word, AWESOME:
Rabbi Abramowitz makes the point that he receives “a surprising number of inquiries about conversion.” I think this point needs to be explored. Perhaps one reason he gets so many inquiries is that there are many Gentiles who have come to recognize the moral deficiencies in their own lives, in society at large, and perhaps even in their own religion. The fact that Gentiles ask about conversion shows they see value in the Jewish way of life. Jews should be honored. Also, doesn’t Torah reveal that one of the roles of Jews is to instruct the world in righteousness? Perhaps Gentiles wishing to become Jews is an expression of Gentiles longing for the wholesome truths Jews can teach humanity. I’d love to hear others thoughts on this.
YES YES YES. Thank you!
There is this one, which is a little more encouraging at least: What’s Considered a Valid Reason to Convert To Judaism? In it, there is the Orthodox idea that your spiritual walk is all or nothing, and that you must look and walk like a duck in order to avoid complete assimilation:
But you should keep something in mind about that obligation. No one keeps all 613 mitzvos nowadays and some mitzvos are done only once in a lifetime (like marriage, hopefully) or infrequently (like holidays). Also, no one – even those of us who are born Jewish and live as Orthodox Jews – keeps every mitzvah that’s required of us. However, one of the defining characteristics of being an Orthodox Jew is that although we may not being actually doing it all, we strive to be doing it all.
The problem is, if that is your standard of “jewish enough”, then you will constantly look to others and if they are doing the right thing or not. That’s not the point. It isn’t all or nothing. Sure, it is good to keep as many mitzvot as possible. Even as someone studying under a Progressive Rabbi, I still wish to explore more “Orthodox” trappings. I might eventually don a tichel. But we have to remember that we are given the Torah to not only to make the world a better place (tikkun olam), but to make us better people. They exist for a reason. At least, it’s helpful to believe that the Torah isn’t arbitrary, right?
But to keep all just to keep them all, without personal meaning, is pointless. Should I keep Shabbos and wear a tichel and make my home kosher because I have to? Or because there is value that I have personally considered? I find more meaning when I walk in my spiritual journey and add mitzvot as I go… dressing more modestly, speaking more kindly, avoiding gossip, learning prayers, etc… rather than go, “Okay, here’s my list. Better get cracking or I cant’ convert.” Like, what kind of spirituality is that? And how can we judge someone else’s heart by how they look? This reminds me too much of Bob Jones mentality… blah. No more!
There is something to Judaism that obviously attracts a lot of people. I personally think that there are a lot of souls that need to come back to Judaism. (How many millions were lost to all the pogroms and the Shoah? Where do the souls go?) And also…everyone is concerned about assimilation. It’s been a worry for millenia. (Oh, and Christians worry about dwindling, too.)
Ruth wouldn’t have gotten this sort of treatment. No one told her – “but Ruth, are you striving to follow all of the mitzvah? You can’t join. Just be a Noahide. …that’s enough, right?” Ruth obviously felt unworthy (as many of us converts do feel, because our souls are blown away at being “home”), but she wasn’t treated as an outsider and no one questioned her motivation. She said, “Your Gd is my Gd. Your people are my people’ and they said: Okay.
Note: Allison who runs Jew in the City seems super nice, and I really don’t mean to pick on her. This is not an uncommon view at all. It’s obvious from her posts and videos that she means well and has a good heart and is passionate about her faith. I really admire that. She’s doing such a great thing!! Of course, she isn’t writing all of the posts on conversion, so you can’t knock her too much. But to say, “Oh hey, we’re great because we’re Jewish this way” and then discourage people whose hearts have been captivated by the Torah and HaShem seems a bit…. country club? Seriously people. On the other hand, I’d love to talk to her about how to get started living more “observant”. I like that word better than Orthodox. Because the world changes and so does Judaism…always has, always will. When I choose to be observant on one part of the Torah or another, it will be between me and my Gd.