view counter
Ruth’s Conversion Would Be Rejected Today
Mon, 05/21/2012 - 20:00
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

At a time when we are keenly aware of the deep divisions within the Jewish community on issues from religious practice to the policies of the State of Israel, along comes the festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, with the most unifying theme in Jewish life: the giving of the Torah, the central, foundational text of our history and people, at Mount Sinai.

Doubly sad, then, that Shavuot, which falls this year on Sunday and Monday, is the least celebrated of the three major festivals. Is that because it has no seder to observe like Passover has, nor sukkah to build like on Sukkot? Perhaps, and I worry that many American Jews could not tell you what Shavuot is all about. Something to do with the harvest in ancient times, a few might venture. Or eating cheese blintzes today…

But this holiday gives us the story of one of the most endearing characters in our literature, Ruth, the  gentle young Moabite widow who rejects her past and casts her fate — and shapes ours — by embracing Judaism.

A closer look at the story of the most famous convert in Jewish history offers up a timely message about how we can approach the dangerous fissures in Jewish life today in a way that can help us heal, and bring us closer together. In so doing, it presents a stinging challenge to the dangerously narrow interpretation of conversion laws in Israel today and the negative impact they are having throughout the diaspora.

In synagogues around the world on Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, whose highlight is a simple statement from Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, who urges her to go back to her own people. It makes for one of the most sublime declarations in history:

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you,” Ruth says. “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever 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. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”

Ruth’s extraordinary act, showing not only love for Naomi but a willingness to accept the One God, makes her part of the Jewish people. And at the end of the story, she gives birth to a son, who in turn becomes the father of Jesse, the father of David, king of Israel. And according to tradition, from that progeny the messiah will be born.

The message our rabbis offer up us is a profoundly bold one of acceptance. After all, Ruth is from a tribe that is an enemy of the Jewish people on a deeper level than even the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, or the Egyptians, who cruelly enslaved us for centuries. In Deuteronomy, God says, “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” But the descendants of Moab, until the 10th generation, should not be accepted into “the congregation of the Lord because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt” and because they hired Balaam “to curse you.”

And yet Ruth’s straightforward declaration to Naomi not only brings her acceptance among the Jewish people, but also makes possible her pivotal role in determining the kings of Israel and, ultimately, the messiah.

The rabbis of old no doubt struggled with the text of the Book of Ruth — how could a member of a cursed tribe be the heroine of the story and the grandmother of King David? A legal loophole of sorts is found, interpreting the prohibition of marrying a Moabite as applying to Jewish women, thus allowing a man to marry a woman from Moab.

In contrast to this message, I can’t help but think that if Ruth lived under the current Chief Rabbinate of Israel, with its increasingly rigid and restrictive interpretation of the laws of conversion, she would not be accepted as a daughter of Israel, and the trajectory of Jewish history would be altogether different.

Of course it is a great responsibility to define who is and who isn’t Jewish, especially in our modern age of pluralism. The laws are complex, and the stakes are high. But what is most troubling about the views coming out of Jerusalem in recent years is that they are motivated by an effort to keep the gates closed, to prevent sincere seekers from joining our people rather than to welcome them.

Potential converts are told that they must accept each and all of the hundreds of mitzvot of Jewish life when a more liberal approach would enable tens of thousands of Russians in Israel to join the Jewish people, potentially transforming the society in positive ways. Further, many recent conversions have been revoked by the Chief Rabbinate, and the chilling effect of such actions, and their negative message, has caused ripples of frustration and anger across the Jewish world.

At a time when we need the spirit of Hillel, who accepted the man who wanted to learn about Judaism while standing on one foot, we have the reaction of Shammai, who shooed him away.

On Shavuot, we mark the day that, according to tradition, all Jews — even those from future generations — gathered at Sinai and accepted the Torah, creating the greatest moment of Jewish unity in history. In that spirit, let’s read and remember the story of Ruth, reminding us that our impulse should to be to embrace rather than reject those who are sincere in their intentions to echo Ruth’s words: “Your God shall be my God.”

Chag sameach.


Ruth, Shavuot, The Book of Ruth

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


Rashi comments in the critical verse that Ruth agreed to keep the halachos Yichud and Eruv Techumin-neither of which are considered of probibitions of a Biblical nature. Thus, even in the time of Ruth, contrary to the premise of the article, a convert accepted both Torah and rabbinic precepts.

We learn the accepted standards on conversion from Ruth because she took on ALL of the mitzvot, and her sincerity to live according to this lifestyle. There are no set number of classes, dunk in a swimming pool and go on your merry way -- that isn't fair to anyone sincerely looking to join the Jewish people and those who go the easy way are doing those potential converts a great disservice. When a person wants to do was is straight, good and right according to the Torah, Hashem helps and takes care of us... we also learn that from Ruth. The Torah is the greatest gift ever given to all of mankind, and the Jewish people are its guardians -- one must be knowledgeable and committed to protecting the grandest of crown jewels. Obviously doing what is right is not the easiest, but Hashem gives us strength we may have otherwise never been tested to understand we possess. Anyone like that would most certainly be accepted by any Beit Din.

The legality of Ruth's marriage can be confirmed by the action of Boaz. Although he wanted to marry Ruth, he knew that he would hsve to get the closes kin to waive his rights to the Leverite marriage that he should perform. The fact that he refused is indicated in Megillah Ruth as the Hebrew equivalent of John Doe indicating that his action was so wrong that he did not deserve to be mentioned by name in a holy book.
Ruth's declarations to Naomi showed her intention to accept all the mitzvots that were required of Jewish women. The fact that she had no reservations about her intentions would make her conversion legitimate before any Beit Din

It is because I love the Jewish people(s) that I am frustrated with them. They are their own worst enemies. Stop this fundamentalistic bickering among yourselves!

Clearly Ruth had a real conversion. She committed to doing the mitzvot, and did what was required by the beit - din at the time of her conversion.

Many converts do that today... whats the big deal?

Gary Rosenblatt is just looking for another excuse to bash the Orthodox. A common theme in the Jewish Week.

pretty silly article. rosenblatt does given any reason why he thinks that if Ruth lived under the current Chief Rabbinate of Israel she would not be accepted. he just want to inject his personal feelings

I know many farmers in my area, discouraged and out of money, who would allow their apples and pears rot on the ground, if not for a group called "The Gleaners." The Gleaners brighten things up with their quotations from the Book of Ruth. All I can say is Thank You. Thank you, Israel, for shining at least this small bit of joy on a depressed economy!

Regrettably, Rosenblatt's diatribe is marred by various unfounding assumptions, or to put it another way, he made it all up.

He thinks it inappropriate to require converts to accept the mitzvos. The problem is, that is what conversion is all about--just as native-born Jews are required to follow the commandments (many unfortunately do not, but that doesn't change the requirement), so are converts. Just as at Sinai we accepted to follow all the commandments, so must converts throughout the generations.

He thinks he knows the motivations behind the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's conversion standards, and that they are "to prevent sincere seekers from joining our people." I assume that the Chief Rabbinate would disagree with Rosenblatt's attempted mind-reading, and argue that requiring people to accept the requirements of a religion as part of their conversion to that religion is rather quite sensible.

Dear Reb Yid ( who is obviously unaware that the presentation of one's opinion is something to be proud of not to hide behind a veil like some Muslim terrorist)

Ronsenblatt, who is a reasonable fellow, wasn't implying that the acceptance of Mitzvot is not an integral part of the conversion process; what he said was that the erecting of barriers and the petty turf wars by which the Israeli Rabbinate has made the lives of Gerim and their loved ones a series of dead ends has done nothing positive for the Jewish people.

He might have added that this overbearing attitude and imposition of draconian rules by the Rabbanut may well force the democratic government in Israel to maintain a greater control of the Board's actions.

I loved this.*

* And I bet that Balaam would love this article too. (And my guess is that when Moses got mad after news of Balaam's death, it was not for the stated reason, but because he had not wanted Balaam to die. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but it's what I like to think.)

Balaam and his ass. Indeed. An amusing passage. But let me ask you this: When Balaam curses the nations of the world and names them off one by one, where is Egypt? Where is "Egypt" in his declaration!? Ask any expert at Harvard or Yale. They will tell you. Egypt rules the world at this moment. Balaam was just a bit forgetful, they will say. That will be the answer. "What a fool was Balaam!" That is the sort of comment these learned scholars will come back with, every time. Yes. Poor, foolish Balaam!

But it is not clear from the Book of Ruth where, when, and how she was converted. Her classic statement of intention to Naomi is very moving, but that does not constitute her conversion.

It is far more likely that she was converted in Beit-Lehem, before she was married to Boaz.

See the above comment re the timing. If Ruth had not been married under Jewish law in Moab, then there would have been no connection to Boaz or Mr Anonymous. The story relies on her having a relationship to the Bethlehem crowd through her prior marriage in Moab; and such marriage would have had no effect under Jewish law prior to her conversion. "Kiddushin" - the union under J law, does not take effect with a Gentile woman.

the aggadic interpretation that the conversation between Ruth and Naomi signified Ruth's conversion is inconsistent with the rest of the story. If Ruth's status changed at that point from non-Jew to Jew, then her prior marriage which ended with her husband's death would not have been a marriage under Jewish law. As such, there would have been no relationship between Ruth and the kinsmen in Bethlehem and there would have been no obligation or even inclination on their part to be protective of her or to include her in their families.

The real problem is that Ruth had a legitimate conversion prior to her first marriage; however, the Israeli Rabbinate wouldn't have accepted the conversion because the head Rabbi of Moab who performed the conversion once sat on an community compendium with a woman Conservative rabbi