Conservative Judaism, the journal of the Conservative movement, has a fascinating article on why Ruth is often referred to as the first true Jew-by-Choice. Robert Goldenberg, professor of History and Judaic studies at Stony Brook University, wonders what about Ruth’s story makes her stand out when compared to others in our history that preceded Ruth in their affirmations of Judaism.
He focuses on two people: Rahab and Naaman. Rahab was an innkeeper who shelters two Jewish spies in Jericho. Rahab explains her willingness to help these two despite punishment if discovered by acknowledging “the ability of Israel’s god to dominate the present situation.” Her affirmation was for self preservation.
Naaman, an Aramean general, came down with leprosy and was cured by listening to the prophet Elisha, who told him to bathe in the Jordan River. He too acknowledges the power of the god of Israel, but “reserves the right to go on worshipping his own god Rimmon.”
Which brings us to Ruth. Why is she the “model convert?” Why did we name our program for women Jews-by-choice Empowering Ruth? Goldenberg offers a couple of theories, such as how her lineage leads to King David, or how her “character is immensely appealing.” But most importantly, she chose Judaism for nothing more than a deep sense of loyalty to the Jewish people. Rahab feared for her life, Naaman didn’t give up his other God. Of the three, only Ruth did so voluntarily.
This is why Ruth’s story abides. “Ruth is the model of a modern convert, someone for whom becoming a Jew means joining a nation or a people more than acknowledging a god,” Goldenberg writes. She left her own people to become part of a new community, and “modern readers know what it must have meant for Ruth to leave a family behind and adopt the heritage of stranger.” We look to Ruth because she made a tremendous sacrifice, and through her example we should always make sure our doors are open for everyone who seeks to become part of our community.