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Ruth: A Model Convert

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.



5 Comments

  1. “…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, …. 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….”

    To this I ask: what about those who might consider conversion as a means of embracing their Jewish heritage and ancestry, which happens to come from his/her father’s side, thus disqualifying them from being Jewish??? Such person would not be ‘leaving a family behind and adopting the heritage of a stranger’. Rather they are embracing and affirming their Jewish side.

    These persons would not be the ‘Ruths’ of the conversion world. What about these people? Are they not ‘converts’? Is a good convert only one who crosses over from a totally non Jewish world?

    robin

    Comment by robin — September 10, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  2. Levi was reporting on the article. We at JOI welcome anyone who wants to enter the Big Tent of the Jewish community irrespective of where they came from or how they got there.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — September 10, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  3. Robin - All of humanity are the children of a loving God. No one should question you because of who your parents were. It is not about tribalism, country clubs, politics, or xenophobia - a Jewish spiritual practice is about kindness, love, compassion - to be holy, as God created us. People who can’t embrace differences suffer from a spiritual illness. The voice of love in you is the voice of God.

    Comment by Sara — September 14, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  4. Thank-you all for your input. I am in no way criticizing the story of Ruth or that she is a model convert. Nor would I even imagine that someone coming to conversion from another angle of experience would be turned away. I simply wanted to highlight that with the growing ‘grey area’ consisting of persons of Jewish descent who are not ‘Jews’ per se, defining the ‘convert’, i.e. where they are coming from and how they are approaching conversion, is (perhaps) becoming harder to do.

    robin

    Comment by robin — September 14, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

  5. Yes, Robin -

    I agree. It does seem as if there are gray areas in which one is neither a Jew nor a convert, which may be further complicated by any one of a number of factors like patrilineal descent and/or estrangement from Jewish culture and/or having had Jewish grandparents and/or being adopted, etc.

    My preferred response: Sidestep the entire debate about whether I am a convert or a Jew or something else entirely. Figure it out for myself using a combination of books, recordings, videos, websites - and whatever assistance I can gain from independent teachers and rabbis willing to answer my questions without requiring a pedigree. Personally I would rather not have the “Who is a Jew” conversation, because it takes time and energy away from learning.

    :)

    Comment by Sara — September 15, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

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