Universal systems

Universal systems

Bemidbar - Numbers 1:1-4:20

This weekend we celebrate Shavuot, called in tradition Z’man Matan Torateinu, “the season of the giving of our Torah.” It is a pleasant coincidence that the Torah reading for this Shabbat, immediately preceding the holiday, is entitled Bemidbar (“In the wilderness”). Rabbinic tradition asserts that the Torah was given in the wilderness to demonstrate that it was not the property of a landed tribe but rather was available to anyone who chose to claim it as theirs.

In addition to the dazzling narrative of the revelation of the Torah read on Shavuot morning (Exodus 19-20), there is a wonderful additional story that is coordinated with the holiday. The Book of Ruth, one of the five megillot (scrolls) found in the Bible, is assigned to this holiday.

Ruth is the Moabite daughter-in-law of an Israelite woman named Naomi. When Naomi, Ruth, and her sister-in-law Orpah are all widowed within a brief period, Naomi urges the daughters-in-law to leave her and go find new husbands. Orpah does so, but Ruth pledges herself to Naomi with these words: “Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

Based on this pledge — and subsequent developments that result in Ruth’s marriage to an Israelite named Boaz and her becoming the progenitor of a family line that eventually will produce (King) David — rabbinic tradition reckons Ruth the first “convert.”

In the context of the story, however, the term “convert” is an anachronism. The religion of ancient Israel up to the fall of the first Temple in 586 BCE does not provide for what we know as “religious conversion.” Rather, one could live among the national Israelite community and identify with it by virtue of taking up residence in the land of Israel and abiding by the rules and regulations.

Perhaps the best analogy may be an immigrant who takes up permanent residence in the United States and has the green card that enables her/him to live among and work in the population. Compliance with the laws of the land is expected. But full citizenship is withheld unless and until one declares one’s willingness to swear allegiance. Ruth, of course, makes just such a declaration, suggesting that she is not a resident alien but a member of the people.

Ruth’s story is both touching and noble; it speaks of the centrality of hesed — fidelity, loyalty, reliability, stability, and trustworthiness. Ruth binds herself to Naomi, binds herself to a people, and, through her acts of kindness and courage, becomes an exemplar of decency and vision.

Shavuot becomes the occasion for reading Ruth because of the rabbinic connection between Torah and identity. Shavuot affirms that the Torah and the Jewish people are not closed systems, but rather are (potentially) universal systems that welcome all who in sincerity and faith pledge their fate with that of the Jewish people.

Much debate exists in our Jewish community about the wisdom of devoting communal energy, staffing, and resources to programs of “outreach” designed to increase the number of converts to Judaism. Some believe this to be a religious imperative; others see it as diluting scarce resources needed to shore up the dwindling core community of affirmative Jews.

The story of Ruth, which suggests that no less a personality than King David descended from someone who chose to join the Jewish people, and the rabbinic understanding that Ruth is the paradigm of the righteous convert suggest that efforts to welcome those who seek affiliation with the Jewish people may be among the most meaningful work we as a community can do.

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