So we read on the first day of Shavuous the story of Ruth. Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons have gone into the land of Moab because there's been a famine in Israel. The two sons marry Moabite women, one of them being Ruth. Then all the men die through unstated agents and the three women are left as widows. Oy, so what do they do now?
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband." Then she kissed them and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, "We will go back with you to your people." 11 But Naomi said, "Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons- 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me!" 14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 15 "Look," said Naomi, "your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her."
16 But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
I think there are a couple of fascinating points I'd like to take from this excerpt. For one, the fact that Orpah is said to have gone back to her people and to her gods after leaving Naomi indicates that Judaism was rather different in those days than it is today. Note that she wasn’t really a convert at all, but was merely intermarried with a Jew. If we go with the monolatrous idea, that the Israelites didn’t say other gods didn’t exist, but rather that they were just not worthy of being worshiped, then we can understand how Orpah can go back to her own gods once she leaves the ways of the Israelites. She married into a belief system and then she widowed out of it.
A second point is that Ruth identifies herself first with the Jewish people (I know I’m using the term anachronistically) and only secondly as a believer in the Jewish deity. "Your people will be my people and your God my God." In fact, she doesn’t emphasize her beliefs in any way, just her loyalties. Now this is interesting because, Ruth being considered the first convert to Judaism in Rabbinic literature, we could use it as a good model for modern conversions.
A true convert to Judaism needs to show not that they necessarily understand or believe in the basic theological and historical claims of Orthodoxy, but that they are willing, if not eager, to make their lot one with the Jewish people and to share in its future. This is more akin to naturalization to nations than to conversion in typical religions. Adoption of Jewish practices, living a Jewish life, engrossing oneself in Jewish scholarship and obtaining a Jewish identity while making an open and serious commitment to the idea of the Jewish people as a whole is what should be needed for modern conversions.
Of further interest is the fact that Naomi at first tries to argue with her daughters-in-law to leave and go back to their previous homes, but she only stops arguing with Ruth when she realizes that Ruth was determined to go with her. This meshes well with the traditional practice of discouraging prospective converts until they prove their dedication.
Such demands will likely make many of the converts for marriage uncomfortable, but we need to take our own heritage and identity seriously if we want others to take it seriously too. Allowing anyone to join the club without any sort of preliminary effort or dedication cheapens Judaism. Cheap intermarriage will get you Orpahs, who will bail when things get tough. If we want converts, we want Ruths.