Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ruth-less Conversions

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.

8 comments:

MrZ said...

A second point is that Naomi identifies herself first with the Jewish people... Now this is interesting because, Naomi being considered the first convert to Judaism in Rabbinic literature

Typo; I think you mean Ruth.

Ben Avuyah said...

Great post,

That section of the story of ruth, reads so beautifuly.

I think this is one of many texts, that when read without mepharshim, shows an unembarrassed ancient view of monolatrism, as you mentioned.

When you read these texts, you "get a feel" for ancient jewish belief and tradition that is so far afield from current yeshiva conception, that when realized, it turns the forced interpertations into devices that dilute and lessen the text.


>>>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.

I was hopeing you would broaden your interpertation to include this ideal of identity and kinship as the centers of jewish belonginig, not just to converts, but to it's regular practitioners/othopractitioners as well !! :-)

dbs said...

Well, I guess that this is consistent with your ‘new’ view of Judaism, with your emphasis on tradition and practice as spiritual vehicles.

My reading of Ruth (and early Neviim) is a bit different. I don’t think that there was any such thing as ‘conversion’ per se in the pre-Rabbinical era. The term ‘ger’ simply means being a expatriate (or having a different national origin), and it was not so much ‘conversion’ as becoming a citizen of the Hebrew nation. Intermarriage was permissible, (except for the nations of Amon and Moav - which apparently not know at the time of Ruth), and citizenship was granted primarily through marrige. Other consorts, such as a ‘pilegesh’ were not legal wives and did not seem to have citizen status. Once you became a citizen, you were subject to all of the other rules and protections which then applied. Ruth, unmarried, identified herself as a ‘nachriah’ to Boaz. A vow of religious and/or national fidelity was nice, but it didn’t change her legal status.

I’m not presenting this as an argument regarding practice vs. ideology or tradition, (or as an opinion about ‘standards’ for conversion). This is simply (for me) a more sensible reading of the historical status of conversion.

Regarding your thesis about conversion, I suppose that what you are saying is true; the higher the bar, the more fidelity converts are likely to have. My problem with all of this stems from a deeper disagreement about your conclusions about the spiritual value of tradition and practice.

Orthoprax said...

MrZ,

Thanks, I've fixed the post.


Ben,

"I was hopeing you would broaden your interpertation to include this ideal of identity and kinship as the centers of jewish belonginig, not just to converts, but to it's regular practitioners/othopractitioners as well !! :-)"

I didn't say it, but I think the implications were there. Converts should be living up to the standards of the already formed observant community.

DBS,

I actually agree with your assessment of ancient societies in the near east vis-a-vis intermarriage and conversion. I was just using it as a model, not as a statement of actual parallel behavior.

"My problem with all of this stems from a deeper disagreement about your conclusions about the spiritual value of tradition and practice."

Well, I don't know how I can help here. What specifically bothers you about that?

Simon Holloway said...

First off, no mention is made in the text to Moabite gods. Orpah goes back to her people, not to any divinity. Also, when Boaz praises Ruth (2:11), he never mentions any gods that she left behind - only her family.

Secondly, Ruth's promise of Naomi's "god" being her "god" can just as easily be construed in the plural for it lacks a verb. You cannot learn anything about monotheism/latrism from this passage for it is just as possible here that the Israelites worshipped more than one deity and the Moabites only one.

Of course, we know this not to be true about the Israelites, but what evidence do you have of Moabites worshipping more than one god? So far as I'm aware, they worshipped Chemosh alone. Allusions may be found towards Mesopotamian deities but that proves nothing - such allusions abound within the more poetic sections of Tanakh as well.

Orthoprax said...

Simon,

"Orpah goes back to her people not to any divinity."

Did you miss verse 15? "'Look,' said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods.'"

"You cannot learn anything about monotheism/latrism from this passage for it is just as possible here that the Israelites worshipped more than one deity and the Moabites only one."

That may be, but I wasn’t attempting to prove anything here, just to show that it is another hit for the monolatrous theory.

"but what evidence do you have of Moabites worshipping more than one god? So far as I'm aware they worshipped Chemosh alone."

See research done on the famous Mesha Stele. In it are reference to a female counterpart of Chemosh Ashtar-Chemosh and possibly the god Nebo. Though..I don’t know how this is really relevant.

Baal Habos said...

Daniel, nice post.

> ... indicates that Judaism was rather different in those days than it is today.

That's apparent also in the "Levirate" marriage of Rus to Boaz. With Bibilical or Rabbinical law, the concept of Levirate marriage applies only to a brother. Also, as I was reading your post it ocurred to me that if Levirate marriage was obligatory, as it is considered today, why did Boaz and Ploni Almoni not attempt to "redeem" (or do Chalitza) with Naomi herself? We know Naomi felt she was capable of procreation, but apparantly was not considered as requiring protection or redemtion. Hmmm. it seems to fit in with DH. The story of Rus, i.e. the custom of redeeming (protecting?) a young widow perhaps was codified after Hosia, albeit in a different format.

Orthoprax said...

Baal,

Quite right. If you familiarize yourself of much of Tanach you see that some practices that characters do are at odds with Torah Judaism and even moreso with modern Judaism.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing, though it is likely that most dogmatic people would not see it that way. A living religion is one that grows and changes. Stagnancy means death.