Shavuot is traditionally celebrated as the anniversary of the reception of the Torah at Sinai. In ancient Israel it was a celebration of the wheat harvest. For this reason, it became associated with converts who voluntarily “received the Torah,” and is the reason that the book of Ruth is read during this holiday. (The book of Ruth mainly takes place during the wheat harvest, and the eponymous protagonist was a convert.)
The book of Ruth raises some interesting questions about the nature of conversion. Ruth’s affirmation of identity with the Jewish people (Ruth 1:16) comes after her Israelite husband had already died, which implies that she was in an intermarriage forbidden by the Torah. Furthermore, she did not undergo any of the rituals that are now required by halacha. Her conversion was simply an affirmation and willingness to live in the Jewish community, “where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people.” And this “conversion by affirmation” seems to have been unchallenged by the community that she and her mother in law lived in, culminating in her marriage to her dead husband’s relative, Boaz.
Orthodox Jews claim that the text is incomplete, and that she in fact went before a bet din and immersed in a mikveh in order to convert to Judaism. This is false. There were no rabbis during the time that the story was set, nor was there a standard ritual for “conversion” beyond the necessity of circumcision for men. Furthermore, the story is mythological, not historical, and was likely meant to serve some propagandistic purpose related to marriages between Israelites and foreigners explicitly forbidden by the Torah.
What relevance does the book of Ruth have today? The story of Ruth supports the standard of conversion and Jewish identity practiced by the Society for Humanistic Judaism:
“[T]here are no beliefs or teachings that all Jews share and that define their membership in the Jewish community. Jewish atheists are no less Jewish than are Jewish theists. Viewed in this light, “adoption” into the Jewish “family,” rather than conversion to a religious faith, more accurately conveys the meaning of the process by which a person not born of a Jewish mother or father becomes a member of the Jewish community. A person’s decision to be Jewish makes her or him so. Often in preparation for the decision, the prospective adoptee undertakes a program of study and introspection, usually under the guidance of a knowledgeable leader or teacher […] A formal ritual of acceptance into the Jewish people, though unnecessary, is appropriate. Neither mikva (ritual bath/immersion) nor ritual circumcision is recommended or required.”
Guide to Humanistic Judaism
“We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish experience regardless of their ancestry. We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily or exclusively a religious community and that religious convictions or behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people […]
“We Jews have a moral responsibility to welcome all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. The children and spouses of intermarriage who desire to be part of the Jewish people must not be cast aside because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to undergo religious conversion. The authority to define ‘who is a Jew’ belongs to all the Jewish people and cannot be usurped by any part of it.
“In response to the destructive definition of a Jew now proclaimed by some Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we, therefore, affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.”
IFSHJ Statement: Who Is a Jew?
On this Shavuot, let us honor and celebrate all those who choose to join the Jewish people. Let us celebrate the story of Ruth which teaches that love and acts of kindness between individuals can overcome legalistic bigotry and xenophobia.