Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Credit: Chaim Snow

The Jewish Attitude Toward the Convert

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

“Wherever you go, I shall go….Your nation will be my nation, your God my God…. “(Ruth 1:16)

Despite the conventional wisdom that Judaism attempts to “push away” converts, and in contrast to the many horror stories about aspiring converts who were alienated, discouraged and even “turned off” by the road blocks they experienced at the hands of a bureaucratic and insensitive orthodox rabbinate, Judaism as depicted in the Biblical Book of Ruth which we read on Shavuot is truly welcoming to those desirous of entering the fold. It shows that Jews by choice are worthy of much praise.

The heroine of this story of “autumnal” romance – with its sub-plots of the tragedy of living in an assimilating and destructive exile versus a rags-to-riches redemptive life in Israel – is a convert to Judaism. She is not an ordinary convert at that; she is a Moabite convert. The Bible demands that Moabites never be enabled to become “Jewish,” but our rabbis teach that it was the Religious Court led by Boaz which ruled that this prohibition applied only to male Moabites, and not to females.

Jewish tradition maintains that King David (who was born and died on Shavuot) was the progenitor of and prototype for our anxiously awaited Messiah. Is it not astonishing that his pedigree harkens back to Ruth, a Moabite convert?  Moreover, is it not remarkable that we read of the odyssey of a Jew by choice specifically as part of our celebration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai? Clearly, throughout the Book of Ruth, Judaism is urging our user-friendly attitude towards sincere converts.

This sacred text sets the stage for what is expected of the convert as well as from the people around him/her.  Ruth’s initial motivation had a great deal to do with her deep affection for her mother-in-law, Naomi. The halakha is to accept a convert, even if what initially sparked his Jewish interest was a personal or romantic interest, as long as by the end of the process the convert has sincerely become enamored with Judaism as a philosophy and lifestyle (B.T.  Shabbat 31, Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 268). In the authoritative words of the Shakh, “everything depends on the assessment of the judge, as to whether the candidate is now sufficiently interested in Judaism.  Indeed, many of the official Israeli Religious Courts are more disposed to accept converts who wish to marry a religious Jewish person.

Naomi felt it incumbent to explain to Ruth and Orpah that since it was biologically impossible for her to have more sons, she would not have husbands for them. Moreover, she was returning in a penniless state to Israel for she “has been struck down by the hand of God, and her lot is a bitter one” (Ruth 1:13). When Ruth, nevertheless, made her commitment, Naomi accepted her as a daughter.

This is reflected in the Talmud which teaches that one must explain to the would-be convert that the Jews are a persecuted people – but once the aspiring Jew says he knows that, and still feels unworthy, he is to be accepted as a Jew at once.  This is because it is a mitzvah to convert, and a mitzvah must be done as soon as possible (B.T. Yevamot 47).

Ruth’s commitment is likewise what is required today:  “Your nation is my nation,” reflects the acceptance of the Jewish nationality, its history, culture, and allegiance to a specific land as expressed through ritual immersion – “rebirth” – and circumcision for males.  “Your God is my God” reflects the acceptance of the commandments.  However, no Talmudic Sage maintains that the convert must initially be thoroughly conversant with all the 613 commandments.  The conversion candidate must be informed of several of the more stringent laws and several of the more lenient laws. The Religious Court is not to be heavy-handed or exacting (Ibid 47b).  Conversion is seen as the beginning of a process and not necessarily its conclusion.

When Ruth joins other indigent Jews to glean the leftover or forgotten sheaves of the harvest, she sees the kindness of Boaz and asks, “Why have I found grace in your eyes, so that you singled me out (for protection and sensitivity)? I am a stranger.” Boaz, perhaps a bit embarrassed by his burgeoning amorous interest, responds by comparing Ruth to the first Hebrew, the primary Jew-by-choice, Abraham:  “All that you did for mother-in-law has been told to me; you left your father, your mother and the land of your birth for a nation which you did not know yesterday or the day before” (Ruth 2:10,11; Gen 12:1).

Hence, it is not at all surprising that Rabbenu Saadia Gaon invokes the Biblical imperative to “love the stranger” from the moment an individual shows some interest in Judaism. Maimonides also takes the commandment to love the Lord to mean that “one must attempt to make God beloved to the Gentile world” by exposing His great deeds and just laws to all of humanity (Book of Commandments, Positive Command 3).  Ruth joins Jethro as a prototypical Gentile who is inspired by the teachings of our Torah.

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