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Ruth, the Perfect Convert
By Larry Fine
The story of Ruth has been canonized in the Books of the Bible, the Tanach, for a very special and positive reason. Ruth was a Moabite; a member of a gentile nation; yet her personality was so overwhelmingly filled with positive character traits that she has become the prototype of what a Jewish woman should strive for.
Ruth left her noble family, for she was descendent from royalty, she left her family's heritage to endure the hardships of a convert to the young Jewish nation. She endured difficulties and poverty while rejecting an easy life of luxury that included idolatry. She made the decision to follow the laws of Moses in spite of the many difficulties and hardships that it entailed; a life perhaps with no future promise other than that of following the true path, a life with no guarantee of marriage and children, a life wrought with the inconveniences of observance of the divine commandments. And because of her selfless giving and her determination to change to be a Jew, she was indeed rewarded that she should have as her grandson none other than David, the king of Israel.
From the story of this righteous convert, the rabbis of the Talmud and Mishna learn many lessons, especially those in regard to conversion.
Naomi, Ruth's future mother-in-law, together with her wealthy husband Elimelech, left the land of Israel during a period of famine. They took their two sons Machlon and Kilyon to the neighboring land of Moab and there they dwelt for several years. While there, the two sons, Machlon and Kilyon, took for wives two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. But G-d saw this leaving the Land of Israel during a time that the people needed Elimelech's support as a grave sin and all three perished, Elimelech and his two sons Machlon and Kilyon in the land of Moab, leaving Naomi with her two daughter-in-laws.
Eventually the famine in the land of Israel subsided and Naomi, now destitute and impoverished, lacking any family in Moab, decided to return to her home lands and her people. She informed her two daughters-in-law that she would be leaving and she advised them to return to their own people, to their own homes to their mothers' families. She could offer them nothing in Israel, she would be returning destitute, and once there, the two girls would have no chance of finding a suitable mate. Orphan tearfully kissed her mother-in-law good-bye and left, but Ruth told Naomi (Ruth1:16)
"Do not force me to leave you, for where you shall go, so shall I go. Where you shall dwell, so shall I dwell. Your people are my people and your G-d is my G-d. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried. Thus G-d shall do to me, and more, only death shall separate you form me."
From this brief monologue that Ruth spoke to Naomi, the rabbis learnt out the principles of conversion and many rules for accepting converts.
For where you shall go, so shall I go from this the rabbis learnt that when some one desires to convert, he or she is informed of the various punishments for the transgression of the laws of the Torah. In this manner, a prospective convert can easily change his mind before getting involved in our way of life. They are taught some of the laws of Shabbat, some laws pertaining to modesty and separation of the sexes, and the strict prohibition of idolatry.
The task of the conversion is to separate out those who desire to convert for ulterior motives. When a gentile converts his/her desire should be in order to worship the One G-d and to follow the path of truth and humility. Yet there are many who look upon becoming Jewish as a key to entry into a society which will provide them with benefits that they would not have been able to achieve as a gentile. It could be for marital reasons, business reasons or even today to run away from something in their life; but is this a valid reason for becoming Jewish?
The rabbis advocate that the gentile reconsider his desires; that as a gentile he/she has done no wrong by working on the Shabbat, but if they convert and work on the Shabbat, they commit a grave sin. The rabbis speak to them about the value of not being a Jew; that through the generations, the gentiles have always discriminated against the Jew. Being a Jew means being at a disadvantage and subject to prejudice and hatred.
It is only after telling the prospective gentile of the possible negative aspects of being Jewish and that he must consider carefully before continuing the conversion process and that he may leave behind this desire and continue to be a gentile. Only if he refuses to be put off, that he shows a strong desire to become Jewish, that he is willing to endure intolerance and suffering that the rabbis will consider him for conversion.
Unlike other religions, specifically Christianity and to a lesser degree Islam, Judaism does not believe that all mankind must convert. A gentile may be a righteous gentile and a fine person with out conversion. However conversion is an important part of drawing close to G-d. The responsibilities of a Jews in regard to his fellow Jews and to his G-d are much more involved than that of a gentile to his fellow gentile and G-d.
The book of Ruth is an important source for dedication and perseverance. She underwent poverty, labored hard, and it eventually paid dividends both in this world and in the world to come.
The Book of Ruth can be read at any time. It is traditional to read it during the Festival of Shavout.
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from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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