Last Saturday night, following the inspiring Shavuot service led by our Confirmation students, I had the opportunity to lead a study session on Conversion and the Book of Ruth. Ruth is born a Moabite, a member of a tribe that practices idolatrous worship. Through marriage to an Israelite man named Chilion, she is introduced to the Israelite faith in one God. Over time, Ruth develops an exceptionally close relationship with her mother-in-law Naomi.
As we read in the first chapter, Chilion dies, and though Ruth could have remained in Moab, she is attached to her Naomi and accompanies her on a journey to Bethlehem. Though Naomi tries to dissuade her, Ruth declares: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”
In Judaism, Ruth is the paradigm of a Gioret Tz’dakah – a righteous convert. Her declaration epitomizes the choice that a convert makes in becoming a Jew as she affirms a belief in God as well as identifies as a member of a people. Faith and community are inextricable; a convert cannot have one without the other. Furthermore, in becoming a Jew, she is making a choice not only for the moment, but for all time. Her destiny is bound-up with the fate of the Jewish people.
The festival of Shavuot commemorates the Giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. We declare that all Israel, both past and present, stood at Sinai to receive God’s commandments. We might ask, is somebody who chooses to become a Jew on equal footing as somebody who is born Jewish?
Our sages emphatically answer: a convert is even more precious in God’s eyes than somebody who is born a Jew. “The Midrash teaches: Dearer to God is the convert who has come of his/her own accord than all the crowds of Israelites who stood before Mount Sinai. For had the Israelites not witnessed the thunders, lightings, quaking mountains, and sounding trumpets, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who saw not one of those things, came and offered himself/herself to the Holy One, and took the yoke of heaven upon himself/herself. Can anyone be dearer to God that this person?” (Tanchuma, Lech L’cha 6.32)