Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.
The Scroll of Ruth is traditionally read in the synagogue before the Torah reading on the morning of Shavuot. This beautiful, gentle story weaves together a human, family drama, a description of the agricultural life of ancient Israel, laws of the Torah, and the larger historical picture (King David was a great grandson of Ruth and Boaz). Reading this Megilah on Shavuot helps restore some of the "Israel context" of the holiday. After all, the Torah was given in the Sinai desert, not in Israel and today, our main association with Shavuot is the giving of the Torah. With modernization and diasporization, the agricultural basis of the festival has largely become submerged. Ruth helps return us to the original context of the day, in the beginning of the barley harvest (1:22), when the mitzvah of leaving the corners of the field unharvested, for the poor, was really practiced.
Biblical texts, of course, take on greater or lesser degrees of meaning and relevance as our historical and cultural circumstances change. In every generation and every place, we read through different lenses and hence see the characters and their behaviors differently. This year, in the Israeli daily newspaper to which we subscribe, there were three separate op-ed pieces in the erev Shavuot edition relating the story of Ruth to Israeli immigration policies. While each took a slightly different tack, relating to different aspects of the problem (foreign workers, Palestinian family reunification, conversion), all were based on the assumption that their readers would know the story of Ruth, that they would know of its association with the holiday, and that they would appreciate the attempt to translate the ancient narrative to a modern context.
So here we have Ruth, a Jew by choice, leaving behind her birth family and culture and homeland to follow her mother-in-law back to Eretz Yisrael. And her devotion is rewarded as she becomes the ancestor of the Davidic dynasty. The questions come thick and fast:
· Would Ruth have been allowed in under the Law of Return?
· Would the immigration police have deported her if they caught her?
· What kind of conversion did she undergo? Reform? Orthodox?
· Or was her simple declaration of loyalty to Naomi, her people and her religion, sufficient?
· How did this moving biblical account of a personal connection overcoming the ethnic and religious gap morph into the traditional suspicion of and antagonism toward prospective converts?
The Zionist revolution in the nature of Jewish identity has created weird dissonances regarding conversion. If Jewish identity is seen as secular and national, it would seem that one ought to be able to join the Jewish people by means of some kind of secular naturalization process. Yet, while many (Im not sure its even a majority) of non-religious Israelis disagree with the policy that all conversion is an orthodox religious process here, rarely does one hear any ideas for how to replace it. Indeed, it is an interesting dilemma: should there be such a thing as non-religious conversion to Judaism? i.e., should there be a way to join the Jewish people without accepting the tenets of Jewish religion (Orthodox, Reform, or whatever)? Which leads to the harder question: if we separate Jewish identity from state power, will we not ultimately separate Jewish from Israeli identity, and thus remove the content from the concept of Jewish state? And if we do that, what will we have left of the Zionist vision?