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.
* * * * *
Right here in Bethlehem,
And people still relate this tale,
Which quite astonished them.
When famine had reduced the land,
And people everywhere,
Were forced to seek their food abroad,
In hopes they’d find it there,
‘Twas then Naomi with her house,
To Moab took her leave,
Expecting to improve their lot,
And their distress relieve.
And many saw her when she left,
With husband virile and strong,
They left this place to venture far,
And took their sons along.
But shortly then her husband died,
And she was left alone,
Except for two young sons she had,
She nothing else did own.
Now, for a while she lived in hope,
For each son took a wife,
But when her sons themselves then died,
A pall came o’er her life.
And Orpah was a daughter while,
The other was named Ruth,
And in that land the Jews were few,
And neither was, in truth.
About that time she heard that God,
Had eased His people’s lot,
In Judah there was hope once more,
In Moab there was not.
She set her face for home again,
And to her daughters said,
"Remain here with your people now,
For my two sons are dead.
"I thank you for your love to them,
And how you kept your oath,
May God now show you kindness and,
Most richly bless you both.
"And may you other husbands find,
And safely once again,
Abide within a fruitful home,
And bear your children then.
"My life is bitter for the hand,
Of God opposes me,
And if you choose to follow now,
The worse for you ’twill be."
So Orpah then her mother kissed,
While bidding her good-by,
But Ruth embraced Naomi and,
In whispers did reply,
"Entreat me not, O mother dear,
Your presence now to flee,
For more are you to me than what,
A man might ever be.
"Entreat me not to turn as those,
Of lesser love would do,
My foot withholding from the path,
And leave pursuing you.
"The God I’ve known to be your God,
Shall be my God as well,
Your people shall be mine and where,
You find your home, I’ll dwell.
"And when death’s darksome voice does call,
Entreat me not, I say,
For there content, fulfilled, expired,
My body will they lay.
"And not but death shall separate,
My clinging soul from you,
May God do so and more to me,
If e’er I prove untrue."
And thus they went to Bethlehem,
Inseparable as one,
The Moabitess was seen there,
But of the family, none.
And some, recalling well the day,
She left, then said aloud,
"Can this, whom now our eyes behold,
Be she who left so proud?"
"Say not ‘Naomi’," she replied,
"Which speaks of pleasant fame,
For God has lifted up His hand,
And bitter is my name.
"I left so full long years ago,
And now I have returned,
Affliction is my lot from God,
Who all my pleas has spurned."
Now, barley ripened, gold and full,
And to the fields she went,
This Ruth in hopes she’d glean a bit,
Ere harvest time was spent.
And though ’twas thought God did forsake,
This lonely, weary pair,
His caring hand was not withdrawn,
In truth, had led her there.
For in the fields of Boaz did,
She find herself that day,
Who, when he learned just who she was,
Invited her to stay.
He was a man of honor and,
Forbade his men to touch,
This winsome lass of foreign birth,
Of whom he’d heard so much.
And when she questioned how it was,
Such favor he had shown,
"Your love to Naomi," he said,
"Is now quite widely known,"
"And what you’ve done for her and how,
You left your home behind,
And chose this land to make your own,
And here your fate to find.
"May God, beneath whose wings you’ve found,
A refuge, richly bless,
For kindness to our sister shown,
Midst sorrow and distress."
At home that night Naomi learned,
How Boaz had embraced,
Her daughter Ruth and kept her from,
The dangers she had faced.
She saw the mighty hand of God,
At work once more therein,
And offered praise and thanks to Him,
For Boaz was her kin!
"Return again," she said to Ruth,
"And listen to me now,
For Boaz is redeemer-kin,
And if you will allow,
"It’s in our hands to work things and,
To open wide his eyes,
Assisting every effort that,
Will help him win this prize!
"Tonight you’ll sleep right at his feet,
And when he wakens say,
‘Please spread your garment over me,
As kin now let me stay.’"
So quickly to the threshing floor,
Ruth hastened to obey,
And quietly she stole inside,
And at his feet then lay.
And when discovered she replied,
Just as Naomi said,
As kin he had redeemer rights,
To purchase her and wed.
"Oh, noble woman," Boaz said,
"Quite justly is your name,
Revered among our townsmen since,
That blessed day you came.
"You’ve followed not in chase of men,
Of younger age than I,
Nor sought them whether rich or poor,
Their wants to gratify.
"Though foreign born you’ve led a life,
Both wise and virtuous,
A child of Abraham in truth,
And you are one of us.
"But now I tell you of a man,
With closer blood than mine,
Whose right it is to purchase you,
If he will so incline."
So Boaz met the man before,
The elders and, in brief,
The man renounced all right to Ruth,
(Which caused no small relief!)
A wedding followed shortly then,
When Boaz took her hand,
And ne’er was seen a greater feast,
They say, throughout the land.
And blessed were they by elders and,
The women of the place,
Who prayed their union would be strong,
And offspring thus embrace.
Now God who hears each humble prayer,
And turns away not one,
Most clearly heard those ardent pleas,
And granted them a son.
And from that line then came to us,
A man who in our lore,
Stands tall above all others as,
A prince and man of war.
Yes, David was descended from,
This strange, unlikely pair,
Whose son, the prophets have foretold,
Messiah’s crown would wear.