“An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the congregation of God… because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt.” (Deut. 23:4-5)
This clearly prohibits Ammonites or Moabites from ever converting to Judaism. But what of Ruth the Moabite who converted to Judaism and was the grandmother of David King of Israel, progenitor of the Messiah? Was this a violation of the Torah (has veshalom)?
No! In fact the Talmud says: “Because of two doves (pure and righteous Ruth the Moabite and Naamah the Ammonite) the Holy One, Blessed Be He, had mercy on two great nations (Ammon and Moab) and did not destroy them. (Rashi in parenthesis). TB Baba Kammah 38.
In Yevamot 76b the Talmud explains that this verse only includes Ammonite or Moabite males. This is because the Torah gives us a reason for the prohibition. Since the Ammonites and Moabites did not greet us with sustenance along the way, or invite us to their homes, they are excluded from ever joining us. The Talmud explains that this would have been solely the role of the men, since it would not have been fitting for women of those nations to greet strangers and invite them into their homes. Since only men could have done this, the women are excluded from this prohibition according to the explanation given in the Torah.
When the Torah or our Rabbis prohibit something and do not give the reason for it the prohibition is intended to stand in all circumstances. However, if the prohibition comes with an explanation the prohibition applies only when the explanation applies.
This idea of permitting Moabite and Ammonite women to convert was given to Moses at Sinai as part of the oral tradition. But unfortunately it had fallen into disuse until the Bet Din of Boaz expounded on this dictum. When Ruth appeared the issue had already been clarified theoretically but had never been applied, since there had not been a Moabite female seeking conversion.
At the time she appeared before the court to apply for levirate marriage there was a closer relative named Tov who refused to marry her because he still considered it illegal to do so even though the court had found her acceptable under this law. Boaz, the next of kin after Tov, was head of the Bet Din and (without knowing the future) expounded the law permitting the marriage. He agreed to marry Ruth and ironically ended up applying his own teaching to his own situation. Alas! How many Rabbis live by their own dictates today, either stringent or lenient? Too few.
Shouldn’t our Rabbis today take a lesson from the court of Boaz to legislate for INCLUSION instead of exclusion? Shouldn’t they be finding ways to permit not prohibit? Whatever happened to the Talmudic dictum – Koach dehetera adif (the one who permits legally is a better scholar than the one who prohibits)?
Unfortunately, at the time many in the Jewish community did not accept the ruling of the Bet Din and continued to think of this union as forbidden. In fact, a terrible turn of events added to this problem. Boaz, who was then of very advanced age, ended up sleeping with her only once before he died. When Ruth had the baby he fathered very few celebrated the birth of the progenitor of the house of David on account of this cloud of doubt, which was by then reinforced by the “sudden” death of Boaz. The common folk said that his death proved it was forbidden; our Rabbis, however, comment that he was actually slated to die earlier but had been preserved so that he could marry her and father that child who would produce King David and later Mashiach. This doubt lingered on and was later used against King David, almost causing the destruction of our most important monarchy.
What do we learn from this? In today’s society some insist on calling someone who converted to Judaism a convert, thus maintaining a cloud over his head for no reason. If the Torah permits something, it is permitted. If it does not, it is not permitted. Calling a convert a “convert” serves only to maintain a lingering doubt about the person’s authenticity when this is neither necessary nor warranted. Rather, that person should be thought of as a Jew with the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of us.
Another lesson is that we can not simply make up explanations for Torah prohibitions and claim that these are the original rationales. The only explanations that legislate are the original explanations and conclusions that the Torah itself gives. Other forms of explanations should be prefaced by “in my opinion” or “it appears to me.” Otherwise the explanations become instruments for non-observance of the Torah. An example of this is the completely “manufactured” explanation that the kashruth laws were really enacted due to a lack of refrigeration, or to avoid trichinosis. This manufactured explanation has confused many into allowing themselves to eat treif. Biblical exegesis can only be accomplished by using the system that accompanied its revelation. All explanations or applications are subject to the traditional laws of exegesis as taught by our Rabbis. Otherwise they are not authentic and will always lead us away from observance.
Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Rigoberto & Rabanit Sandra Viñas & Family