The Mahzor Vitri suggests that Ruth, by converting to Judaism, entered into a covenant with God, just as the people of Israel entered into a covenant with God by accepting the Torah on Shavuot. Thus, Jews around the world read the Book of Ruth, a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism. Ruth however, was not the first person to convert to Judaism; Abraham and Sarah were. And they in turn, influenced many other non-Jews to convert.
The Torah tells us that when Abraham and Sarah left Haran to go to the Land of Canaan, many of their converts joined them on their journey. When Jacob’s sons married, most of them married the descendants of Abraham and Sarah’s early converts. How do we know this?
Because only God can make a soul. Yet the Torah states that when Avram and Sarai left Haran to go to the land of Canaan, they took with them some members of their family, and the “souls that they made in Haran”. (Genesis 12:5) But how can any human make a soul?
Rashi, the famous 11th century French Biblical commentator, explains using a Midrash by Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra that says “the souls that they made” refers to the many converts they made.
But the question still remains; how is a Jewish soul made from, or for, a non-Jew? In reality the transition from not being Jewish to feeling and thinking Jewish is a gradual one. In Islam and Christianity God comes first. The proclamation that “Allah is God and Muhammad is his Prophet” makes a person a Muslim. Believing Jesus is God’s son, and your personal savior, makes a person a Christian.
For Christians and Muslims a valid conversion experience can take only a few hours or less.
For Jews however, the conversion process can take months: and connecting to the Holy One of Israel usually occurs towards the end of the ‘becoming Jewish’ process.
This follows the pattern established by Ruth, one of the most famous non-Jews to become Jewish. She states, “Where ever you go, I will go. Wherever you live (even in the Land of Israel), I will live. Your people, shall be my people. Your God, shall be my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Think about the following questions:
1- Why does Ruth list God toward the end of the process, and not at the beginning?
2- Is it because Judaism does not teach that everyone needs to become Jewish to be saved or to go to heaven.* Or because Judaism does not teach that everyone has to believe in monotheism in the same way Jews do. For most Jews, behaving like a Mentch is more important than believing the correct theology about God.
3- For most Jews, feeling love for the Jewish people, Jewish culture, the Land of Israel, and living a moral and positive Jewish life is more important than believing the correct theology. Most Rabbis would agree with the above teachings.
Most Reform and Progressive Rabbis would add that the desire to study and discuss Torah; combined with the desire to do both ethical and ritual Mitsvot, is more important than believing in God, because studying Torah and doing Mitsvot lead people to God.
Thus, love of God is the goal, not the starting point for all born Jews; and for all those non-Jews who choose to join our community.
4- When you fall in love, you meet the person first and go out. Then you start sharing your life and living together. When you marry you become part of another family; and your children create another family. When, after living a loving life with your partner and your family, you finally die, you will know that you have in truth lived a life blessed by God.
Thus Ruth says, “Where ever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, I will live. Your people, shall be my people. Your God, shall be my God. Where you die, there will I die. And there will I be buried.” So help me God. (Ruth 1:16-17)
Becoming Jewish is desiring to live and love Jewishly because there is underneath that love, a hidden, slowly self revealing Jewish identity of a soul that desires to return home; to where the soul belongs.
* “The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come.” (Jerusalem Talmud)