Why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot? The most common explanation is that just as the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai, Ruth accepted the Torah by converting. Just as we celebrate on Shavuot the covenant made at Sinai, which placed the Torah at the center of our lives, so we celebrate the subsequent acceptance of that covenant by converts ever since. Ruth thus symbolizes our inclusion of converts among the Jewish people throughout the ages.
Certainly, Ruth is a valuable symbol of the importance of converts. We learn at the end of the book (4:17) that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David, and we know from later prophecy that it is from the house of David that the Messiah will arise. It’s hard to imagine a greater sign of the Jewish tradition’s welcome to converts than the acknowledgement that a convert will be among the ancestors of the Messiah.
It’s also hard to imagine an attitude less conspicuous today among the self-proclaimed Torah leaders of our generation. The halakhic sources do not allow them to reject the legitimacy of conversion outright, so they do what seems the next best thing — they make the barriers to conversion so onerous as to seem insurmountable to any but the most resolute prospective converts. They insist on a commitment to shemirat mitzvot (ritual observance) at a level exceeding that of most halakhically committed Jews. They even hold in reserve the possibility of retroactively annulling the conversions of those whose observance in later years dips below what they deem an acceptable standard of observance, refusing to apply the well-known dictum that a Jew who sins remains a Jew.
One unintended consequence of this process is the message that excessively high barriers to entry into the Jewish people sends to those born into the halakhic community. I have long since lost count of the number of halakhic Jews whom I have heard express incredulity at the notion that someone not born Jewish would take on the burden of Torah voluntarily. They see the life of Torah as more of a burden than a benefit, and they thus find it inconceivable that someone who was not obligated in it would choose to take it on.
Are our Torah leaders so isolated from those they seek to lead that they have not heard such sentiments expressed? How long do they think it will take before those who express those sentiments jump to the natural conclusion that all prospective converts are presumptively insincere? How much longer before the doubts some rabbinic leaders have sowed as to the sincerity of converts will affect the community’s attitudes toward ba’alei teshuva (returnees to halakhic Judaism) as well, making the work of kiruv (outreach) even harder than it already is?
Down this path lies disaster. We must resist the temptation to respond to modernity’s challenges by emphasizing the burden rather than the joy of Torah. We must seek to shine the light of Torah as widely as possible over a world that is in desperate need of it, and not withdraw into our ever more tightly constructed cocoons. In our increasingly interconnected world. isolation is not a viable strategy. It is precisely those who experience Torah as a burden who are at greatest risk of joining the ranks of those whom we colloquially refer to as “off the derekh.”
Perhaps the Book of Ruth can give us some inspiration. When Boaz announced his intention to marry Ruth despite her Moabite origins, the people of Bethlehem responded with joy:
All the people of the gate and the elders answered: We are [witnesses] May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel. … And may your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore to Judah — through the offspring which the Lord will give you this young woman.
(Ruth 4:11-13, JPS translation).
An obvious question arises. We have no problem understanding the reference to Rachel and Leah, the wives of the Patriarch Jacob and mothers of the Jewish people why mention Peretz? True, as we will find out a few verses later (4:18-21), Peretz is Boaz’s ancestor, but why single him out? Boaz has other illustrious ancestors. Yet not only does the Book of Ruth single out Peretz, but it focuses attention on the circumstances of Peretz’s birth Those circumstances (Gen. 38:1-30), do not, to put it mildly, show Judah (Peretz’s father) in the best possible light. His initial refusal to allow Tamar to marry his son Shelah, his patronage of a woman whom he believed to be a prostitute and his eagerness to condemn Tamar does not speak well of him.
So why does the Book of Ruth direct our attention to Peretz and contain express reference to Judah and Tamar? Judah’s initial actions were problematic, but when confronted by her, he promptly acknowledged his wrong (38:25-26). His descendant, King David, behaved in a similar fashion when confronted by the prophet Nathan concerning his actions regarding Bathsheba (Sam. 12:13-14). They were examples of repentance, not perfection.
Other religious traditions seek the roots of redemption in a humanly unattainable perfection, but that has never been the Torah’s approach. Our greatest heroes are still human beings, and even the greatest of them sometimes stumble. Shall we expect more of converts than we do of those born into our people?
While Jews have long welcomed converts, we are not a missionary people. Sincere acceptance of Torah is a prerequisite for conversion, as it should be. I am not suggesting that we advocate conversion en masse, merely that we not create unnecessary obstacles to those, like Ruth, who seek to join the Jewish people.