Almost everyone has heard of Ruth the Moabite, Naomi’s daughter-in-law and progenitor of the House of King David. In the rabbinic tradition, she became the paradigm for the ideal convert to Judaism when she refused to leave her mother-in-law after the death of her husband, saying: “your people shall be my people, your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16) The rabbinic tradition recognizes another “non-Jewish” heroine as a paradigm for loyalty both to the Jewish people and to God. Rahab, the harlot, literally saved the lives of the spies whom Joshua sent to scout out Jericho. More than that, she voiced her acknowledgment of God: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that your terror has fallen upon us and that all the dwellers of the land quake before you. For we have heard how the Lord has dried up the Sea of Reeds before you when you came out of Egypt and what you did to the two Amorite kings across the Jordan, to Sihon and to Og, whom you put to the ban. And we heard, and our heart failed, and no spirit in any man rose before you, for the Lord your God, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth below…” (Joshua 2:9-11)
This pronouncement was enough for a number of sages to declare Rahab to be a righteous convert and the progenitor of a long line of priests and prophets (somewhat surprising considering her profession): “Rabbi Eliezer said: This Rahab, the harlot, was an innkeeper. Eight priestly prophets were the offspring of Rahab the harlot and these are they: Jeremiah, and Hilkiyahu, Shariah and Mahasiah, Baruch, and Neriah, Hanamel and Shalom. Rabbi Yehudah: Also, Huldah the prophetess was among the grandchildren of Rahab the harlot.” (Sifre Bmidbar 78, Kahana ed. vol. 1 p. 189)
These sages seem to be following a pronounced biblical tendency to attribute fantastic roles to characters (especially women) who were not normally thought to have a special status in their societies. The above noted midrash goes one step further in its attribution to Rahab: “And we can learn a lesson here that if someone from a foreign people is willing to put themselves out and risk her life by drawing herself close to God, the people of Israel who are supposed to live by the Torah, should be even more willing to do so.” (Sifre, p. 189 – adapted translation)
Thus, Rahab’s dedication and selflessness are transformed into a paradigm for Jewish behavior. There is a two-fold message to be had here. We can learn here to appreciate people without regard to their “supposed” social status and to recognize the potential human dignity in every person. The sages, cited above, went one step further by declaring that the appreciation of the gifts of Judaism can sometimes be found in those who view the tradition from the outside. Jews sometimes need to reclaim this “sparkle”, found in the eyes of others, as their own.