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Jane Austen Explains Conversion to Judaism

June 10th, 2008by Gershom Gorenberg · 3 Comments · Culture and Ideas, Judaism and Religion

Gershom Gorenberg

The Book of Ruth could have been written by Jane Austen, a friend said in her warm voice at our table on Shavuot night. She was right. The books of Esther and Ruth are the two biblical stories that feel closest to modern novels – books with clear plot lines, crafted to be read on their own, but packed with allusions to other literature. Esther is a wild, bawdy farce. If it was written by someone named Mordechai, I suspect that it was actually Mordechai Richler. In Ruth, the wars and dynastic struggles, the wrestling brothers and earthshaking revelations are somewhere over the horizon. Women are talking to women about their relationships, with each other and with men. But Jane Austen never managed to write anything this concise, this essential .

Ruth is also the Bible’s description of how someone comes to Judaism individually, and it has to do with those relationships between people. In Exodus, at Sinai, accepting faith happens with a cast of 600,000. It’s all about God, revealed and then hiding so people won’t die of fear. Abraham got to God as an individual, we assume, but the Torah never tells us how. The classic rabbinic version, told most clearly by Maimonides, has Abraham reaching faith through philosophical reasoning about the cosmos.

And Ruth? She says to Naomi, mother of her buried husband,

Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts you from me.

So much music is lost in translation here that it’s almost criminal to read the verses in English. But pay attention to her emotional progress: I can’t leave you, Naomi. So since you are going back to your people, they’ll be my people. So I guess that means your God is my God. (She takes a big breath). This is about life, and death. You live once and are buried, and I’m staying with you. (Then she switches to referring to God by the word that is translated “Lord” but was really His personal name, not His abstract title).

So far, it seems like she has accepted God because doing so is necessary to stay with someone she loves. She’s not converting for marriage; the marriage has begun and ended, but the motivation appears nearly the same. A lot of Orthodox rabbinic courts today would not want to take Ruth; they’d want the philosophical acceptance of God that Abraham showed, and the acceptance of commandments as at Sinai. Ruth seems to have ulterior motives.

(The standards of today’s Orthodox rabbinic courts, I should note, are in large part a modern innovation. To understand how much the process of conversion has changed, and indeed has been warped, read Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar’s excellent new book, Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transformation from Gentile to Jew – Structure and Meaning. )

But as the story goes on, another voice enters to explain what Ruth has done. Gleaning in the fields, she meets Boaz, who orders his servants to treat her virtually as a member of his clan. Why are you treating me so well, she asks him. I’m a foreigner. He says:

I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before… May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge.

(Really, please, read this in the original. Just to start, the word “wings” here also means “his cloak,” as when one person spreads his cape over another.)

As Boaz understands her, Ruth stayed with Naomi not because Ruth would have been lonely – but because Naomi would have been lost. She gave herself. And to do so, she copied Abraham, whom God told to “leave his land and his birthplace and his father’s house,” except that Abraham was commanded to do so, and Ruth did so of her own volition. And therefore she gained refuge under God’s cloak, either because the act of giving is an act of faith in itself, or because by doing it she found the deeper meaning, the sanctity of the other person, as Jacob once said to Esau: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

Boaz gets another chance to make this more clear, when he finds Ruth at his feet at the threshing floor at night. (A threshing floor hints at a sanctuary; Ruth’s descendant David would buy a threshing floor to build a Temple.) “Spread your cloak over your handmaiden, for you are a redeeming kinsman,” she tells him. Meaning: Marry me so that the family is put back together. He answers:

Be blessed of the Lord, daughter! Your latest act of lovingkindness is greater than the first, for you have not turned to younger men…

She’s young and beautiful, and could have who she will. But he understands that she is continuing with what she started: Lovingkindness (the English word was invented to translate the Hebrew “hesed”). She has connected to God by acting for people – not people in the abstract, but these people right here. She virtually says to him: Don’t talk about God sheltering me under His cloak. You shelter me. This faith business – it’s about how you act right now. And he learns from her. She understands more than those who heard thunder at the mountain.

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