Current in the discussion around the World Zionist Congress, and indeed in Israeli religious politics in general, is the subject of Jewish identity: who’s in and who’s out? Right now, the Israeli rabbinate has near-total control over issues of marriage, divorce, and conversion, among other things. This week’s parasha/Torah portion is named for one of the Bible’s most famous converts: Yitro, or Jethro, Moses’ father in law.
But nothing in the text of the Torah describes a “conversion” of any kind. In fact, the very idea of “conversion” was foreign to our Biblical ancestors. Yitro is made into a “convert” by the sages of the rabbinic period, and in this honor he is joined by at least three other Biblical characters: Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah and matriarch of the Davidic line; Rahab, the Jericho prostitute who helps the two spies sent by Joshua; and Ruth, the Moabite widow who faithfully accompanies her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi back to Judah (and becomes another matriarch of the Davidic line!). In the case of Ruth, there is an interesting passage from the midrashic volume Ruth Rabbah in which the rabbis “read” a “legitimate” conversion process back into the text. The most famous passage in the book of Ruth (and one of the most beautiful in the Bible!) is in the first chapter, when Naomi implores Ruth to return to Moab where she will certainly fare better. But the despondent Ruth pleads with her:
“Entreat me not to leave you and to return from following you. For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God shall be 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 me from you.”
The rabbis imagine the following interpolations:
“And Ruth said: entreat me not to leave you and to return from following you (Ruth 1:16)”– what does “entreat” [lit. “hurt”] mean? Ruth said to Naomi, “Do not sin against me by telling me to leave and return from following you. I intend to convert anyway, and it is better that I do it with you than with someone else.” When Naomi heard this, she immediately began to lay out before her the laws of conversion. Naomi said, “My daughter, Jewish women do not go to the non-Jews’ theaters and circuses.” Ruth said, “Where you go, I will go.” Naomi said, “My daughter, Jewish women do not live in a house where there is no mezuzah.” Ruth said, “Where you lodge, I will lodge.” “Your people shall be my people,” refers to warning and punishment, and “Your God shall be my God” refers to the rest of the commandments.
I have taken numerous people to the mikvah for conversion (my conversions are not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate, by the way). Some have been the children of non-Jewish mothers who were raised with a strong and exclusive Jewish identity. I have been asked “why do I need to convert when I already feel Jewish?” The answer is implied in the midrash above: someone needs to be the gatekeeper. It’s not enough, as Ruth does in the first passage, to just say, “I’m Jewish now.” The rabbis intercalate supervision, instruction, regulation. Every society, culture, and religion, has its rules of admission – some are easy, some extraordinarily hard. But in every case, understanding the rules can be a doorway of exploration, leading to a deeper appreciation of what it is you’re entering into.
Admission to the tribe has a price (n.b.: more expensive for men!), but once in the door, the convert enjoys all rights and privileges. Tamar and Ruth are ancestors of the messiah; Rahab (according to the midrash) becomes the wife of Joshua; and Yitro? He gets a portion of the Torah named for him; all pretty good rewards. Our tradition clearly celebrates those who step across the threshold.
This Shabbat, I’ll be “premiering” a beautiful new melody for El Adon by Joey Weisenberg. Come early to hear and learn it! I’ll also be speaking about Yitro from a different angle – what do we learn about Yitro and the universal message of the Torah if we do not read a conversion into the story? Also, Shabbat Katan this week, so bring the kids!
Don’t forget to vote MERCAZ in the World Zionist Congress elections. We’re halfway through the voting period. Here’s the link: https://www.mercaz2020.org/