June 9, 2011 Leave a comment
Below is the text of the sermon I delivered on the first day of Shavuot (Pentecost) at my synagogue.
Tomorrow morning we will read megillat Rut, which is notable for the sheer density of information which can be gleaned from the minor incidents and seemingly incidental details contained therein.
Primarily, the story is that of the most famous convert to Judaism, the effort she makes to join the Jewish people, and of the tribulations she endures. We can get a sense of the elliptical writing of the book in the names of some of the characters: Naomi’s children, Mahlon and Kilyon, are “profanation” and “destruction,” while the closer kinsman mentioned at the end of the story is given the Biblical “John Doe” treatment and only named as Ploni Almoni.
Clearly, none of these people were routinely referred to this way during their lives, so the use of these pseudonyms is trying to tell us something. There are assorted midrashim on the subject of Mahlon and Kilyon, and Rashi says that Ploni’s name is not recorded because he wouldn’t fulfill the mitzvah of redemption. Certainly the three of them are given designations which indicate that they are not the important part of the story.
Seeing this degree of meta-awareness in the text, the inclusions and omissions become all the more important: just as Debussy said “music is the space between the notes,” so here there are significant teachings between the words.
Coming back around to the central narrative of the book, this is a story about what it means to convert to Judaism. Except for one thing: where precisely does Ruth actually convert? That’s a glaring omission from the story, and its absence has to be there to teach us something.
A standard interpretation is that Ruth performed Kabbalat ol Malkhut Shamayim (acceptence of God’s kingship) when she makes the famous soliloquy Ki el-asher teilkhi elekh u’vaasher talini alin amakh ami velokaiyikh keloki (for where you go I will go, your people are my people, and your God is my God.” Now, this is a wonderful declaration of faith and allegiance, but it begs the question: is merely declaring one’s faith in a lucid and concrete manner sufficient to convert? Unlike Islam or Christianity, we don’t generally believe that this sort of declaration is sufficient for conversion – there are formal rituals which need to be followed. So where were they?
One proposed answer comes right before Ruth goes to Boaz in the night: Naomi instructs her to wash herself, and that is taken by some to mean “go to the mikvah and finish the conversion.” This explanation does not satisfy me because if Ruth was a brand-new convert at this point, the whole redemption of land and property scene makes no sense – she would not have been anyone’s relative.
So let’s look at another possibility – Mahlon and Kilyon were clearly Jewish, and while the women they married were of Moabitish ancestry, it fits the narrative precisely if we assume that they had converted before the story starts. All of a sudden, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are cast in a very different light, and I think this bears a little exploration.
if Ruth and Orpah are already Jewish, what do we make of Naomi’s impassioned speech describing herself as bitter, and attempting to send Ruth and Orpah packing when she is about to depart for Israel? Clearly that becomes problematic: it’s well known that one is not supposed to remind a convert of her ancestry or encourage her to return to her people of origin – this is derived from the verse from Shemot: v’ger lo toneh v’lo tilhatzenu ki gerim hiyitem b’eretz Mitzrayim (You shall not taunt or oppress a convert, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt). How precisely are we to reconcile our normally positive view of Naomi with an example where she behaves this poorly? Obviously, she is grief-stricken – she was no longer secure in Moab, and had buried her husband and two sons, but there has to be something else we need to derive from this incident.
When both Ruth and Orpah said that they wanted to go to Israel with Naomi, she did not take that as an answer, and continued to push them away; she was all too willing to require extraordinary declarations of faith during emotionally charged times: after all, Naomi’s had lost her children, but Ruth and Orpah had lost their husbands, and their grief, while unmentioned in the text, would have needed to be addressed.
I believe that an answer can be found in the lineage of the two converts: Ruth (and by extension Naomi) is the ancestress of David, while Orpah vanishes from the text of the Bible. However, Midrash tells us that she goes on after returning to her prior Moabitish ways to become the ancestress of the very same Goliath who deviled the Jews until David was able to overcome him by cleverness.
So an inference we can draw from this is that by allowing her grief to overcome her, Naomi drove away a convert, whose children then went on to become tremendous antagonists of the Jewish people. For us in these days, this serves as a reminder that we all were strangers in Egypt, and we should all act accordingly in the service of God’s commandments.