“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 Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
These are the immensely powerful words of Ruth, the Moabite woman widowed after the tragic death of her Israelite husband. All alone in the world, she seeks out her mother-in-law Naomi and pledges her undying and everlasting commitment to be a member of the Jewish nation.
Back in the patriarchal narratives of the Book of Genesis, it was presumed a woman, when she married, became part and parcel of her husband’s household. But that wasn’t enough for Ruth. She didn’t want to be regarded for who or what her husband had been. She wanted to declare her own intention – what was in her heart and her mind. And her intention was to live as a Jew. To become a Jew in her own right.
Jewish tradition welcomes Ruth as a Jew and uses her as the example of how to become a Jew. And she is so beloved by the rabbinic tradition that King David himself is said to be descended from her. And he’s about as Jewish as you can get.
Ruth’s years living in a Jewish household, her vow to Naomi, and Naomi’s warm acceptance of Ruth, form the foundation for how we, even today, accept candidates for conversion to Judaism.
Except when we don’t.
A ruling of the High Court of Israel this week righted a terrible wrong in the matter of deciding who is a Jew in the Jewish homeland itself. The court affirmed that Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism performed in the State Israel are valid for the purposes of the Law of Return.
Here’s how the New York Times explained it:
“Israel’s “Law of Return” gives foreign-born Jews, or anyone with a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse, the automatic right to claim Israeli citizenship. Those who convert to non-Orthodox Judaism in another country have been able to gain Israeli citizenship for decades.
“But on Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court struck a symbolic blow for a more pluralistic vision of Jewish identity: It granted the right to automatic citizenship to foreigners who convert within the state of Israel to Conservative, also known as Masorti, or Reform Judaism.”
In other words, these Jews must automatically and immediately be accepted as citizens of the State of Israel because there is no doubt as to their status as Jews.
This has been a hard-fought battle over 15 years of lawsuits by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. They were up against decades of Orthodox control over matters of personal status. In fact, ever since the founding of Israel, the civil government has largely deferred to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which rejects the very notion that more liberal forms of Judaism are even really Jewish.
For 15 years, the High Court has delayed and delayed and delayed this decision, hoping that the Israeli political leadership would come up with a solution, an agreement that everybody could buy into.
When that clearly wasn’t going to happen, the Justices decided it wasn’t right to make these people wait any longer. With this 8 to 1 ruling, these people – converted by Reform and Conservative authorities in Israel — can now be welcomed immediately as Israeli citizens.
This is a great moment for religious pluralism in Israel, and for recognizing the diversity of the Jewish nation. As Judge Esther Hayut, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stated in the ruling:
“The purpose of the Law of Return is to encourage any Jew – whether they were born as Jews or chose to become part of the Jewish people through conversion – to make Aliyah (to immigrate) to Israel.”
The response of the ultra-Orthodox establishment has been predictable – and predictably ugly — with just three weeks to go before new national elections. One television ad produced by the United Torah Judaism political party depicted Reform Jews literally as dogs.
Another ad, produced by the Shas political party, was particularly disgusting in its racism. It showed a picture of three Black men, with the tag line:
“Jews branded kosher by the High Court. Danger! Thousands of infiltrators and foreign workers will become Jews through Reform conversion. Only Shas will preserve a Jewish state.”
The fact of the matter is that the worldwide Jewish community is incredibly diverse – and growing more so. And we are enriched by that diversity in background, culture, race, and language.
In the words of Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who is the head of the Reform movement in Israel and a Knesset candidate with the liberal Labor party in the upcoming elections:
“If the state of Israel claims to be the nation-state of the Jewish world, then the state of Israel must recognize all the denominations of Judaism and imbue them with equality and respect.”
And that is exactly the way that our tradition and Jewish law teach that we should welcome each and every person who converts to Judaism. In the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 47b), the rabbis proclaim that once a convert undergoes the ritual immersion in the mikveh,
הרי הוא כישראל לכל דבריו, “then he is an Israelite in all respects.”
In fact, Jewish law declares that not only is that person fully Jewish now, but they were all along. The rabbis of the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) note that Moses, in his farewell address (Deut. 19:14) declares that the covenant with God is valid with “all who stand here with us this day.” But then the rabbis ask:
“How do I know that the subsequent generations, and the converts who will convert in the future, were also included [in the covenant]? [Because] the verse continues: “And also with he who is not here with us this day” (Deuteronomy 29:14).
For every person who ever will convert to Judaism – embracing our faith and our history and our people with all their beings – their souls were present at Sinai. They are imbued with the same cosmic light that shone in Moses’s face when he brought the tablets inscribed by God’s own hand down from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion – when, the Torah says, all the people saw Moses , וְהִנֵּה קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו – his face was radiant (Exodus 34:30).
For those who embrace Judaism in our own day, wherever they may be, that spark of divine light has always been inside them, and we have helped to bring it to the surface. I see it in the face of every single conversion candidate who emerges from the mikvah, the ritual immersion, knowing that they are – at that moment — k’yisrael b-chol d’varav – fully a Jew in all respects.
It should not matter if they are here in our own congregation – as we welcomed three new Jews just weeks ago – or if they live in the State of Israel. It should not matter if they are welcomed into the Jewish people by Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox authorities. And now, thanks to the Israeli High Court, it doesn’t. The justices have declared what we have known all along: There is more than one way to be Jewish. Even – and especially – in the homeland of all the Jews.
Ken yehi ratson: May this be God’s will and our mission. And let us say together: Amen.
©2021 Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin