Ruth from a Convert’s Point of View

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November 1, 2008
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Sarah Luria

When I am called to the Torah, I am called as Sarah bat Avraham v’Sarah. While my birth name signals the Sephardic roots of my father, Carlos Luria, announcing my Hebrew name before the congregation outs me: I am a convert. With the short walk to the bimah I leave behind my non-Jewish mother, Martha Reading, and take up a new mother, Sarah. It is a Book of Ruthmoment: “And thy people shall be my people.” But excluding my real mother in this public moment of aliyah is a source of discomfort and even pain.

While my aliyah name is a seemingly small issue, it points to the larger one Jews face today: our relationship to the non-Jews we encounter through intermarriage, adoption, conversion. I was surprised to find hope in what I thought was the symbol of my problem: the Book of Ruth.

On Shavuot, when we celebrate the receiving of the Law, we read a story that emphasizes love. “The LORD [cause me to die], and more also,” Ruth vows to Naomi, “if aught but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:17, King James). Rabbi Michael Strassfeld notes that Ruth reminds us during Shavuot that in the desert all Israelites had the “status of converts.” Like Avraham, Judaism’s first convert, they left what was familiar for a place they did not know and, like Ruth, voluntarily took on the obligations of the laws they heard at Sinai. JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen adds “The rabbis in having us read Ruth each Shavuot, thereby teach us…that on the day when we celebrate reception of the laws of Torah we need to remember that law is never enough. Certainly it will not bring the messiah, whose lineage goes back to Ruth. For that, the world needs [acts of love], needs hesed.” (Strassfeld,Jewish Holidays, 73).

This juxtaposition of laws and love leads to a transcendent power. In the Talmud, Ruth’s words answer the rabbis’ reminders to the would-be convert of the laws Jews must keep:

We are forbidden…“to move on the Sabbath beyond the Sabbath boundaries”!

Whither thou goest I will go….

We have been commanded 613 commandments!

Thy people shall be my people.”

We are forbidden idolatry!

And thy God my God.” (Yevamot 47b)

The rabbinic injunctions and Ruth’s replies don’t quite match. Ruth translates the legalistic, restrictive discourse of the commandments into the calm transcendent force of poetry, thus transforming the terms of observance. In response to obligation, she speaks of choice; to the inherited “we,” she forms a new connection where “thy” becomes “my” — a connection that starts with her love for Naomi and through that love she works her way to God.

Love thy neighbor as thyself, we are commanded. It is particularly wonderful that Ruth exemplifies this love for the “other,” for not only do we see Ruth as “the stranger” (convert), but Naomi too is a stranger (an exile) in Moab. While conversion is often a problem in the Jewish tradition, at Shavuot Ruth’s conversion offers an ideal fulfillment of Jewish law.

My born-Jewish friends think to pay me a compliment when they say they don’t see me as a convert, but as a Jew. But the Book of Ruth suggests a more satisfying affirmation: conversion has always been an integral part of Jewish life. I want to be known as a convert. And yet to say I am bat Avraham v’Sarah erases what is most powerful about conversion, because it represses my non-Jewish past, the connection that I represent across tribal lines. It asks that I assimilate rather than preserve my hyphenated self.

Surely we now have the confidence to acknowledge more forthrightly our ties to other peoples without fearing we will be swallowed up by them. We converts mark those connections, but only if we can remember our people, our Chinese ancestors, Indian ancestors — our ancestors who were Jewish but did not lead very Jewish lives. This is not to say that all those Protestant and Buddhist and Moabite family members should be considered Jews, but that we should recognize that we are irrevocably tied to them by virtue of who we have been, who we are, and whom we love. I do not want to hide behind my oh-so-Jewish sounding name; I do not want to pass; I want to be known as Sarah bat Martha and Carlos, a convert, which is to say, a Jew.

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Sarah Luria is associate professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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