(In which someone finally answers the question, “What about…Naomi?”)
Shavuot begins Sunday evening. Though it’s not a minor holiday in Jewish terms, it doesn’t have as much of a presence in the United States as other, better-known Jewish holidays. To me, that’s a shame, as it celebrates aspects of Jewish belief that I think are under-recognized in the Jewish community. Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals to the temple in Jerusalem when it was standing, and it is the modern form of an ancient Near Eastern agricultural festival for the barley harvest, but most importantly, it’s the time when Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Now that I work at InterfaithFamily.com, I’m thinking more about what the Jewish holidays have to say to interfaith families. Like Purim, Shavuot features the reading of a book of the bible that centers on a woman who enters an interfaith marriage. At Purim, we read about Esther, a Jewish girl who married a non-Jewish king and saved the Jewish people. At Shavuot, we read The Book of Ruth, a Moabite, who married into an Israelite family and became part of the Israelite people.
Typically, we interpret the Book of Ruth as a story about the acceptance of converts, and really, the world’s Jewish community needs that message right now, but I think we could also read this as the story of a successful interfaith marriage.
Ruth’s story certainly fits with some of the other resonances of Shavuot, which is the time of the giving of the Torah. One Jewish practice that has enjoyed a recent resurgence is the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a ritual of staying up all night studying on the night of Shavuot. We are like the Israelites, staying awake before the granting of the Torah, so that we re-enact the revelation at Mt. Sinai in the early morning hours. In the Reform movement, many congregations hold a Confirmation ceremony on Shavuot for teenagers to declare their faith in Judaism. Like the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, at Shavuot we enter Moses’ covenant–the covenant of performing the mitzvot, the commandments, in the Torah. Both the Tikkun and the Confirmation ceremonies let the individual Jew participate in that covenant. It’s not the covenant of Abraham, which was an agreement between God and a family. It’s not biology, but a commitment to action that define this covenant.
What’s interesting to me about Ruth’s conversion is that it’s not something that happened before she could marry into Naomi’s family. She was married to Naomi’s son until he died, and then, when Naomi decided to leave Moab, she chose to follow Naomi into the land of Israel,
And Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried; G-d do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part you and me.” (Ruth 1:16)
If this beautiful profession of love is a conversion in our current sense, it’s one that occurs well into Ruth’s being part of Naomi’s family.
What inspires Ruth to that loyalty to Naomi? What about her family was attractive enough to make Ruth want to worship her God and stay with her people? Naomi didn’t proselytize Ruth–she told her she could go back to her family of origin. But obviously, Naomi had done something right during the entirety of Ruth’s marriage to her son, because it was their relationship that brought Ruth with her. There was something about her practice of Judaism that was attractive, something about how accepting she was of Ruth’s own way of life that was warm, and that let their family be something Ruth wasn’t willing to give up.