Shavuot – Ruth – Welcome!

shavuotWe are approaching the holiday of Shavuot, an ancient holiday that used to be a harvest festival and has morphed into a holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. This holiday is a good example of how Judaism has evolved over time. There is no Temple to celebrate the original pilgrimage festival that occurred at the time of Shavuot, but the rabbis created a new holiday that encouraged the community to celebrate the giving of the Torah. The Torah is a central text in rabbinic Judaism and it makes sense that a holiday would have been created to celebrate that text. Many people stay up all night to study Torah and other Jewish texts on this holiday, and the story that is associated with Shavuot is the story of Ruth.

I’d like to talk a bit about the story of Ruth, but first I’d like to share my approach to the stories in the Bible. I assume these stories from ancient times were written by men. We cannot know what their experience was. We have very limited knowledge about that, but, at the very least, I do not believe that the texts were divinely written or inspired. For me, and many other humanistic Jews, to treat the text as sacred severely limits our possible interpretations.

The Bible is not a book. The Bible is a collection of many stories, and these stories are not told from one perspective. In fact, two of the most opposite stories in the Bible are the story of Ruth and the story of the return of Ezra to Judah after the exile in Babylonia. Ezra, with a great degree of anger, asks the people (am ha’aretz – people of the land) who have stayed in Judah, to divorce their foreign wives. Ezra represents a parochial, exclusive, elite point of view. The Book of Ruth, which sounds more like a fairy tale than an elite proclamation, is about a Moabite widow (from Ezra’s point of view a foreign wife) who follows her Judean mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Judah. Everyone has heard the famous line from Ruth: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God;. . .
(Jewish Publication Society Translation)

Ruth simply joins the Jewish people. Later, rabbis created a story to say that Ruth converted to Judaism, but whoever wrote this story had a very different idea about how people joined the community. The story of Ruth is written from a completely different point of view than the story of Ezra. Studying Jewish texts, like Ruth, could be a good starting point for us to open the boundaries and welcome all people into our communities.

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