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On Shavuot, a Recommitting to Converts

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Shavuot is the season of the convert. Not an open season, of course, but more a celebratory season. At least, that's what it should be from my perspective. Jews gather to consume over-zealous amounts of cheesecake and blintzes and consider the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai in a time far removed from our own. But if you don't celebrate Shavuot in a "traditional" manner (we're talking synagogue attendance here, folks), then chances are you're missing out on an important aspect of the holiday: the reading of the Book of Ruth.

It is in the Book of Ruth that converts of years gone by and those currently in-process find a sense of inspiration and kinship to the legacy of the convert within Judaism. In the narrative, Naomi's two sons marry themselves off to non-Israelite women, causing her much chagrin (as it would today, no doubt). Naomi's husband dies, her sons die and as she stands struck with grief with her two daughter in laws, she wills them to just go. Orpah opts to return to her family, but Ruth, well she's a standout. She's committed to Naomi, she's committed to the people that has taken her in, and thus she declares, "Your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God" (1:16), making her -- for all intents and purposes -- the first outright unchosen convert in the Bible. (Abraham and Sarah are the first "converts" in the sense that they came from one world and chose the covenant, but God sort of insisted, if you know what I mean.)

Now, if any of you are familiar with the modern conversion-to-Judaism situation, you know that what once was a simple declaration has become a series of declarations over many years, meetings and emotional obstacles, including declarations of -- in some cases -- thousands of dollars. It makes me wonder, did Naomi put Ruth through the ringer? There's nothing in the midrash about Naomi suggesting that Ruth rethink her decision, hit up another rabbi, read a dozen or so books to make sure it's right for her, and, oh, of course, drop her some serious shekel action to join the tribe.

My own personal narrative in the world of conversion to Judaism doesn't compare in pain and suffering to the stories I hear from converts from around the world that I speak to on a weekly, if not daily, basis. We turn to Ruth for inspiration, for simplicity, for the sincerity in her words that we all feel and yet doesn't seem to translate as it might have thousands of years ago. We ask ourselves: Why?

Infamous for circling the wagons, the Jewish people forgets its deep roots in conversion. Ruth's conversion planted the seed for the Davidic Dynasty, which religious Jews still hail as the line for the coming Messiah. Then there is my personal favorite in the conversion narrative, Rachav, the harlot that hid the spies prior to the invasion of the land that led to there even being an Israel and a united Israelite nation. Rachav, according to the rabbinic literature, saw the power of the Israelite nation, the truth of the covenant, and converted to this innovative ethical monotheism. She married Joshua and gave birth to nations of prophets, including Jeremiah.

On Shavuot, I like to teach about Rachav and her narrative and how prized she was by the rabbis. Perhaps Rachav and Ruth are kindred spirits for me, the "me" before there was a "me." I'm blessed that my conversion has never been brought into question and that my sincerity shone through (probably because I was a Nebraskan who didn't grow up knowing a single Jew, let alone anything about the religion). But today, amid the negativity and fear mongering that drives those born with a latent Jewish neshama that has yet to be fully ignited away from the conversion process is a staggering departure from our beginnings.

Thus, on Shavuot, I encourage you to eat plenty of dairy, but to really think about the commitment that was made by Ruth and Rachav and other converts throughout the Jewish narrative that have shaped and colored the mosaic that the Jewish people is today. Shavuot is the perfect time to reconsider our commitments -- religiously, civilly, socially. But it is also a chance to reconsider our commitment to the image of the Jewish people and the image we portray when it comes to the convert in our midst. I suggest a commitment to kindness, welcoming, understanding, listening and acceptance. As an ethical and innovative light unto the nations, so too should we internalize this effort.