I get asked intriguing questions all the time from my students. One of them about biblical history intrigued me, and I would like to share it with you.
I was teaching the story of Ruth during a recent Introduction to Judaism class. As we recall, Ruth’s husband dies and she is left a widow.
The ORacle, February 2011 Issue
Ruth is a Moabite and her mother-in-law, Naomi, a Jew, urges her to return to Moab. But Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. She affirms, “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). The stirring words wherever you go, I will go are inscribed on many Jews’ wedding bands.
I mentioned to the class that Ruth was the first convert. A student questioned whether this could be the case. He asked me about the Moabites, the Midianites, and all the other peoples who joined the Israelites on the Exodus both through intermarriage and by their absorption into the community. When the Israelites stood at Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and declared “All the things that the Eternal has commanded we will do!” (Exodus 24:3) were non-Israelites included in the acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot? If so, would not they be considered the first converts?
The answer is that both statements are valid. One could claim that the first converts were those who joined Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12:5. We read that Abraham and Sarah had “acquired” people in Haran. The issue of converting versus absorbing gerim, outsiders, into society is the nuance of this student’s question. If we think about it, the patriarch’s wives were all non-Jews, but once they were married, were considered Hebrews. Many of our biblical foreparents were born from handmaidens who were not Jewish. Moses’ wife Tzipporah was Midianite, and the rabbis claim that her father, Yitro (Jethro), may have converted. We read in Numbers 10: 29-32 that Yitro returns to “his land and his birthplace,” but his descendants join with the tribe of Judah (Judges 1:16), and the midrash maintains that Yitro went back to convert others, saying, “A candle must give light in places of darkness.” (Midrash Mekhilta, R. Elazar HaModai’i).
This story of Yitro, however, is midrash, not Torah, and one could still argue that Ruth was the first to actively declare her allegiance to Judaism as opposed to being absorbed into Israelite society.
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Judaism teaches that the soul of every Jew was at Sinai, just as each and every convert’s soul was at Sinai. The affirmation that Jews by choice already have a Jewish soul inside of them is a beautiful message of inclusion we can each take to heart.