Monday, May 21, 2007

Ruth - A Story for Our Times

When left to our own devices life can be relatively uncomplicated. Only when interlopers are interjected does life become more complicated than necessary. When two people terminate their marriage it almost always becomes more complicated when legal counsel is involved. Lawyers, by definition exist in order to muddy up the waters. The more complicated they make things the more money they make. Another good example of this principal is the arrangements made between the Rabbanut Harashit and the local rabbinical associations in the Diaspora regarding conversion. As soon as rabbinical institutions interjected themselves into the equation the conversion process became cumbersome, complicated and in some cases humiliating.

The Story of Ruth illustrates how simple, straight forward and innocent conversion was in the time of the Judges. Ruth, a Moabite woman returned to Bethlehem with her mother in law, Naomi after the demise of their husbands, In spite of Naomi’s concern for Ruth’s return, Ruth vowed that she would share in the fortunes of her mother in law. Without a lot of effort and political machination, Ruth, as a result of her seamless and conversion is considered to be the prototype of the righteous convert. Naomi tried to discourage her by conveying the message regarding the stringencies of Jewish Law. When Naomi tells her that Jewish daughters do not frequent theatres she replied “where you go I will go”; when informed that Jewish daughters only dwell in houses with mezuzot she responded “where you lodge I will lodge.” And her declaration that “thy God shall be my God” meant that she was in total identification with the Jewish people.

The two principles guiding her conversion was Ruth’s total identification with the Jewish Laws and social mores and customs of the Hebrews. The second principal, that of total identity with the fate of the Jewish people was no less significant. Fast forward to Israel of the 21st century and the picture is remarkably, but not surprisingly different. The conversion process is cumbersome and unfortunately but due to the politics of the Rabbanut Harashit is corrupt. Standards in Israel for conversion are not uniform and can even be orchestrated if one is politically connected. I even remember two situations with totally different outcomes. An American basketball player playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, wishing to marry an Israeli Jew surprisingly arranged for a conversion “lickity split.” In my battalion, there was a soldier of Russian decent, born in Israel to a Christian mother, raised in all the holidays and traditions of the Jewish people, identified totally with his people and died l’maan hamoledet but wasn’t allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

One only has to look to the tragedy of the conversion process of Ethiopian Jewry to understand the problems associated with the Chief Rabbinate. The Ethiopian Religious leadership was promised that upon Aliya they would be able to continue to live according to their custom and practice. After their arrival, the Rabbinate insisted that without conversion they could not marry. It didn’t matter that for thousands of years they followed the Jewish custom, practice and law as was given to them. It didn’t matter that for thousands of years they identified totally with the People of Israel. It didn’t matter that for thousands of years they looked to Zion and prayed for their return to Zion. In the end the Rabbinate had their way and the conversions took place regardless of the humiliation and degradation of a very proud and dignified community that survived against al odds for thousands of years in Galut.

If we go back to our sources in Hichot Ishut there is a principle: In a country where the majority of inhabitants are Jewish a person is considered Jewish As long as it wasn’t proven otherwise. Maimonides comments that who ever comes and says that he was a gentile, but converted is believed because the mouth that admitted he is gentile is the same mouth that said he converted . According to Maimonides this applies in Israel. His position is buttressed by T.B. Pesachim that when a person claims to be Jewish we don’t check for verification. The Smag comments that strangers oftentimes visited his town, were not checked as to their status, but ate and drank with them, accepting their shechita as acceptable. The guiding concept here is we try as best we can to make the process of conversion as painless, seamless and as dignified as possible.

Traditionally our sages in their wisdom sought the common ground and not that which divides and polarizes us. Rather than create barriers and make it exceedingly difficult for the conversion process to go forward, our rabbis and sages in T.B. Megilla declared that if one reject idol worship he is considered Jewish. The need to simplify the process was so understood that even Rabbi Yehudah declared in T.B. Yevamot that in Israel a convert does not have to prove he was converted by the Beit Din.

It is understandable how it was that Ruth’s conversion was so painless and blessed. If that were only true today for all those seeking conversion by the Chief rabbinate. I am reminded of the famous medrash “shelo neemar kan pitchu shaarim vyavou kohanim leviim vyisraelim, ela vyavou goy tzadik shomer imunim. (Sifra Acharei Mot). But as I said earlier and if I may quote myself “When left to our own devices life can be relatively uncomplicated. Only when interlopers are interjected does life become more complicated than necessary.”