On The Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - How the Book of Ruth Connects Us All Today - Shavuot

Chag Sameach and welcome to a special Shavuot edition of On the Other Hand! On this week’s holiday episode, Rabbi Rick Jacobs talks about Ruth, her connection to this unique Jewish festival, and what her story of unity and bridge-building means for us as we celebrate Shavuot today.

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Welcome back to On the Other Hand, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. This week we have a special episode from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. He's going to teach us a little bit Shavuot, about some Ruths, about one Ruth in particular, and what it means to grow and open up boundaries.

This week we focus our attention on the holiday of Shavuot, which is soon to take place. This coming Thursday night is erev Shavuot, the time of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a night of study and discovering and delving deeply into aspects of our tradition. It is a holiday that isn't always as prominent in our observances as, say, Pesach or Rosh Hashanah or Hanukkah. But its messages are profound and powerful.

I'm going to delve into one particular aspect of the holiday. And that is one of the readings that we always focus attention on. And that is the Book of Ruth. I just start with this moment. This is the first podcast, I'm recording since the start of the global pandemic, and many of us have been sheltering in place.

So I just want to start with for me the Book of Ruth of, course, is about the biblical Ruth. But I have some really inspired teachers and heroines who are also named Ruth. And particularly, I think of Ruth Messinger. I think of Ruth particularly because I remember when we traveled after the earthquake in Haiti, the devastating earthquake, we were visiting one part of the island that had been particularly devastated. And a health clinic was basically leveled.

And I remember one of the leaders of the health clinic said to Ruth Messinger, you'll help us build back, won't you? And Ruth looked and kind of shook her head no. No, we're not going to help you build back. We're going to help you build back better. That is Ruth. And the Book of Ruth could be about Ruth Messinger, the legendary leader, particularly of the American Jewish World Service, but really a social justice warrior of global significance.

I also think of Ruth Calderon, who I had the privilege of knowing well while she was a member of Knesset. Some of you'll know her as the most compelling voice of broadening the scope of who studies the Jewish bookshelf. Ruth, as a secular woman, went on to get a PhD in Talmud, has written and created amazing learning platforms first in Jerusalem, then in Tel Aviv for everyone, no matter what your background, to walk in and deeply immersed in the Jewish tradition.

She brought that sensibility to the Knesset, and her voice was so powerful there. And she continues to be a powerful voice. The book of Ruth could be about Ruth Calderon.

And then of course there is here in the United States, Ruth of all Ruths, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And we think of her unbelievable longevity, her razor-sharp mind, her prophetic courage. And the book of Ruth could be about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Now, let me just say it. And this is going to be like one of those corny Rick Jacobs jokes. But I have to say I would hate for our Jewish tradition to be ruthless. Just let that set in there. Obviously, if we were without Ruth, we would be missing a whole dimension of our Jewish tradition.

And whether it's a Ruth Messinger, a Ruth Calderon, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or you fill in many of the other modern-day Ruths, there's something about this book that is just powerful. So just to refresh, in case it's not the most familiar book that you are thinking of, it celebrates the loyalty and remarkable story of a young Moabite widow, whose name is Ruth. And she remarkably chooses to follow her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi back to Bethlehem after Naomi is bereaved of her own husband and two sons.

Ruth's sister-in-law Orpah, who was married to one of the two deceased brothers, returns to her community in Moab. But Ruth, that's not Ruth's decision. Ruth cleaves to Naomi and clings to, in a sense, the Jewish people through her mother-in-law. After Ruth's Jewish husband died, her mother-in-law urges her, go back, go back to Moab.

And Ruth says the following words which echo through all of Jewish history to all of Jewish tradition and some of the most beautiful words of affirmation. She says, "entreat me not to leave you or to turn back from following after you. For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God."

Oof. And I know for many of us rabbis, who have had the privilege of officiating at conversions over the years, I've yet to convert someone who didn't utter those words as the core of their affirmation of joining the Jewish people and joining themselves to the Jewish tradition. But the truth is, friends, it's not only the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible. There is a dynamic inner tension.

So I'm just going to pit Ruth against Ezra, the Book of Ezra, also from the third section of the Hebrew Bible. The first section being the Torah, with five books of Moses. Then you have the prophets. And the third section is the writings.

Ruth and Ezra are literally diametrically opposed in their core teaching. Biblical scholars are very often pitting Ezra and Nehemiah against the Book of Ruth. They say one is conservative, the other liberal. The conservative would be Ezra. The liberal would be Ruth. They would say the authors of Ezra and Nehemiah are xenophobic. The authors of Ruth opened their arms to the other.

The Bible contains two very different polarities. Question is, which one has the upper hand in Jewish history and Jewish tradition, but also today in our world and maybe in each of your worlds? So there is a concept in Judaism, the Chameish M'gillot, the five M'gillahs. And that means that on certain Jewish holidays, we not only read from the Torah and a special prophetic reading called the haftarah, but we also read from a book of the K'tuvim, the Writings.

On Sukkot, we read that amazing book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes. Purim-- I don't have to give you that one. It's Esther, of course. Pesach, we also read the Song of Songs. Tishah B'Av, Lamentations, and on Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Now, you might wonder, was there a debate when they were figuring out which books were to be included in the canon and which ones weren't?

Some books were really debated. And a lot of people felt the Book of Esther didn't really belong in the Bible. But obviously it was included.

I'm imagining maybe there was a debate about whether Ezra should be the book for the Chameish M'gillot that we would read at Shavuot. A very different message, but on some of the same themes. Now, there is also polarity now, Ezra versus Ruth, male versus female, diaspora versus land of Israel. That's Ezra's diaspora who comes to Israel.

So there are all these different pieces of it. But the truth is we have a very intimate relationship with this Book of Ruth. And it speaks to us. It sings to us. It is an expression of our core beliefs about loving kindness and the nature of opening ourselves.

So let's just think about this. It's not that it's simply pro-intermarriage versus anti-intermarriage. It's more complex. You see, Ruth marries someone who's not Jewish without converting. Only later, after she cleaves to her mother-in-law, Naomi, does she formally join the Jewish people.

But the idea here is the Book of Ruth in some way celebrates an intermarriage that grows into a deeper commitment. Now just get this progression of Ruth's social status. She starts off being a nochriya, basically a foreigner. That's the second chapter of the Book of Ruth. Then a little bit later, couple versus later, she describes herself as a shifchaha, a maid servant, then as an amah, a handmaiden. And only by the end is she an ishah, the wife, the Jewish wife.

So the truth is she has her own progression. It's not one. It's not just one kind of reality. So let me just give you a tiny bit of background. The intermarriage dimension of the Hebrew Bible is pretty significant. The Bible, it seems, is full of Israelite men who marry foreign women.

Abraham marries Keturah, was not Jewish. Judah marries Shua, the Canaanite. Joseph marries Osnat, the daughter of the Egyptian priest Potiphara. Moses marries Tzipora, the daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro. The list goes on and on.

And again, they're not all the happiest stories. Of course, you know the story of Samson and Delilah, who wasn't Jewish. Well, of course, she cuts his hair and leads to his demise.

But here's the inner tension. In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 23 verse 4, it says the following, "no Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the eternal. None of their descendants, even in the 10th generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the eternal." That's a pretty categorical statement for the Book of Deuteronomy to make, basically saying there's no place for Moabites

They were known for their cruelty to the ancient Jewish people. They were known for their ways being antithetical to the Jewish tradition. And so Deuteronomy says, there is never a place. Ban them. Keep them out. There's no place.

And then you have the Book of Ruth. You open up the Book of Ruth, and here's a Moabite woman who not only becomes a part of the Jewish people, but she becomes emblematic of faith itself. You have such a inner tension in this reality. How could the Jewish tradition say categorically one thing and then a new book comes along and says, no, it is possible?

Now, the ancient rabbis were very uncomfortable about this tension between Deuteronomy and the Book of Ruth. So they said, we've got to figure out how to reconcile this. So they said, well, the injunction in Deuteronomy only applies to Moabite males. So that the marriage of a Moabite woman like Ruth, well, that's not prohibited. That's in Mishnah Yevamot 8:3. So that's one way of looking at it.

But let's just sort of get inside Ezra for a moment. And I'm not making a case that we should switch the Book of Ruth for the Book of Ezra But we ought to understand the dynamic tension.

So Ezra is a scribe from a priestly family. And the first problem that he confronts when he comes back to Jerusalem, the people return from exile, was that the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the land, the native peoples, the Canaanites, the Jebusites, all the ones enumerated in the Torah. And what have they done? They have taken from their daughters for their own wives.

And it says they've mixed the holy seed with the peoples of the land. That's chapter 9, verses 1 and 2 of Ezra. Ezra is so offended by the intermarriage that he sees that he tears his clothes as a sign of mourning and prayed and fasted as a sign of repentance.

Ezra's reaction is easy to understand. The returnees believe that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were destroyed because of their inhabitants not living up to God's teachings. So Ezra is determined to hold fast and to make sure there would be no mingling of the cultures, no diluting of Jewish commitment. So he's adamant that intermarriage is always wrong.

Now, friends, the Book of Ezra, the Book of Deuteronomy, the Book of Ruth, there's a loud argument going on textually. And that actually is not the only example. There are many internal tensions. There are different places where we can actually have a pro and con within our Bible or within the Talmud or within some of the sacred literature. That's part of what it means to be an evolving people.

We're also an interpretive tradition. We can debate the different dimensions of any issue. So in many ways, why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot? Book of Ruth won. Book of Ezra did not. And in some ways, the teachings of Ruth gain the upper hand, as it were.

Now, let's just recount why the Book of Ruth probably was exactly the right book. The events that are described in the Book of Ruth are during the summer harvest, when Shavuot is celebrated. So it feels very much in the season of the holiday. Ruth was the great grandmother of King David, who according tradition died on Shavuot. That may be the answer.

And then Ruth's acceptance of Judaism corresponds really beautifully to the giving of the Torah, matan Torah, in the wilderness, which we, of course-- that's the main textual narrative of Shavuot, the giving of revelation, of Torah on Mount Sinai. And the Book of Ruth talks about Ruth's loyalty and symbolizes just her deep cleaving to the Jewish people and Jewish tradition. That's a book that reminds us that each of us is asked as well to reaffirm our own connection and commitment on the holiday of Shavuot.

Well, I have to just throw in one little bit of contemporary Israeli history. I, like many people, during sheltering in place had a chance to catch up on some television series that I hadn't really watched. And one was Fauda. I don't know if you saw it. Netflix has this Israeli thriller Fauda.

And one of the stars of Fauda is an actor named Tzachi Halevy. Well, it turns out a couple of years ago, Tzachi Halevy a nice Jewish Israeli-- he's a songwriter and actor-- married Lucy Aharish, an Israeli-Arab TV journalist. So this intermarriage took place. And it caused and continues to cause so much tumult in Israeli society.

Lucy Aharish was, for many years, I think five or six, the host of “Sichat Hayom,” a weekly half-hour show on channel 13 in Israel. And her Hebrew's beautiful. Her knowledge-- she was born in Israel. She's raised in Dimona. And she would always make wonderful greetings on the show in Arabic. Of course, the main body of the show was all in Hebrew.

She is fluent in everything Israeli. And she fell in love with Tzachi Halevy. And they married. Well, everybody in Israel thought they could sort of raise a voice and speak about it. And in Israel, it was quite something for a Jewish man to marry a Muslim woman.

And again, I'm not taking sides. I'm just pointing out that this subject is very much alive. And we, in North America, have a different reality. We don't live in a Jewish enclave. We live very much in the wider community. We know and live in proximity to people of all different faiths and backgrounds. We're a very small minority here in North America. And so for us, a lot of these questions resonate.

So I just want to conclude with just a bit of the reality of who Ruth is to us. I have to say every tradition, every human needs to have boundaries. And you need to have the ability to keep certain people and keep certain people out. There are times in Jewish tradition we've built walls to protect our Jewish community because we've been afraid for the physical attacks that could come.

Other times we've lowered those boundaries, and we've had maybe just permeable borders. And I think the Book of Ruth is a eloquent testimony to the need to keep our boundaries permeable because she doesn't just come into the Jewish story. She doesn't just become part of the Jewish people. Remember who Ruth is. She is the descendant of one of the great haters and an antagonist of the Jewish people named Balak. We read his story later in the Book of Numbers.

And at the same time, she's the great grandmother of King David. David is not just a King. It is the line, Jewish tradition tells us, towards the Messiah. Ruth is a bridge between hate and redemption. She's a bridge between closing off and opening to.

She teaches us chesed, loving kindness. She teaches us that love can grow, connection can grow. So I am thrilled that we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot. I'm going to read from Exodus and the narrative of revelation on Sinai. But I'm going to pay particular attention to these chapters of the Book of Ruth, and I invite you to do the same.

And in it, you have an inner tension of the Jewish tradition in ancient times and today. There are those who want to close our boundaries. There are those who think that those who come to sojourn with us can't be part of our community. And there are those of us who believe deeply that we are enriched by the Ruths who've come into our midst. Some have come through marriage, some simply by seeking.

But if we ever close off those seeking souls, we will be diminished. So let's affirm our own connection. And let's leave open that many others could be connected. Let's be inspired by Ruth, the bridge all the way to redemption. Hag Same’ach. Have a beautifully meaningful Shavuot.

Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit reformjudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L’hitra’ot.