With a touch of divine providence, the debate about illegal immigration is heating up just as Jews prepare for Shavuot. The two-day festival starting the evening of June 1, called Pentecost in English, marks the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The holiday’s most sweetly recalled feature, though, is the reading of the Scriptural book of Ruth, Judaism’s favorite immigrant.
Her story challenges us to think more biblically about America’s 12 million illegal aliens, and the ancient narrative may be more contemporary than you realize.
According to the Bible, Ruth’s time was one of “famine” in the land of Israel, a time not only of hunger for food, but also of spiritual malnourishment — much like our own time. A wealthy Israelite, Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their two sons fled for nearby Moab, a country known for its stinginess. There Elimelech would not feel so obliged to support the poor, as he had in Israel.
Elimelech died soon after, and his sons decided to intermarry, wedding a pair of Moabite girls, Ruth and Orpah. When the sons also died, Ruth resolved to return to Israel with Naomi. While the mother-in-law protested that Ruth would be better off staying put, Ruth responded with the beautiful and timeless declaration that she no longer wished to be a Moabite at all:
“For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and so may He do more, if anything but death separates me from you” (1:16-17).
Having “converted” to Judaism with this passionate speech, Ruth then returned with Naomi to Israel. There she remarried and became a key ancestor in King David’s lineage. Rabbinic law to this day derives the basic laws of conversion from Ruth’s overwhelming devotion to the people of Israel.
The conditions in Ruth’s day — alienation, anomie, intermarriage — are all too familiar to the Jewish community today. Yet there is also a lesson here for the broader American public, particularly given the eagerness to cite Scripture on the part of those advocating amnesty for illegal aliens.
Like the New Testament’s often-invoked image of the Good Samaritan and Matthew 25 on the need for solicitousness toward the “stranger,” Ruth is a pro-immigrant story — but with a twist that may make those on the amnesty side of the immigration debate uncomfortable.
Thoughtful advocates of amnesty recognize the need for some standards. To become a citizen, you should have to learn English. But that’s not enough.
On the Wall Street Journal editorial page, James Wilson of Pepperdine University and Peter Skerry of Boston College further suggested that as a precondition immigrants be required to do community service. That’s more like it. If we are to follow the spirit of the Bible, as amnesty advocates have been advocating, then every new American should, like Ruth, need to demonstrate a commitment to patriotism and civic spirit.
One thing that shocked and dismayed many Americans about the recent demonstrations by mostly Mexican immigrants — including many who entered the country illegally and now wish to gain legal status — were the numerous Mexican flags displayed by the marchers. Would Ruth have flown a Moabite banner? My goodness, no. An utter, all-transcending commitment to her new people was her standard, and rabbinic courts still look for it in potential converts.
It’s true that the Bible refers to an alternative, quasi-convert status: the resident alien, known in Hebrew as ger toshav . Such a person remained a gentile but could settle in the land on the condition that he accepted a regimen of moral directives under the seven broad categories of the Covenant of Noah.
A ger toshav was called a “resident” alien because if he refused to accept this moral law, he could not reside in the Jewish land — on pain of death, according to Maimonides. The Bible, remember, takes borders seriously. Americans opposed to the building of a strong fence along the Mexican border would do well to remember the words of Deuteronomy: God “gave the nations their inheritance” and “set the borders of the peoples” (32:8).
Whether guided by Ruth or by the ger toshav , a truly biblical model for granting legal residency to illegal immigrants would set high hurdles. Many native-born Americans, however, seem unready to contemplate this — which brings us back to Shavuot, the festival of standards.
The other highlight of the holiday is the Torah reading from Exodus, narrating the revelation of the Ten Commandments — the 10 demands the Lord set before the Jewish people in the desert before they themselves became immigrants to the holy land. God knew what a self-respecting culture must demand of those who would join it, and what even the land itself may require of those who wish to live there.
Whether we in America also know what must be demanded of our immigrants, however, remains to be seen.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).