The Jewish community has been welcoming and celebrating converts to Judaism since at least the time of Ruth, the paradigmatic convert whose story is celebrated on Shavuot. However, in recent years, controversies over conversion have taken on greater urgency, in large part because they are proxy fights for the definition of Judaism.
Many conversion fights focus on what steps are necessary for a gentile to be considered a Jew, and who gets to make the determination. According to the Talmud’s most authoritative discussion on conversion ( Yevamot 47a), there are two central components to the ritual that transforms a gentile into a Jew — one for the body and one for the mind. With regard to the body, the rabbinic tradition demands that all converts immerse in the mikveh, the ritual equivalent of a Jewish womb, and that men get circumcised for the purposes of the covenant. With regard to the mind, the tradition demands that a potential convert be reminded of the persecution that Jews often face and be taught a few simple and a few complicated commandments. The Talmud doesn’t specify which commandments must be taught — for this requirement, it seems that any will do.
However, there are three interrelated agricultural commandments that the Talmud says must be included in a convert’s education: The rabbis stipulate that a prospective convert must learn that as a Jew, he or she is commanded to leave the edges of the field, forgotten sheaves of grain and the gleanings of the harvest for the poor and the stranger. These commandments, which demand concern for those in need, simply must be taught to those who hope to be Jews.
This particular prerequisite for ethical behavior in a convert is rarely emphasized today, yet it was clearly a central concern in our oldest rabbinic teachings. The rabbis were in essence saying that in order to become a Jew, a convert must learn to be perpetually turned outward in a posture of compassion, to be constantly concerned about others. To be a Jew is to know that even at the moment when you enjoy the bounty of your harvest, there are those who are hungry, and you are obligated to help them.
The rabbis of the Talmud did not limit this concern to converts alone. They imagined King David declaring that mercy, modesty and benevolence were the defining characteristics of Jewish people and saying, strikingly, that only those who display those characteristics are “fit to cleave to the Jewish people.” Hundreds of years later, this story was codified by the Rambam as part of Jewish law, establishing that regardless of any other identifying markers, someone who is hateful or cruel is suspected of not really being a Jew.
Pirkei Avot contains a list of virtues seen as essential for an authentic practice of Judaism, including things like humility, patience and loving all creatures. Commenting on them, Rabbi Simcha Zisl of Broide, known as the Alter of Kelm and one of the giants of 19th-century Judaism, also emphasized the centrality of ethics in saying that each of these virtues is like a stepping-stone — one follows the other in order to bring about the ultimate goal: being the master of a fine soul. For the Alter of Kelm, to be the master of a fine soul meant being one who helps another person carry his or her burden.
The Book of Ruth, which is read in synagogues around the world in celebration of Shavuot, places this mandate to help others carry their burdens squarely at the center of Judaism. Ruth is a poor widow and part of the despised Moabite nation when she comes to Bethlehem. There, she gleans at the edges of the field, hoping to eke out an existence, when Boaz, a distant relative of her late husband, fulfills the mitzvah of leaving food on the field — one of the very commandments that the rabbis later placed at the center of the conversion ritual — to ensure she has enough to eat. Ruth, in turn, takes from what she has been given and provides food for her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth and Boaz ultimately marry, and from their descendants comes King David, the ultimate symbol of hope and redemption.
The Jewish tradition demands that those who hope to convert, as Ruth did, learn the commandments at the crux of this story, because to be a Jew is to be constantly aware of the hungry of the world. That degree of attunement to other people is at the core of what it means to be a Jew in practice, not merely in name. On Shavuot, the story of Boaz and Ruth comes to remind all of us who consider ourselves Jews, whether our path was through birth or through conversion, that we inherit this demanding tradition of unending concern for the well-being of other people.
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek is rabbi-in-residence at American Jewish World Service.