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This post is based on an article by Rabbi Copeland that originally appeared on jweekly.com
There have always been Jews-by-association. Nowadays this term, JBA for short, is becoming well known as a catch-all category for people who hang out with Jews, including people who gravitate toward Judaism, have many Jewish friends, or are partnered with someone Jewish. But the only thing that is new about the category is the name.
Throughout our history, there have been categories of people who cast their lots with the Jewish people but, for a variety of reasons, were never fully integrated into Judaism. Some may have wanted to become fully Jewish, others not. But common to all of them was that they walked a common path with Jews.
We are about to celebrate Shavuot, the holiday when we study the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Jew-by-Association. She married one Israelite, followed her mother-in-law back to their people after his death, and then married a second Israelite. She is hailed as the first convert, but historically, conversion did not yet exist as a mechanism one could undergo to become part of Judaism. What she did do was utter the words, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people.” [Ruth 1:16] She declared herself a fellow traveler.
But Ruth wasn’t the only one. A person who walked the path with us in the Torah was in the category of the ger toshav, the resident stranger who lived among the early Israelites and was to observe the same rituals and laws. There is even a rationale for treating the ger toshav like an Israelite: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 19:34] The presence of this group of people was perhaps a daily reminder of the lessons we learned from our enslavement.
These resident strangers were even included in the ceremony of covenant when the community heard the law from Moses in Moab [Dt. 29:9-11]: “You stand here this day, all of you, before YHWH Your God-your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp—to enter into the covenant”. Just as they were not full Israelites, they were not considered foreigners either.
There was also the erev rav, the mixed multitude who left the slavery of Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites [Nu.15:16]. Later in our history, during the second temple period, there was a category of Jews-by-association called “God-fearers” who, like the other categories, were people who aligned themselves with the Jewish people. Since there was no such thing as conversion, such strangers among us were left as they were—people who clearly cast their lot with the Jewish people.
In our time, there are countless people who reside within Jewish communities who consider themselves fellow travelers. Now, we draw a sharper line between those who are Jewish and those who are not. As of the early centuries CE, we do have a way for people to become fully integrated into Judaism: Conversion. But as that category has become more and more solidified, there has been less and less space for people who don’t fit neatly into one group or the other.
Conversion should be celebrated. But we should also take time to celebrate those who would have fallen nicely into one of these historical categories as fellow travelers who do not wish to convert.
People walk the path with the Jewish people because they love someone Jewish or feel an affinity with Judaism. Many are helping to raise Jewish kids, keeping this tradition thriving into the next generation. As we celebrate Shavuot, let this season of Ruth be an invitation to appreciate our many fellow travelers.
The “fall holidays”–Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur and then just four days later by the week-long festival of Sukkot, which concludes with SimchatTorah at the end of this week–it feels like a marathon. In less than a month we’ve packed in quite a bit. Happy, sad, reflective, apologetic, celebratory, history-based and forward thinking. Of all the holidays at this time of year, Simchat Torah is one of my favorites. As a child we would dance with the Torah scrolls and then the rabbi would have all the adults make a LARGE circle as we unrolled an entire scroll around the room.
“Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” Ben Bag Bag shares these words of wisdom about Torah. As a child I laughed at his name, but as an adult I appreciate the depth of this rather simple statement. Ben Bag Bag referred to the Torah, the ancient scroll on which the first five books of Moses and the beginning of the Jewish bible are written. Each year Jews around the world read a segment of these stories until this week when they (finally) reach the end…only to return to the beginning again with the word b’reishit (in the beginning).
It’s such a natural cycle to turn and return. We cycle through the seasons, the yearly holidays and the cycle of life. Ben Bag Bag informs us that if we look deep into the words of the Torah we can find “everything.”
Cain and Abel teach us that we are responsible for and cannot hide our own actions. Abraham shows us (and God) the importance of mercy when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. Jacob and Esau demonstrate sibling rivalry while Joseph and his brothers take it one step further demonstrating the weakness of family relationships that can be restored by the strength of forgiveness. Moses teaches us that even with physical limitations, we can still do great things.
Throughout the Torah we are reminded to treat others with respect and dignity. We are also reminded to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger among us. Commentary on the Torah takes these guidelines even further and extrapolates how we treat those who work for us and our animals. For example, one must be paid for his/her work in a timely fashion, so as not to cause unnecessary strife on his/her life. We must also feed animals and pets before we feed ourselves.
The guidance one can glean from the Torah can apply to all people. Those who practice Judaism and those who do not. I think every person should strive to be a good person and I find stories from the Torah provide good examples of how to (and sometimes how not to) act.
I encourage you to pick up a copy of the Torah and/or Bible stories and start reading. Discuss what you read with your family and discuss what everyone thinks. How might you want to incorporate examples into your life? What stories will you choose to use as examples of what not to do?
A personal favorite is the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible. The Bible stories included in this volume include fifty-three Bible stories (Torah and additional books), retold by Ellen Frankel. Each story is only a few short pages, so you can read one each night or each week. The full-color illustrations by Avi Katz help bring the stories to life!
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and insights! Please share what you think in the comment section below.
Hopefully by now you’ve started following the newest blog on our site, the Animated Torahlog presented by G-dcast. Not quite sure what it is? It’s a place to engage with the weekly Torah portion (part of the Torah is read each week, divvied up throughout the year, so that each autumn we start in Genesis and make our way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy then start again the next fall).
Screenshot from the G-dcast eBook
As we started Genesis this fall, with the Creation story (Adam, Eve, the garden of Eden), team G-dcast wrote their first blog post for us. (Well, technically not the first – they started with the posts for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)
But it’s not all words — the blog’s called “animated” because each post is accompanied by a video explaining part of the week’s Torah portion, focusing on a particular theme or story.
If you haven’t been following along, I encourage you to do so. If you have been, you know that these first several weeks of Genesis have beenfullofohsomuchfamilydrama!
Now, I know you love how the posts also relate to our lives and interests; they often include music videos, poems, and/or visual art, and they always include questions about how these topics and themes relate to our lives today, in 2012.
But if you’ve been wanting to read ahead, or get other perspectives on the Torah portions, you might want to download the snazzy new eBook from G-dcast. For $14.99, it’s available for download on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iBooks and on your computer (Mac only, I think) with iTunes. What is it?
Welcome to The Five eBooks of Moses — where the Bible can be experienced as never before… digitized and animated!
What did Noah say to the lions when the rains started? Just how colorful was Joseph’s coat? Why did Sarah laugh when she learned that she would become a mother at the age of 90? Read the full Biblical text, watch the 55 animated short videos, engage with discussion questions for further learning and exploration, and find out!
This eBook is a delightful resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the Hebrew Bible in a unique and engaging way — individuals, families, teachers, and kids alike.
The Five eBooks of Moses is produced by G-dcast, a non-profit production company dedicated to raising basic Jewish literacy using media and storytelling styles that speak to today’s youth. Since 2006, G-dcast has created over 75 animated films enjoyed worldwide by hundreds of thousands of people from diverse religious backgrounds.
If you get the eBook for your iPhone/iPod/iPad, let us know what you think of it! Then make sure to read along with their Animated Torahlog, here on InterfaithFamily, to share all your new discoveries and insights!