Rabbi Steven J. Lebow is the rabbi of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Ga. where he has served since 1986. He has helped his congregation grow from 60 to 860 families, and does outreach in the community on local cable television. He is the founder and CEO of Atlanta Jewish and Interfaith Weddings, which serves interfaith couples with weddings and baby namings throughout Geogia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee.
If the Book of Ruth Were Written Today
May 13, 2013
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Ruth. Ruth O'Connell. Ruth was a graduate student when she met her boyfriend, Josh Schwartzman. After dating for two years, she and Josh decided to get married.
The subject of their wedding came up one day, as they began to plan their ceremony.
"I'd like to get married in a Jewish ceremony by a rabbi," said Josh. "It's what I'm used to and I would feel more comfortable that way."
|Papercut art depicting Ruth's famous quote, from Leah Sosewitz's Judaic Art Studio.|
"That's fine with me," said Ruth. Ruth, while growing up, had attended Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian services over the years.
"I really don't see Jesus as the Son of God," she said to Josh, "and I really have no particular ties to any church."
Ruth and Josh made an appointment to see the local rabbi, near where they went to graduate school.
"We'd like to get married," Josh explained to the rabbi.
"Well, that's fine," said the rabbi, "but O'Connell isn't a Jewish name, is it?"
"No, it's not," said Ruth nervously.
"Well, in that case, you would have to convert for me to perform your wedding," said the rabbi.
Ruth had never really considered conversion to Judaism and didn't know that such a thing were possible.
"What would I have to do to convert?" she asked the rabbi.
"Well," said the rabbi, "you would have to take an 18 week course, read ten books on the Holocaust, and then let me dunk you in the mikveh. Then you would be a real Jew!"
"I see," said Ruth. "Listen, rabbi, I don't mind being married by you in a synagogue. In fact, I wouldn't mind joining the synagogue after grad school, paying my dues, and having my children be raised as Jews. But the thought of conversion isn't something I had ever really considered before."
"Can you just marry us this year" she asked the rabbi, "and then let me work towards being Jewish at my own rate?"
"No, I'm sorry," said the rabbi. "That is my policy. No mikveh, no wedding. It's quite simple."
"But, Rabbi," said Ruth, "you and Josh are both Jewish and yet neither of you has ever been to the mikveh..."
The rabbi said nothing more and Ruth and Joshua left the synagogue office. They were disappointed by the rabbi's response and they chose, instead, to get married by a family friend.
As the years passed, though, they got over the bitterness towards rabbis or synagogues and they did, in fact, join a shul.
The years passed and Josh and Ruth loved each other more and more. They attended their synagogue, celebrated Jewish holidays, and educated their children as Jews.
Unfortunately, Josh passed away in his forties from a sudden heart attack. Ruth was devastated, but after many months she began to put her life back together.
A few months went by and Joan, Josh's mother, was over at Ruth's house one evening. She saw Ruth paying her synagogue's bills online and sending in a Federation pledge, as well.
"Ruth," said Joan in surprise, "I wasn't sure after Josh died that you would still want to be Jewish."
"Don't be silly," she said to her mother-in-law. "From the day I married Josh I've been a Jew, with or without a mikveh. Just because Josh is gone doesn't mean that I will give up on being Jewish. Your people are my people. Your God is my God."
So what is the point of this modern midrash/interpretation on the Book of Ruth?
The first is that people can be Jewish because of, or in spite of, their rabbis. People will fall in love with whomever they want; marry whomever they want; and convert not when we want them to, but if and when they want to.
So what is a valid Reform conversion? For some rabbis, it will require the ritual bath – the mikveh. Others may require a simple profession of the Jewish faith. Some may require a course of study as well, as the rabbi in this story did, and they can vary in length.
"Your people are my people. Your God is my God."
So what is this story all about?
It is the story of our ancestor named Ruth who proved to generations of rabbis that you can't keep a good woman down!