Shavuot: Holiday of Intermarriage?
The vast majority of Jews who study the Hebrew Bible do so, often unknowingly, through the lens of over 2,000 years of rabbinic exegesis and interpretation.
The rabbinic layer attempts to smooth over and reconcile all contradictions, giving the misleading appearance that our holy books share a completely monolithic worldview. Granted, this rabbinic layer is a crucial and fundamental part of our tradition and should by no means be ignored - but it is also important to understand our Biblical texts and what they are trying to teach from within their historical context.
Once we peel off the layers of rabbinic interpretation from the Book of Ruth and seek out the social and historical context which produced the book, we are presented with a radically different story, a story that isn’t likely to be told by your rabbi this Shavuot, but a story that represents a radical shift in thought from within the ancient Jewish community, and one which I believe must be considered when discussing intermarriage in today’s world.
The Book of Ruth was composed during the Persian Period just decades after Cyrus, the Persian emperor, allowed the Jews to return from their Babylonian exile and subsequently rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. After 70 long years of exile after the destruction of the First Temple, the Judean people finally began to return to their homeland.
However, many Jews didn’t actually want to return to Israel. Life in Babylonia was comfortable, with many Jews holding prominent public positions. During their time in Babylonia, Jews slowly assimilated into wider Babylonian society accepting many of their customs, laws and even intermarried. Understandably, when the Jews started to return to Israel to reimagine and rebuild their community, many of the Jewish men brought foreign wives.
Ezra, a scribe and scholar, sought to change this communal assimilation that he felt was ubiquitous in the newly revived Israel. He rededicated himself and the people to the Torah, introducing an array of new laws to ensure the purity of the collective community, while urging people to forget about Babylonia and its culture.
Unsurprisingly, one of Ezra’s biggest complaints was the fact that many of the Jewish men had married non-Jewish women. Ezra unequivocally and immediately denounced this practice and demanded that these recently immigrated Jewish men abandon their foreign wives. With this decree, Ezra was in essence arguing that there is something intrinsically holy within the “Jewish seed” and as a result, there is no path to conversion or joining in the Jewish community if one was not born into it. This became the mainstream view within late 6th century BCE Judaism.
A book written only decades after the events in Ezra but set in ancient, pre-Temple Israel, some 700 years back from the time it was composed. A Moabite woman pledges her full allegiance to the Jewish community and, after proving herself, is accepted into the fold. She marries Boaz, a great man and judge, and even merits to be the ancestor of King David.
The fact that Ruth was a Moabite cannot be overstated. The Torah is explicit in the fact that Moabites cannot enter the Jewish community, and this was certainly the mainstream view before Ruth. Later rabbinic sources tried to rationalize away this discrepancy by saying that the Biblical verse only referred to a male Moabite, but these apologetics are simply historically inaccurate.
The idea that Ruth, a Moabite woman, is not only accepted into Judaism but then becomes a part of the Davidic bloodline represents an opinion that not only goes against Ezra, but also the Torah. The Book of Ruth is nothing less than a strong polemic against Ezra and his xenophobic view towards non-Jews.
At the end of the day, Ruth wins out over Ezra and conversion became an accepted part of Judaism. Of course, with Ruth there was no formal conversion process, no Beit Din, and it certainly didn’t take her years. Over time, however, the conversion process became increasingly standardized, but it is important to remember that all Ruth had to do to convert was say “I’m in”.
So how does this relate to intermarriage?
Well, I want to say at the outset that I do not agree with Jewish communities, especially the Conservative movement, fully condoning intermarriage, and have received considerable backlash within the liberal Jewish community for this view. But it is my firm belief that sociologically Judaism will not be able to survive, especially outside of Israel, should intermarriage continue to spread. For more on this point see here.
However, I also think that individuals who intermarry should not be shunned or pushed out of the community in any way.
There is a tendency to view Jewish marriage as one of the main goals of Jewish education. People joke that the main purpose of trips such as birthright is to create Jewish babies. The flip side of this, of course, is that if Jews to begin to date non-Jews, they immediately receive backlash from the wider community.
If the Book of Ruth teaches us anything, it should be that we should not be so quick to judge someone and their potential commitment to the Jewish community based on their background. I would much rather marry a girl who wasn’t technically Jewish (because she never officially converted) but was committed to Judaism, its history, literature, and practice than a Jewish girl who couldn't care less about her identity.
The Ruth versus Ezra debate is currently raging within the Jewish community once again in a slightly different form. This Shavuot, as we read Ruth, we should do so with the understanding that non-Jews can and always have been an important part of our tradition.
Are Hispanics allowed to convert Orthodox? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
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