Sermon: This Shavuot, I Stand with Ruth (Cantor Cheryl Wunch)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a grassroots group associated with the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C.  For those of you who may not know, the Religious Action Center is the social justice advocacy arm of the Union for Reform Judaism.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, among other projects, has periodic campaigns for which they choose a theme.  They ask Reform clergy around North America to preach about this theme during the same period of time as a way of bringing awareness to certain issues.  The current campaign addresses the issue of immigration reform, which is a highly emotional and hotly debated issue in the States right now.  If you are active on Facebook or other social media sites, you may have seen some people replace their profile picture with an image bearing the slogan “This Shavuot, I stand with Ruth.”  The gist of this campaign is that Ruth, whose story is traditionally read on Shavuot, was an immigrant, an undocumented migrant worker, who had to work and struggle to be accepted into her new community.  Reform clergy all over North America are proclaiming “This Shavuot, I stand with Ruth” as a way of showing support for the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests, and to acknowledge that we once were all strangers, and so we should treat all of those who wish to join our community as valuable and viable citizens.  We want to stop putting stumbling blocks before those who wish to contribute to society, and instead help to welcome people into our midst.

I’m not too familiar with the political situation here in the UK especially when it comes to immigration policy, but in my short time here I have come to understand that while the situation is not the same as in the US, the issues of who can move here, who can work here, and who belongs here are controversial.  The challenge to welcome guests and love our neighbours as ourselves is not being easily accomplished in many parts of the world.

This year, across the UK, Reform congregations have been studying the topic of Jewish Status for their Shavuot learning.  This comes on the heels of a 2 day RabbinicKallah, where we, a large group of Reform clergy, studied the same topic.  We studied all sides of the issue – the halacha, trends around the world, legalities, and the history and evolution of this topic.  The issue of who is a Jew is not a new one.  It has been debated for centuries, and communities around the world disagree on who counts as “one of us.”  Some argue that Judaism is purely passed on through the matrilineal line, while some say that it can be passed down from either the mother or the father.  Some communities have rather lax conversion processes, while some will only accept as Jewish those who have undergone the most intense courses of study and interview by a Bet Din.  There are, of course, all shades of grey in between these extremes.

Status is important.  We know that Jewish status is important when it comes to marriage, and children, and for those who wish to make Aliyah, but it is also important for one’s own sense of self and sense of belonging.  Having the ability to say “I belong” is one of the most fundamental of all human emotional needs.  Feeling accepted, feeling welcomed, feeling included gives a person security and comfort, something that we all need.  Not knowing where you stand among a group with whom you religiously identify can be just as alienating as being told that you can’t live in a country that feels like home.  Just like issues of immigration, the book of Ruth brings up issues of Jewish status as well.

The book of Ruth is about a Moabite woman, who, after the death of her Israelite husband, decides to stay with her mother in law Naomi.  She utters the words to Naomi “your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God” which has been interpreted as her proclamation of conversion, but she never goes to a ritual bath or does any of the other things that we require for conversion in our day.  She simply feels connected to Judaism, and chooses to be a part of the Jewish people.  Ruth eventually meets Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi’s and marries him.  It is important to stop the story here to reiterate a point.  Ruth was a Moabite woman.  In Deuteronomy we read:  “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal; none of their descendants even into the 10th generation shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal because they did not meet you with food and water after you left Egypt…”

Ruth was never supposed to be a Jew.  Even if she had gone through a full conversion process, our Torah explicitly commands that absolutely no one from her tribe can join our people.  No matter what, Ruth was supposed to be an outsider, her people were an enemy people, and yet she was still welcomed, treated well, and the rules were bent.  Ruth and Boaz eventually had a son Oved, who has a son Jesse, who was the father of David, the eventual king of Israel.  King David, if we consider his heritage as coming from his mother’s bloodline was not “Torah Law Jewish.”  The Messiah, who is supposedly going to be a descendant of King David, will also not have originally come from a matrilineal Jew.

Yet, on the festival when we commemorate, and in fact re-enact the moment of receiving Torah at Sinai, we read this story.  We read about the breaking of a commandment, of allowing someone in who we are commanded to keep out.  We learn that kindness towards all is more important than tribal affiliation, and we learn that it is not the mere act of RECEIVING Torah that matters, but the act of CHOOSING Torah.  Between Pesach and Shavuot we journey out of slavery and into the uncertainty of the wilderness.  When we finally reach Sinai, we affirm our identities by taking on the laws and accepting the Torah.  We affirm our commitment as Jews, and proclaim our identities as People of the Book.  We are not passive players in our Jewish lives, but we have to take an active part.  Just like Ruth, we choose Torah.

Many people in our world are not as lucky as Ruth was.  Many people are stuck in the wilderness, stuck in the uncertainty that comes with not knowing where or if they belong.  They feel like they belong, they believe that they belong, but because others don’t believe that they are entitled, whether it is in regards to citizenship or Jewish status, they must remain in a state of uncertainty – of feeling like an outsider.

There was a time in our history when none of us belonged.  There was a time when we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  There was a time when there was no such thing as Judaism, and those who chose to join up did exactly that – they chose.  They suffered and struggled until they finally received Torah.  I was lucky enough to be born into a family whose Jewish roots, on both sides, can be traced back several generations, but that doesn’t give me the right to tell someone else that their Judaism is any less authentic than mine is.  Who am I to deny someone their heritage?  Who am I to decide who a person truly is on the inside?  I’m not here to tell you which position I support – I’m not 100% certain where I stand on every issue.  I’m not here to talk about what I believe makes someone “Jewish.”  We all have our views.  We all have our ways of looking at things.  No matter where we are, no matter where our conversations take us, I believe that it is our priority to open our arms and support all of those who wish to be ethically, culturally, or religiously Jewish.  I don’t necessarily know what that should look like, but I do know that we cannot turn people away because of a technicality – we can’t reject King David simply because he was part Moabite.

In America, the issue is about people who make the active choice to be a part of American society in one way or another.  Here in the UK, the issue that we discussed last night, and will continue to discuss, is about those who make the active choice to be a part of the Jewish people in one way or another.  Ruth is the embodiment of both of these issues, and so this Shavuot, today, I stand not just with Ruth, but with all those who seek to belong.