When Did Ruth Convert?
On the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday of receiving the Torah, Jews across the world will sit down to hear the reading of Megillat Rut. Although short in length, Rut is packed with tragedy, happy endings, family values and a glimpse into the messianic dynasty. The heroine throughout the story is the famous titular convert, Ruth. A Moabite, Ruth converts to Judaism and cares for her mother-in-law Naomi – even after both women’s husbands pass away. Ruth’s character and genuine actions jump out of the text as she journeys from being a Moabite woman, to a poor daughter -in-law, to moving to Judah and becoming the wife of Boaz, a leading figure of the time. While Ruth’s character is compelling, the reader wonders why it is her particular story that we read on the holiday of receiving the Torah. Through exploring Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, and her choice to become a part of the Jewish people and Jewish faith, the connection between her story and the holiday of Shavuot can be better understood. Interestingly, the text of Megillat Rut never imparts the details of Ruth’s conversion. Thus, we must explore the question of when exactly Ruth converted, making the leap from Moabite to Israelite. And further, what can her conversion itself tell us about Ruth’s character; and what can it teach us about receiving the Torah?
Throughout the ages Biblical commentators have debated about when exactly Ruth converted. The basic storyline of the first chapter of Ruth is that a family from Judah, comprising of Elimelekh, Naomi, Mahlon, and Kilyon, goes to live in the fields of Moab, where the two sons marry two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Tragically, all three men pass away, and Ruth and Orpah remain with their mother-in law. Eventually Naomi decides that she is going back to the Land of Judah and tells her daughters-in-law to return to their homelands. Orpah accedes and returns home with an emotional goodbye; Ruth however hangs along with Naomi for the journey. Throughout the classic commentaries, two main approaches to the timeline of Ruth’s conversion arise: either she converts before marriage, prior to the events of Rut 1:4, or when she insists on staying with Naomi and states, “Amekh ami ve-e-lohayich e-lohai – your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16).[i] We will explore these two classic options and then two others.
The first opinion contends that both Ruth and Orpah convert at some point before they marry Mahlon and Kilyon. This could explain why Ruth does not take on a Jewish name at a later point – because Ruth in fact is her Jewish name, not her Moabite name.[ii] Ibn Ezra, in defending Elimelekh’s sons marrying Moabite women, perpetuates this idea with strong language: “And it is inconceivable that Mahlon and Kilyon would take these women before they converted, and ‘[Your sister-in-law Orpah returned] to her nation and god’ (Rut 1:15) proves this.” Ibn Ezra seems to think it impossible that Mahlon and Kilyon would marry outside the faith. Following this opinion, the two sons could have married these women only after they had converted. Ralbag also insists that the women converted before marriage, and this is why we don’t see Ruth convert at any other point in the Megillah, even when she marries Boaz. Ralbag writes, “And thus it appears that they converted when Mahlon and Kilyon married them; for this reason we don’t find that Ruth needs to convert when Boaz marries her.” Like Ibn Ezra, Ralbag assumes Ruth converted to Judaism at some point before her first marriage, and throughout the Megillah she is assumed to have already converted.
The second opinion is that after the tragic events of the first half of the chapter, Naomi journeys to return to Bethlehem; Orpah parts with her; and at that moment, Ruth converts. Rashi explains: “They had not converted; and now they are coming to convert, as it is written, ‘For we will return with you’ (Rut 1:10): From now we will be one nation” (Rashi on Rut 1:12). During this potential moment of separation between Ruth and Naomi, Ruth converts and joins the Jewish people. Ruth’s famous words, “Your nation is my nation and your God is my God” (Rut 1:15) are meant literally, as this is her conversion to Judaism. The Targum’s interpretation of the text includes the words, “I will convert,” in Ruth’s proclamation of beliefs. Hazal even derive certain laws of conversion from Ruth’s proclamation in 1:15.[iii] This interpretive position maintains that Naomi wants to send Ruth back to the Moabite people, and Ruth converts, making Israel her people.
With both approaches come many textual and conceptual difficulties. In understanding that Ruth and Orpah converted before marrying Mahlon and Kilyon, the Akeidat Yitzhak[iv]
raises an issue with Ibn Ezra’s position:[v] If Ruth and Orpah had indeed converted, and the Jewish people were now their people, how could Naomi push Ruth and Orpah to go back to Moab? How could Naomi allow Orpah to return to her former idolatrous people once she had converted to Judaism; surely Naomi here would be a mesit u-medi’ach?[vi]
On the other hand, maintaining that Ruth’s conversion occurs at 1:15 raises a number of both technical and character questions. One of the main advantages of Ibn Ezra’s approach is its avoidance of the problem of Mahlon and Kilyon marrying Moabite women. The magnitude of this problem is heightened in light of the Talmudic statement of R. Shimon ben Yochai that “Elimelekh, Mahlon, and Kilyon were the leaders of the generation.”[vii] It would be astonishing if the greatest men of the generation married outside the Jewish people. Additionally, while powerful and inspirational, Ruth’s proclamation could not have been a full-fledged conversion; there was no Beit Din in the desert, only her and her mother-in-law.
There exist many ways to solve these issues. Avi Harel proposes that Ruth only converted upon marrying Boaz. Prior to the marriage, recorded in Rut 4:14, Ruth is referred to as Ruth the Moabite. However, once she is married, she is simply called Ruth. Another approach is Israel Drazin’s, that Ruth did not formally convert at all. In his explanation, legal conversion was not needed, since Judaism was simply a nationality, and not a religion. When Ruth entered the land, she “converted” by de facto joining the Jewish nation.
Another approach is one that blends the two classical positions of Rashi and the Ibn Ezra. In his Tzitz Eliezer responsa (17:42:5), R. Eliezer Waldenberg offers a compromise approach. He explains that Ibn Ezra is correct in judging Mahlon and Kilyon favorably for not marrying non-Jews; on the other hand, Rashi is also correct in understanding Ruth’s statements in 1:16 as her conversion. R. Waldenberg compares Ruth and Orpah’s conversions to the way Rambam assesses the conversions of the wives of Samson and Solomon:[viii] their conversions were technically valid, but since they were exclusively for marriage and without any pretense of genuinely joining the Jewish people, the Tanakh views these women as if they were still non-Jews. However, Ruth then becomes a “full” convert when she remains with Naomi. After the husbands’ tragic deaths and the three women’s journey, Naomi turns to her daughters-in-law and tells them to return to their nations. Orpah listens this this request and leaves the religion and people which she never properly converted into to begin with. Ruth, however, in her claim to willingly stick to Judaism, affirms her original conversion. By claiming “your nation is my nation,” Ruth accepts Judaism in a quasi-conversion to complement and complete her earlier conversion.
- Waldenberg thus gives great insight into the essence of Ruth’s character, and her personal connection to the Jewish people. Ruth and Orpah both marry into a family; after horrific events they both heroically stay by the side of their widowed mother-in-law. When Naomi returns to Israel she is extremely embarrassed of herself: she opts to be known as Marah, in reference to her bitterness. Indeed, she left Israel with a husband and two sons who were the gedolei and parnesei ha-dor, and would return with two widowed Moabite women. Naomi offers to spare her daughters-in-law her embarrassment and gives them an out. Orpah, after remaining by the side of her mother-in-law through tragedy, takes her up on the option. Ruth, however, “davekah vah – stuck to her” (Rut 1:14). This “vah” can refer not only to Naomi, but also to the Torah. Through her marriage, Ruth joined a Jewish family. However in remaining with Naomi in Judah, Ruth declares that she is not only part of the Naomi’s family; she also chooses to embrace her faith, as Naomi’s God is also her God. Ruth clings to the Torah, sticking by its side, as well as Naomi’s, joining not only the Jewish people but also its faith.
Reading this story on Shavuot, the Jewish people relate Ruth’s story to its own. When the Jewish people left Egypt they were a nation, they were a family. Like Ruth and Naomi, the Jewish people witnessed tragedy and faced adversity. Yet, when they got to Mount Sinai they exclaimed, “na’aseh ve-nishma – we will do and we will listen” (Shemot 24:7), parallel to Ruth’s “amekh ami ve-e-lohayikh e-lohai.” Both exhibit true embracement of God and the Torah. Ruth sends a message that she is in fact part of our people, and so, on the holiday when the Jews celebrate accepting the Torah, we look to this convert heroine who stuck to the Torah.
[i] NJPS translation.
[ii] Zohar Hadash Rut 32.
[iii] TB Yevamot 47b, Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 13:14; Shulchan Arukh 268:2; and Levush ad loc.
[iv] Akeidat Yitshak Hamesh Megillot Ruth 1:16.
[vi] Deut. 13:7. This refers to a person who convinces one to commit idolatry, and leave the path of the Torah.
[vii] TB Bava Batra 71a
[viii] Rambam Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 13:14