Amy Winehouse in London last August.



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Shavuot: Unity Through Diversity


By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder,
Rabbi in Residence, Be’chol Lashon

The biblical Book of Ruth has everything a good story should have, a dramatic mysterious opening, strong characters, a suspenseful storyline with tension, a happy resolution and some romance thrown in for good measure. Traditionally, the Book of Ruth is associated with the holiday of Shavuot. One reason for the pairing is that the former is set in the harvest period which aligns with the latter’s celebration of the first harvest.

But there is another connection between Shavuot and the Book of Ruth that puts an important spin on the issue of conversion and the culture of inclusion in Jewish life. In addition to its agrarian ritual purpose, Shavuot has become associated with the giving of the Torah. In Judaism Shavuot is the anniversary of the day that the people of Israel stood at Sinai and the Torah was revealed and the people accepted it.  

The story of Ruth, while focusing on the narrative of an individual and not a nation, also speaks to the acceptance of Torah. Ruth, a Moabite by birth marries a Jew living in Moab. His mother Naomi returns to her native Judea and Ruth goes with her pledging allegiance not just to this woman who she loves but also to her people and her God. Like the people in the dessert at Sinai, Ruth declares her commitment.  

Given the primacy of Torah and covenant in traditional Jewish understandings, Shavuot is a big deal. The association of Ruth’s personal journey with the national narrative speaks volumes to the commitment in Judaism to allow ‘stranger’ to declare their commitment and to metaphorically stand with us at Sinai.  

The strength of Ruth’s story as a dominant voice in the Jewish vision of community as open to fellow travelers willing to join on the Jewish journey is compounded by evolution of the canon of the Jewish Bible. Ruth was one of the last books added to the cannon. Its narrative of inclusion stands in direct contrast to the books of Ezra and Nehemia, which take vitriolic positions in opposition to intermarriage and inclusion. There were essentially two radically different positions about being open to ‘strangers.’ Neither camp was strong enough to preclude the other’s book from being included in the canon. But by instating Ruth as the book read on Shavuot the rabbis made their position in support of inclusion clear. The books of Ezra and Nehemia with their xenophobic rhetoric have for the most part been relegated to books of scholarly interest, while the story of Ruth the stranger who becomes exemplar is read yearly and studied by many.

In an era when many Jews are welcoming ‘strangers’ into their communities and seeing them as valued exemplars who strengthen our people, Ruth resonates with new and stronger meaning. Once again, we may know Ezras and Nehemiahs in our midst but we need not heed their nay saying. The rabbis after all saw in Ruth, the foremother of David, King of Israel, from whom our tradition teaches the messiah will descend. Redemption will come not from being closed and parochial but from being open and welcoming. 

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