the rabbi’s turn
friday, september 14, 2012 .
“Sometimes, when we have a plan and we want to change something, we think we have to have it all fgured out.”— Artist Wiebke Light on her year-long project o creating and sending a postcard a day to everyone she knows. See the story on page 9.
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What Rth’s arra can tach s abt r wn nns
rabbi racheL nussbaum
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I returned recently rom awonderul summer in Israel,where I had the privilege o serving on the aculty or theBronman Youth Fellowshipsin Israel program. It was atotal treat to teach the groupo 26 ellows — high schoolseniors rom a wide rangeo Jewish backgrounds andcommunities across NorthAmerica.Each morning, the program began witha shiur, a orah study session, and aculty members were encouraged to pick a textthey loved to teach. I chose to do a closereading o the biblical Book o Ruth withthe ellows. Te themes that emerged romour conversations — including loss, inti-macy, and loyalty, to name but a ew — allelt incredibly relevant and contemporary.Returning to Seattle in this electionseason, I realized an even clearer applica-tion o this text: Reerendum 74, the voterreerendum in avor o marriage equal-ity. Te Book o Ruth and its interpretivetradition provide one o the clearest illus-trations o how the Jewish tradition hashistorically been willing to overlook oroverturn a scriptural injunction in orderto adjust to reect changing moral expec-tations and world views. I believe thattoday there is a clear parallel in the move-ment to grant legal recognition to same-sex unions.Ruth hersel is the quintessential out-sider-turned-insider. She begins her lieas a Moabite in the land o Moab but, ol-lowing the death o her Israelite husband,willingly chooses to align hersel with hermother-in-law Naomi, returning withNaomi to her ancestral land in Bethlehem.hroughout the remain-der o the book, Ruth is moreor less treated as a membero Naomi’s extended amily,yet her status is not 100 per-cent clear. Te text seems toassume that the orah’s com-mandments — including themitzvot o gleaning, redeem-ing property, and leviratemarriage (to the extent thatthey apply at all in this amily’ssituation) — apply to Ruth as they wouldto any Israelite. However, throughout thebook, Ruth continues to be reerred to as“Rut haMoaviyah,” “Ruth the Moabite.”Has Ruth become an insider, or does sheorever retain her outsider status?o see the insider-outsider tensioneven more clearly, it is helpul to read twotexts in juxtaposition with one another.We begin with the coda o the Book o Ruth, chapter 4, verses 18-22:
Tis is the line o Perez: Perez begot Hezron, Hezron begot Ram, Rambegot Amminadab, Amminadabbegot Nahshon, Nahshon begot Salmon, Salmon begot Boaz, Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.
Although Ruth’s name doesn’t appearin this all-male genealogy, it is clear romthe context o the narrative that “Ruththe Moabite” (the wie o Boaz and themother o Obed) has really made it: Sheis the great-grandmother o King David!But how can this possibly be the case,given Deuteronomy’s attitude toward theMoabites, in chapter 23, verses 4-5?:
No Ammonite or Moabite shall beadmitted into the congregation o theLord; none o their descendants, evenin the tenth generation, shall ever beadmitted into the congregation o theLord, because they did not meet youwith ood and water on your journey afer you lef Egypt…
Reading the Deuteronomy text, itseems almost impossible that the Book o Ruth can end on such a positive note,given Ruth’s Moabite origins. However,the interpretive rabbinic tradition con-siders Ruth the rst convert to Judaism,with numerous midrashim emphasizingher inner qualities such as modesty andloyalty and generally casting her in a very positive light.At the end o the day, Ruth’s Moabiteorigins never totally disappear rom thenarrative, and yet she seems to be ully accepted as an Israelite. As I said above,this tension and resolution is one that Ibelieve has a parallel in our own day andage; this all, in particular, I can’t help butread this text in light o the campaign orLGBQ inclusion in our American society and, more specically, or marriage equal-ity in the State o Washington.Many o the opponents to Reeren-dum 74 claim to speak in the name o religion, using a verse rom Leviticusto demonstrate that the Bible does notaccept homosexuality. However, as theRuth case reminds us, our textual tradi-tion is not monolithic, and the weight o our religious texts and traditions can alsobe brought to bear to support precisely theopposite conclusion. In the case o mar-riage equality, it is easy to think o numer-ous relevant Jewish values: Tat all humanbeings are created b’tzelem elohim (inGod’s image), v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha(the commandment to love your neighboras yoursel), the principle o k’vod ha-bri-yot (human dignity), and the calls or us toempathize with society’s underdogs basedon the principle that we were once strang-ers in the land o Egypt.Te Ruth example provides us with amodel or how we can approach our owncontemporary version o this question o boundaries and inclusion vs. exclusion.Just as the Ruth text and subsequent rab-binic interpretations seem to outweighthe punitive attitude o the Deuteronomy verses, I believe that the weight o ourJewish traditions and values around inter-personal relationships — which empha-size principles like inclusion, humility,dignity, and equality — can and should beheard over a single verse rom Leviticus.I am proud that the Seattle Jewish com-munity has largely banded together insupport o marriage equality and Reer-endum 74, but there is still a tremendousamount o work to be done between now and Election Day in November. As wehead into this High Holiday season, I hopethat we will have the opportunity to reecton and be inspired by our own tradition.Te challenges o creating and main-taining a pluralistic and open Jewish com-munity are very real; our Jewish texts havebequeathed to us a complicated and oencontradictory set o traditions and guide-lines. It is my hope that we will learn romthe way that “Ruth the Moabite” has cometo take her place in our canon, in the gene-alogy o King David, and in the line point-ing us toward redemption.In this election season, may Jews romacross the widest possible spectrum o ourcommunity take the lead in ensuring thatour American society can oer the possi-bility or nding sanctity in heterosexualand homosexual unions alike.a Non-Aligned Movement member, hassevered diplomatic ties with ehran. Itsoreign minister described Iran unam-biguously as “the most signicant threatto global peace and security in the worldtoday.”As Iran moves closer to a nuclearbomb, suppresses democracy and con-tinues to threaten Israel, much dependson whether the international commu-nity, set to gather this month at the UnitedNations, remains in thrall to the move-ment’s approach or emulates Canadiancourage.
Lawrence Grossman is the American JewishCommittee’s director of publications.
Our High Holiday plea
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