Brother, weeks, weeks. Finally a holiday of consensus, on which all of us, members of all groups and streams, agree. White clothes, baskets of firstfruits, dairy foods, nightly studies – is there a more unifying date on our calendar than that?
I am sorry to disappoint you, my dear readers, but we Jews always have something to quarrel about. And Shavuot, in contrast to its image of "brotherly Sabbath together," carries with it the most controversial in our culture. Yes, really, I'm not exaggerating. This dispute threatened our very existence as a people in the past, and continues to tear us apart even today.
The Book of Ruth, chosen to represent Shavuot, is as deceptive as it is. Her story reveals the roots of that controversy, but with subtle clues that only those familiar with the Return to Zion period can crack.
A deep chasm
Confession: It's hard for me to encapsulate a period I've been writing a novel about for four years and immersed in it from morning to night. But I will try to do it as briefly as I can. Here is a brief history of the return to Zion.
About two thousand five hundred years ago, the era of the House of David ended. The invincible Babylonian army eliminated the last flutters of resistance in Jerusalem, destroyed the city and burned the Temple. The Jews who were not killed were exiled from Judea. But not all. There were Jews who continued to live in Israel under foreign rule.
Half a century later, a new young man, Cyrus, king of Persia, came to the neighborhood, conquered all the lands under Babylonian rule, including Judea, and called on the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their Temple. I would like to tell you that the few exiles who answered Cyrus's call fell on the necks of their brothers who remained in Israel. It makes so much sense. So obvious. But our indefatigable divisiveness, the Jews, did not skip the days of the Return to Zion. Over time, the returnees and those who remained became different, and instead of saying in acceptance that this is how it is when you live apart for decades and try again to be one people, each group entrenched itself within itself and believed that it is, and only it, the real people of Israel.
Sound familiar? You have no idea how much.
The Book of Ruth, chosen to represent Shavuot, is as deceptive as it is. Yochi Brandes (Photo: Iris Nesher)
The differences between the two parts of the nation were not only expressed in dress, language, accent and writing, but also in the observance of the commandments. Halacha had not yet been born, certainly not the Shulchan Aruch, but there were Torah laws and there were priests who knew how to read them and were given the authority to interpret them. But, and this is a big but, each group faced different challenges and therefore interpreted the Torah differently.
The deepest chasm between returnees and those who remained was over marriage laws. As long as the Israelites were the majority, marriage to non-Jews was taken for granted. Some of the most important mothers in the Torah were gentiles: Tamar the Canaanite (wife of Judah), Asenath the Egyptian (wife of Joseph), Zipporah the Midianite (wife of Moses), and many more. Although there are intermarriages in the Old Testament stories that aroused opposition (Manoah and his wife reprimanded Samson for his excessive affection for the Philistines), most of the foreigners who married the Hebrews left their people behind them and assimilated into the Jewish people. In the words of the famous psalm on the king's marriage: "Hear-be-thou shalt see and thou shalt forget, and forget, thy father, and thy father. Forget it, the poet tells her, if you forget you will be the wife of our king and a member of our people.
But after the destruction of the Temple, the attitude toward alienation changes. Basically reversed. The Jews who were exiled to Babylon became at once a minority and understood that if they were to bear Babylon, they would be the ones who would defile their people and forget their people. Only an interpretation that forbids intermarriage in the name of the Torah can save them from assimilation.
That's what happened in the Babylonian Diaspora, okay, but we're now dealing with the period of the Return to Zion. Did the exiles who returned to Israel change their interpretation of the Torah and return to bearing alienation? No and no. Opposition to intermarriage remained, and even strengthened. Why? Perhaps because the force of conservatism is stronger than the power of change, perhaps because Judea was filled with foreign peoples and the returnees felt that they were still a minority and the threat of assimilation did not dissipate, or perhaps because those who remained were perceived by them as a rival group and could not afford to accept their customs and bear alienation like them. In any case, this issue, which was the main point of contention between the two groups already during the first wave of aliyah in the days of Cyrus, became explosive in the second wave of aliyah in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
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A writer from 2,500 years ago?
Ezra the priest, who headed the returnees on behalf of the king of Persia (the great-grandson of Cyrus), ordered them to expel their estranged wives and the sons and daughters born from them. Don't believe me that Ezra ordered such a thing? Here is the quote, word for word: And now a covenant has been made for our God to exclude all women and the born of them (actually, why don't you believe me? such things are happening even today). Ask: Why did Ezra order the expulsion? Why not convert? The answer is simple, but most Bible readers today are unaware of it: Gyor's patent was created at least five hundred years after Ezra. There is no conversion in the Bible! When the Torah says "ger" it means a foreigner who lives in Israel ("ger toshav"), not a non-Jew who has become a Jew ("ger tzedek").
And back to the story: the returnees sat trembling in front of Ezra (and the whole nation sat on the street of the house of God trembling). At first, they tried to postpone the expulsion decree with dubious excuses of weather and more urgent preoccupations. But when Ezra threatened to confiscate their property, they realized it was serious and suggested setting up a state commission of inquiry to examine their lineages. I don't know how many husbands actually expelled their wives and children. The end of the story is ambiguous. But our extensive experience with commissions of inquiry and state critics shows that this is a tried-and-true and effective way to remove burning problems from the public agenda.
"NAOMI IMPLORES Ruth and her back to return to the land of Moab", William Blake, 1795 (PHOTO: WALLA!, PUBLIC DOMAIN, FROM WIKIART)
Among the crowds trembling in front of Ezra was one nameless and unknown woman who opposed the expulsion law. But who is she anyway? She has no soldiers, no authority, no king behind her to back her up, she cannot threaten Ezra. It has no power, no weapons. Actually there is: the words. Women's only weapon in a patriarchal society. This woman, the heroine of my book, knows how to tell stories and also knows how to write stories. And this is already really unusual. A writer from 2,500 years ago?
Scholars believe that the person who wrote the Book of Ruth is a man, but I know she is a woman. And knows she's one of those who stay. And knows that her husband is one of the returnees. And I know that the deportation law threatens to destroy her life (by being a woman I'm really sure, everything else about "knowing" illustrates what happens to me when I fall in love with my literary characters).
I will not tell you how the astonishingly talented author of the Book of Ruth became acquainted with the story of the young Moabite widow who lived during the time of the Judges – 700 years before her – and went with her mother-in-law to Judah even though she knew she would have an unbearable life there. This is the most suspenseful riddle in my book. And no, I'm not doing a promotion for it, it will take me a long time to write it.
Without Ruth there is no King David, and without him there are no Jews
The author of the Book of Ruth tells us in whispers, quietly, implicitly, that the young Moabite belonged to the lowest social stratum of biblical society: widow, non-Jew, poor and without sons. What chance does she have? But God introduced her to a powerful and wealthy Jewish man who took her under his protection and even sought to marry her. And the elders of Judah opened their arms to her and said to him: May the Lord give the woman who comes into your house as Rachel and Calla, who both built the house of Israel.
The identity of Ruth the Moabite becomes clear only at the end of the story: the mother of King David's grandfather. In this way, the author shouts to Ezra: If the leaders of the time of the judges had been separatists like you, King David would not have been born. And without David there is no kingdom of Judah, and there are no Jews, and there is no you either. You Ezra can now expel non-Jewish women thanks to a non-expelled non-Jewish woman. Funny, eh?
Later (many, many days), when our sages, known as the Sages, arose and brought about a revolution that enabled the Gentiles to join the people of Israel through a beit din and ceremonies and baptism, they hung their eyes on the Ruth of the Moabites. Wait, why did the Sages even have to invent conversion? Why didn't they follow in the footsteps of those who remained who continued to bear alienation like our ancestors? The answer is sad: the Judaism of our sages, that is, our Judaism, was created from the returnees. Only from the returnees! Those who remained, like most of the rejected groups among the Jewish people, did not survive.
"Boaz and Ruth", Rembrandt, 1640-1637 (PHOTO: WALLA!, PUBLIC DOMAIN, FROM WIKIART)
Some will say: This is proof that Ezra was right. Those who remained assimilated because they married non-Jews. I'm not sure that's really why. Perhaps, I dare say, if the returnees had not rejected those who remained, perhaps they would not have assimilated (this is what I also think about the division of the kingdom and the loss of the ten tribes).
I adore Ezra. It is impossible not to admire him. He made extremely important corrections that ensured our continuity. The Judaism of our sages, thanks to which we survived as a people despite all odds, was inspired by him. Even thanks to him. But his deportation law cut off those who remained from the returnees permanently and completely. Because of him, we lost the Jews who remained loyal to our country despite all the wars and threats. Because of him, we lost our brothers, the faithful of the land.
The debate continues to this day. Especially nowadays
Ruth's personal words to her mother-in-law were interpreted by the Sages as a declaration of conversion: Your people are my people and your God is my God. And since then, Ruth, the mother of our kingdom, is also the mother of the converts. And Shavuot, our holiday of giving the Torah, is also the holiday of converts. For who can be a model of Torah love if not the converts? That's why they're joining the people of Israel, isn't it? It's complicated. Some converts join us to be part of us, yes. But we all know that there are converts who join us not for national, religious or cultural reasons, or even because of marriage to a Jew.
The conversion was controversial from the moment of its birth. Beit Hillel saw it as a gateway and made it easier for the converts as much as they could, while Beit Shammai saw it as a barrier and made countless difficulties in their way. The team that won in the days of the Sages was Beit Hillel, but the debate over conversion has continued throughout the generations and up to the present day. Especially these days!
"RUTH AND NAOMI", ARIE SHEFFER, 1856 (PHOTO: WALLA!, PUBLIC DOMAIN, FROM WIKIART)
Those who are strict in conversion claim, among other things: When we were weak and persecuted, they didn't really want to join us. But today, when our well-established country gives its citizens a better life than most of the world's inhabitants have, can we be satisfied with just words with You, My people, and Your God, my God, and open our doors to all? Is that what we want? That the unfortunate people of the Third World will come to the State of Israel en masse and receive citizenship? And those who facilitate conversion claim, among other things: When we were weak and persecuted, we knocked on the gates of the established countries and were not always allowed in. Now it is our turn to be generous and accept the weak and persecuted who want to be part of us. And another claim of the sticks: There are spouses of Jews today who want to convert and start a Jewish family, but they are not religious and do not want to be religious. If we accept them, we will have new generations of Jews from them. And if difficulties arise upon them, they and their children and grandchildren will be gentiles. Is that what we want? Have we not lost enough Jews with our divisive instincts?
The conversion is controversial. But Ruth the Moabite is above all controversy. What a queen we have! Thank you, anonymous author, for writing to us about her. If not you, our wonderful queen would be like so many great women who were not immortalized and sank into oblivion.
- Yochi Brandes
- Shavuot holiday