When I think about having returned to the Judaism of my family, I often think about a short phrase that is on almost all of the conversion documents I’ve seen. “Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d.” It comes from the Book of Ruth and is a powerful phrase in and of itself. Imagine choosing a journey to a foreign land and being so committed to the person you are traveling with that you are willing to forsake the religion and practices of your people to join hers, even when she extorts you to return to your home. Think about the kind of trust one needs in another to be able to leave everything behind and follow another path. That is ideally what the convert to Judaism has chosen: to leave behind their past, setting out on a new religious path. In fact, it is often frowned upon to ask a convert about their religious past because it is as if it never existed.
Besides these documents, I’ve also encountered the Book of Ruth early in my training as a feminist scholar of religion. I read many commentaries on the story of Ruth, but what I read never spoke to me. Yes, two women were bonded in a deep friendship (perhaps as lovers) struggling to survive and avoid bouts of harassment from men. They also defied patriarchal standards of the day. Sweet and touching, yes. A good example of the importance of friendship between women, definitely! What I didn’t get then that I do now are the values elevated in these two women.
First, what struck me is just how much our pasts are an important part of who we are. In many ways, they help to shape our futures. Ruth’s past built within her the values necessary to make the decision to journey to a foreign land with another woman and without what, could be thought of, as adequate protections.
Second, one can’t say that her past is all that shaped her. Her relationship to Naomi, her mother-in-law, and her decision to travel with her represent a break with her past in a profound way as a new level of commitment and trust in another human being. Ruth said the following to Naomi after she begs her multiple times to return to her mother’s house the following:
‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d…”
Finally, this partnership exemplifies not only companionship but also profoundly, deep trust. Their relationship also demonstrates courage, strength, determination, patience, perseverance, commitment and trust in these two women. Naomi showed a level of compassion and support for her daughter-in-law that is beyond words. In addition, Ruth supported her mother-in-law by working long hours gleaning from the fields.
I don’t think I truly understood what the pair went through until my situation and my experience changed. I set out on a journey with my partner to another land where I’ve never been, where I don’t speak the language and where I have to get permission to stay. The fear and nervousness is indescribable, yet, at the same time, I am learning to trust more than I ever thought I could. I think we need people in our lives to travel with, people who will help us negotiate even day-to-day life at times. We even need the kinds of supports that come via a phone call and some much needed words of encouragement. I could not imagine trying to figure out by myself how to buy a ticket for the Prague tram. It took the two of seven hours over the course of two days just to get me a working phone and a bank account and that is when one of us speaks Czech fluently! My day-to-day life here illustrates just how much individualism of the Western variety is a myth. At the same time, I’m learning just how important community and relationships are.
Of course, there are also many differences between the story of Naomi and Ruth and mine. There are differences in times, circumstances and cultures. My relationship with my partner is not the result of deceased husbands. She never pleaded with me to stay put in the United states. In fact, there is sometimes the opposite worrying that things will upset me and I’ll leave.
No matter what I’ve learned so far about myself and what I’ve seen in new ways because of a change in circumstance, this is just the beginning. Who knows what is around the corner. I’m glad to have gained new insight into the story of Ruth and Naomi, a text from my religious tradition, based on experience, just one of many sources of feminist epistemology.
As the current Jewish year winds down and the new year starts soon, I wish everyone the opportunity to see old stories with new eyes. May 5775 bring us new perspectives toward justice, wholeness and peace. Shana tovah!
7 thoughts on “A New Perspective on the Story of Ruth by Ivy Helman”
Regarding one’s history and rejecting or affirming it. When I moved to Greece, I wanted to become Greek. Indeed I have. I speak Greek, I have Greek citizenship, and I also identify with the recent history of Greece, and in many ways, I think like a Greek too. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I would always also be American. I am a hybrid. I did reject Christianity for Goddess feminism, but when I experience Goddess as love, I am in a fundamental way, still experiencing the world the way I did when I was a Christian. I am a hybrid in that regard too.
Ah yes. I think we always carry our pasts with us and this is a nice way to think about it.
The Biblical text requires that Ruth make a conversion to Judaism from the religious beliefs she was taught as a Moabite. But the partnership of Ruth and Naomi is not a union that obliterates the uniqueness of either individual. It would have been better, if the more likely truth were told in the story, that Ruth quietly kept her old beliefs in company with the new ones. In any case, the deepest spiritual awakenings are directly accessible in being — I AM WHO I AM — and therefore can’t manifest as belonging exclusively to any one spiritual path or religion. And so generally there is no real need ever for conversion, that is, if we are living life in the moment and true to who we are.
Such a lovely story. Enjoyed.
I was talking with a friend yesterday who has left her University job and said she is on the edge of a new path, but doesn’t know what it is yet. I believe these are sacred times and events, drawing out our courage and helping us grow in wisdom. May you and your partner be strengthened on your journey, and be filled with peace and love.
A friend who is a fiercely liberal Christian told me last night she’s going to a pagan ceremony soon in which attendees (all women) were asked to bring readings. Having read your blog, I suggested a quote from the Book of Ruth.
In many cultures, and I’m thinking particularly of Hindu culture, “thy people shall be my people” is what a woman says, in effect, when she marries, and that statement is manifested every day in a woman’s life. I’m thinking of a small example–my mother had to learn to cook Neapolitan when she married my father–she was Sicilian. Not a lot of difference, maybe, but she had to look to “his people” to be a good wife. The story of Ruth is different in that it’s a story of two women, overlooked in the past because a story of two women was not understood in patriarchal culture. Today we are able to understand stories that don’t end in marriage between a man and a woman.