This blog is the last in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the Omer to Immigration Reform. This Shavuot, we recommit ourselves to working with the modern-day strangers among us. This Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. Learn more and join the mailing list.
We Stand With Ruth of Moab
The Book of Ruth begins with the introduction, “It happened in the days when the judges judged” and concludes with the birth of King David, the representative figure for Malchut, the sephira of sovereignty. The book itself is a kind of cri de couer for a better time—free of this book’s rampant poverty, loneliness and maltreatment (in Ruth 2:9 Boaz warns his workers not to molest Ruth, implying that they regularly molested other women). We know that that is the Biblical view of the period of the Judges, when periodically “Israel did what was wicked in the eyes of Adonai” (Judges 4:1 et al.) because “in those days there was no king in Israel; each person would do what was right in one’s own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
For while it was a time when the Judges judged, they did not seem able or interested to judge how they might stop the famine which had sent Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi and her family into exile in Moab to seek food. In our own time, so many people come to the United States to flee famine, drought, poverty or political oppression, often because they have given up hope that the powers in their own countries will be able to assist them, or care about assisting them. They too are searching for a sovereignty which cares for them. They have learned to believe that Americans do care.
To leave Eretz Yisrael for another land was a major decision, just as it is today. To leave the country of one’s birth, however oppressive its living conditions, remains a difficult decision, never made lightly. Today’s immigrants, like those in the Book of Ruth, have to abandon family, friends, the only language they know, sometimes the only place they have known. Naomi, widowed by the man who led them into Moab, speaks of herself often as a bitter woman.
Her husband’s name was Elimelech, “My God is Sovereign”. Yet what is sovereign in this book? Naomi seems to believe that for each person—at least in her family—homeland is sovereign; in the book’s most famous passage, 1:14-17, three times Naomi urges Ruth and her sister Orpah to return (shovna)to their homes—the source for the custom of turning away potential converts three times. They were all immigrants, Naomi held, and with their husbands dead, the sisters should return to the place from which they came. But Ruth perceives a higher obligation—a higher sovereignty, if you will; using the same word as her mother-in-law, Ruth says, “Don’t entreat me to abandon you, to turn back (la-shuv) from you.” For Ruth, to “return” to her own home would be to turn away from her proper home—the home she felt called upon to go to, because of her loyalty and love for Naomi. If this book is a tribute to the rewards that come from following the precepts of the Torah (obedience to parents [or in-laws], caring for the stranger, leaving grain for the poor, etc.), Ruth turns to the sovereignty of God rather than the sovereignty of her own native place. But the sefirah of Malchut also has a human dimension, representing kenesset Yisrael, the community of Israel—since it is through the community of Israel that God’s sovereignty is manifest. When Ruth embraces the people Israel in choosing to go with Naomi, she embraces this dual dimension of Malchut as well.
The implications of this decision for today’s immigrants is instructive. While we usually attribute primarily economic motives to contemporary immigrants’ desire to remain in the United States, we do our country a disservice by playing down a motive similar to Ruth’s: a belief, or a desire to believe, that the United States is a more caring country than the one from which they came. How often do we tarnish that belief with the insensitivity, fear, and hostility we show particularly to undocumented immigrants, but often to all immigrants! How insensitive we often are to the still present American commitment to being a beacon to the oppressed—to the malchut, if you will, of the “American dream”—and of the American people as, at their best, the embodiment of it.
As a result of Ruth’s decision to remain with Naomi, the older woman feels an obligation to care for her. A word that pervades the book, chesed, usually translated “love” or “lovingkindness”, really means love borne of a covenant. Ruth shows chesed to Naomi, Naomi shows it to her, and Boaz shows it to both of them. This covenantal love stems from the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, which the Holy One will renew with us when the period of the Omer climaxes with Shavuot. Devotion to the covenant is a sign of acceptance of the sovereignty of the God who made it—ol malchut shamayim, the “yoke” of the rule of heaven, and ol mitzvot, the “yoke” of the mitzvot. Ol in Hebrew is related to the word al, above, with the sense that the yoke links us to the God above, rather than the more usual image of joining two creatures on the same level.
Are we ready to feel a sense of “covenant” with the undocumented immigrants of our time? Are we ready to link them with the memories of grandparents or other relatives who endured many hardships to reach these shores—often out of the same motives as today’s undocumented? And if we say, “Well, our ancestors came legally,” we forget that most of them came here at a time when immigrants were wanted, invited, encouraged by the state. Now that the state is hostile to immigrants, to which sovereignty are we going to be loyal, that of a welcoming, covenanting God, or a too often frightened state? Or, in the language of the Book of Ruth, are we going to be citizens of a too often uncaring rule of Judges, or of the ideal, embracing sovereignty of God’s Malchut?
The season in which we read this book makes our choice quite clear.
We Stand With the Ruths of Today
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Sholom of Chicago speaks with Erendira Rendon, Lead Organizer at the Resurrection Project in the Pilson neighborhood of Chicago. As Naomi stood with Ruth of Moab, Reform rabbis are standing with the Ruths of today – undocumented immigrants like Ere. Watch the Youtube video.
Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.