A Tale of Chutzpah and Chesed - Ki Teitzei and Ruth
One of the many strange experiences of this period of time, from my perspective as a rabbi, has been a hold on conversion rituals. While the Beit Din has been able to gather online to hold interviews, conversion candidates have been in a kind of no-man’s-land as we’ve waited to be able to do mikveh again. After almost six months of this, the mikveh was finally open again yesterday, and I was honoured to be able to be on the Beit Din witnessing people entering into the Israelite community.
It is probably no wonder, then, that I’ve been thinking about the Book of Ruth, the biblical book understood to depict a story of conversion into the Jewish people. It is a beautiful tale of love, and loss, and loyalty. And it is also a deeply strange text, largely due to its relationship with this week’s Torah portion.
In our parashah, just a few minutes ago, we read the following verse (Deuteronomy 23:4): לֹֽא־יָבֹ֧א עַמּוֹנִ֛י וּמוֹאָבִ֖י בִּקְהַ֣ל יְהוָ֑ה גַּ֚ם דּ֣וֹר עֲשִׂירִ֔י לֹא־יָבֹ֥א לָהֶ֛ם בִּקְהַ֥ל יְהוָ֖ה עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ - No Amonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Eternal.
The problem, of course, is that Ruth is a Moabite. Ruth, the paradigmatic convert, seems to be forbidden from entering the community by the Book of Devarim. The prohibition is usually understood by the rabbis to be about marriage, not about conversion - but nonetheless, this presents an issue for Ruth’s marriage to Boaz.
Now, it is worth mentioning that the rabbis do a decent job of skirting this prohibition. They point out that the text is in the masculine, so it is really forbidding the Moabite men from marrying Israelite women, not vice versa. And since there are no Moabites anymore, well, we don’t need to concern ourselves with that particular law anymore.
However, while this helps us with the halakhah, I think that it does not help us to understand the message of the Book of Ruth. It seems to me that the author of Ruth must know the Deuteronomic prohibition. The text so clearly blasts through the prohibition that I think it must be deliberate. The Book of Ruth even ends by telling us that King David himself is a descendant of Ruth and Boaz. Here we witness a conversation with the Torah’s prohibition, the Torah’s walls against the outside. The doors to the Israelite community are open to Ruth the Moabite, and through that action King David is born - and from King David, says our tradition, comes the Messiah.
The Book of Ruth is a radical text. It is a story about choosing even when the odds are stacked against us. It is about welcoming even when we have every reason to remain closed.
Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi describes the Book of Ruth as being ‘a tale of chesed and chutzpah’. Hearing Ruth in tension with the prohibition of our parashah exemplifies this well. There is chesed, lovingkindness, grace, in the acceptance of Ruth into the community. There is chesed in Ruth’s relationships, in her decision to commit herself to Naomi against all the odds. And there is also chutzpah there. There is strength and audacity and courage in a beautiful narrative that holds tension with a biblical prohibition.
And I think that Rabbi Tamara’s description also applies the rabbinic, halakhic approach to the rule. When the rabbis find a way to understand a mitzvah, to enshrine it in law and hold it up as the word of God, and also find a way to ensure that it is never literally implemented - that is chesed and chutzpah.
Our religious canon gifts us with a rich tapestry of ideas, often in tension with one another. Here we encounter a struggle between open doors and protective walls. This is a tension we may encounter time and time again as individuals and as communities. May we be blessed to find our own voices in that conversation. And may we find it in ourselves to respond with the spirit of Ruth and the rabbis.