Shavuot: Megillat Ruth and ‘Matan Torah’ to the World

There is nothing in Exodus about a universal mission of spreading Torah to the other nations

The post Talmudic tradition to read the book of Ruth on Shavuot, which is for the rabbis also “Hag Matan Torah” (Holiday of the Giving of the Torah), involves a critical rereading of Matan Torah. (1) Matan Torah is most directly about a covenant between God and Israel, where God gives Israel the Torah. Israel is God’s kingdom of priests who live on higher level of sanctity. But there is nothing in Exodus about a universal mission of spreading Torah to the other nations, even though in Genesis 12 Abraham is to be blessing to all the nations.

However Ruth is a foreigner, daughter of Moab who is the offspring of illicit relationship of Lot and his daughter (Gen. 19). Moabites are explicitly excluded from entering God’s community for 10 generations, that is, forever (Deuteronomy). Ruth has bad yichus, bad lineage. Yet Ruth will become the model for conversion, for the voluntary acceptance of God’s laws and the joining with God’s people and receiving an inheritance of God’s land. Her lineage will be wiped away, and she will be judged not by her fathers, but by her sons. The genealogy of the Book of Ruth comes at the end and not the beginning of the book, as in Biblical stereos about Esther or Saul.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, commented, perhaps the Jewishness of Jews should be judged not by their mother’s Yiddishkeit, but by the Jewishness of their grandchildren. Ruth produced David, and ever after those with political ambitions claimed descent from David, as if yichus were a key to merit. But the Book of Ruth shows that yichus is nothing compared to individual devotion and willpower.

In fact much of the Torah presents our fathers and mothers in a bad light, (2) not as heroic founders as Machiavelli would expect or as many ultra Orthodox display their Biblical and rabbinic all-perfect fathers, who give them zechut avot.

In Psalm 78:1-7 we are commended to tell the story of the fathers to the sons but to reveal how the fathers had become ben sorer umoreh, the rebellious sons. They are told not to be like their fathers, who were a generation of rebels. (2) Do not rely on zehut avot and do not take too much pride in lineage even from David.

[We might even argue that the convert whose identity is a matter of choice is the ideal Jew. Wasn’t Abraham a convert? Wasn’t Moshe raised as an Egyptian who chose to respond to God’s calling? In his letter to Ovadia HaGer, Rambam says the convert is the true Israelite, because he is a true follower, an imitator, and hence the spiritual son of Abraham. Abraham, for Rambam, is the father of his nation, because he is a philosophic convert who rejected his own bad yichus, his father Terakh. Ruth is the embodiment of Abraham the convert who abandons parents and homeland for Judaism. Rambam welcomes a convert as a true son of Abraham. Maimonides even describes Rabbi Akiba as the son of his father Yosef who was a ger tzedek ( Maimonides, Introduction to the Mishneh Torah). Akiba grew up hating rabbis and only chose to study later in life by power of his will. He had no yichus, so his father in law rejected him and denied his wife any inheritance.]

Ruth then undermines the value of patriarchal inheritance and simultaneously demands against the advice of Naomi to join the people and get a piece of Israel’s inheritance. She demands universal access to Torah and to membership in the people of God. In that sense she is an important support for the move from Matan Torah as Israel’s exclusive inheritance on Mt. Sinai to Isaiah’s vision of the giving of the Torah from Mt. Zion to all the nations of the world (Isaiah 2: 1-4).

Here Israel will not need to missionize, because the peoples, like Ruth, will come voluntarily to Zion to live the life of God so that from Mt. Zion Torah will go forth. Perhaps Isaiah is reversing the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) story, in which God dispersed all nations and rejected the unification of all human beings around a single tower. Now Mt. Zion is raised up high so all nations can come (back) to God and to unity based on peace.

Interestingly, King Solomon (I Kings 11), the king of peace (Shalom), also makes Jerusalem into an international city, by visiting other kingdoms, making peace treaties with them, marrying their daughters to make all nations into one family and then building those foreign women their own pagan temples in Jerusalem. This multicultural, multi-religious, multinational Jerusalem is a version of Isaiah 2 and yet a perversion. Solomon’s openness to the nations is not the model offered by Ruth or Isaiah 2. For Isaiah 2 and Ruth universalism still needs a common Torah. They attempt to expand the particularist, nationalist, lineage based Matan Torah of Sinai into a transnational Matan Torah of Zion.

Summarized from Tikkun Leil Shavuot, 2007, by Noam Zion

(1) Similarly, the rabbis fix Isaiah 58 as a Haftorah reading for Yom Kippur, precisely because Yom Kippur is a ritual fast and Isaiah lambasts merely ritual fasts without ethical reform.

(2) Micah notes that Biblical stories of origins are often revisited with a twist. The stories may generate criticism of the parents and a reverse yichus from which must be warned. Beware of massaeh avot siman l’banim. So ironically and tragically, the Biblical narrative that began with the Exodus from Egypt ends in II Kings 25 with the return to Egypt. Of course most of the survivors of the Babylonian conquest were taken back to Babylonia where the Abraham began with the call to leave Babylonia (Gen. 12:1-3). But the last story placed at end of the historic books of Genesis to II Kings is about going back down to Egypt. Yishmael ben Netanya, from the seed of David’s dynasty, assassinates his fellow Judean Gedalia who had just been appointed to head the semi autonomous Jewish province of Babylonia inhabited by the Judeans left in Israel after the great exile and the destruction of Jerusalem. After the assassination the Tanakh says “the whole people from small to large went to Egypt out of fear of the Babylonians” (II Kings 25: 26). Recalling the first descent to Egyptian slavery, Joseph’s jealous brothers almost kill him and then decide to sell him into slavery through Yishmaelite traders who take him to Egypt. Brotherly jealousy and murderous emotions led the Jews into the first exile and now again Jew kills Jew out of jealousy and the whole people must escape to Egypt. Here again is the descendants with the same bad yichus, but they like Ruth they and we have a choice to act differently and to disregard the lineage and the competition over the exclusive inheritance of paternal and Divine blessing. Then Torah will be open to all regardless of lineage and Torah will be a source of peace.

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