By Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum, Director of the London Beth Din’s Conversion Department and Marriage Authorisation at the Office
of the Chief Rabbi

As Director of the Conversion Department of the London Beth Din, I have read many moving accounts of conversion to Judaism. One of the most astonishing of these was the story of a newly ordained Rabbi in Pennsylvania in the 1950s whose mother had informed him one day that she was not Jewish. Her Jewish husband had passed away unexpectedly, and she was left impoverished during the Great Depression of the 1930s. She enrolled her young son, who we will call David, in a local Jewish school, all the while never sharing with her son the fact that he was not actually Jewish.

“I can no longer bear to keep this a secret – that is why I have come to tell you now”, his mother had said. At first, David was too shocked to respond. But gathering himself together, he then resolutely declared, “I want to convert to Judaism”. As he was already a qualified Rabbi, the details did not take too long to arrange!

Ruth is recognised in the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) as the quintessential convert. The moving conversation with her mother-in-law, Naomi, on the road to Beit Lechem has come to epitomise the commitment that the aspiring convert is required to demonstrate in order to join the Jewish people.

More fundamentally, the story of Ruth highlights the key question that every single convert to Judaism must provide an answer to. Why come back with me? Naomi asks Ruth. Why leave your homeland and your people behind for a life of uncertainty? Why journey with me towards an unsure future? So too, every aspiring candidate for conversion is asked why they want to become Jewish. The answer they provide is critical in terms of assessing whether they are a suitable candidate for conversion. Ruth’s own answer is the classic exposition of true dedication to the Jewish faith: ‘Where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried…’ (Ruth 1:16-17).

For one born into the Jewish faith, the situation is ostensibly very different. Jewish identity is a state of being, rather than a choice to be made. Perhaps we can suggest, however, that the Book of Ruth presents a subtle but fundamental challenge to each and every one of us as we celebrate receiving the Torah on Shavuot.

It challenges us to ask ourselves this very question – ‘Why be Jewish?’ What does Judaism really mean to me? How does it inspire me to become a better person? Understood this way, the question of Naomi to Ruth is as relevant today as it was three thousand years ago on that dusty road between Moav and Beit Lechem. It is as relevant to someone born Jewish as someone electing to join the Jewish people.

Like David, suddenly faced with the shock of discovering that he was not in fact Jewish, the Book of Ruth asks us the same powerful yet fundamental question. Faced with the same dilemma as David, what would we do?

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