Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, by tradition also marks the birth and death of King David. In memory of David and his Moabite grandmother, on this holiday we read the Book of Ruth, the mother of all converts. This is a beautiful biblical story of the full acceptance of the foreigner-convert and the convert's spirit and involvement in our national identity. Converts were, and still are, a great blessing to the spiritual treasures of Jewish culture. Through them, concepts, values, abilities and traditions renew themselves and become part of the texture of all of our spiritual lives.
If we did not have the safety valve of converts, Judaism would long ago have become a closed sect, steeped in racism and even more arrogant than it already is. "The chosen people" would have become, it its own eyes, "the chosen race," which disparages and fears those who are different.
Conversion is one of the most ancient elements of Jewish culture. Through it, Moses' wife Zipporah and her father Jethro became part of the Jewish people, as did Ruth the Moabite, rabbis, sages and many others, as the ancient sources reveal: "Descendents of Haman studied the Torah in Bnai Brak; descendants of Sisera taught children in Jerusalem; descendants of Sennacherib gave public expositions on the Torah."
Those who are following the present conversion debate have the impression that conversion has become the monopoly of the Orthodox, fighting among themselves like cocks. The ultra-Orthodox are pulling out the feathers of Rabbi Haim Druckman and his supporters, and the other side is pecking at the ultra-Orthodox religious court judges and their backers. And what of the general, secular public? Do they not care who the candidates are who join them and share their fate?
Secular self-doubt has left Israeli identity entirely in the hands of its Orthodox adversaries. Conversion that excludes everything secular and modern totally subverts the intent of the ancient lawmaker. Why demand a convert keep Jewish commandments that Israelis who are Jews by birth are not required to keep? After all, most of us keep entirely different commandments than the official "arrangers" of the institutions of Israeli rabbinic catholicism. Contemporary Israelis are indeed traditional in their behavior, but they eat prohibited foods, do not keep the Sabbath, do not follow the laws of family purity nor a host of other commandments that today typify only the Orthodox minorities.
Why should the general public in Israel not demand responsibility for the processes involved in making converts partners to its destiny? Its commandments involving sovereignty, liberties, human rights, the sanctity of life and the search for peace, empathy for the orphan, the stranger and the widow are much more Jewish and meaningful.
A covert civil protest has already been launched against the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce in Israel. The time has come to start an active civil rebellion against the "identity thug" zealots, to take back responsibility for Israeli identity from closed and backward groups and return it to the free majority. We must return to the biblical heritage of Ruth; first of all: "thy people is my people" and only then, if then, "thy God is my God." From now on, let the holiday of Shavuot be a national holiday honoring converts and conversion, the "other" who enrich us.
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