Portion of the Week: Who Can Join the Jewish Club?

Parashat Ki Tetzei.

'Ruth in Boaz's Field,' by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828.
The National Gallery Photographic Department

What are the borders of the Jewish collective, and who can join? The debate is nearly as old as the collective itself; one of the debate’s most important texts appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19). Typically, this is a local law, not a manifesto, governing relationships with certain nations, whose ability to join the Children of Israel is limited or forbidden, and who are mentioned in connection with the concept of entry “into the assembly of the Lord.”

According to Jeffrey H. Tigay, in his “JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy,” the phrase “assembly of the Lord” connotes full-fledged citizens, paralleling the assembly of ancient Athens. He sees a connection between ethnic identity and civic status, with the men of certain nations being barred from marrying women from the dominant ethnic group or possessing land. The prohibition on entry into the “assembly of the Lord” means a restriction from joining the collective, expressed primarily through the ban on marrying Israelite women.

Ammonites and Moabites are absolutely prohibited from joining: “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the Lord for ever” (Deuteronomy 23:4). A historical reason is given for the ban: “because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse thee” (Deut. 23:5). Although God’s intervention prevents Balaam from cursing them, Israelites may not have friendly or even neighborly relations with Ammonites or Moabites: “Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever” (Deut. 23:7).

Ammonites and Moabites have the same status as Canaanites, with whom Deuteronomy elsewhere forbids covenants and marriage: “thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son” (Deut. 7:2-3). Ammonites and Moabites are distanced because of the past; the prohibition on marriage with Canaanites stems from fear of future consequences — the danger that they will lead Israelites to worship idols: “For he will turn away thy son from following Me that they may serve other gods” (Deut. 7:4). We can infer from the text’s need to note specifically which nations it is prohibited to mix with that biblical law does not categorically bar assimilation of other nations within Israel.

Thus, after the prohibition on Ammonites or Moabites joining Israel, the Bible tells us that third-generation descendants of Edomites and Egyptians are permitted to join: “The children of the third generation that are born unto them may enter into the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:9). After two generations of living among Israelites as aliens, explains Tigay, third-generation Edomites and Egyptians can officially become part of Israel; he deduces that the distinction between third-generation Edomites and Egyptians, who “may enter into the assembly of the Lord,” and Ammonites and Moabites — concerning whom the Bible declares “even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the Lord” — means that Ammonites and Moabites could live in Canaan but were banned from full integration into Israelite society.

Texts have a life of their own and, as Tigay notes, subsequent generations interpreted this text differently, expanding it beyond the specific nations that were barred, which were now seen as symbols. Intermarriage was now totally prohibited, as can be understood from the description of King Solomon’s sins: “King Solomon loved many foreign women, besides the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel: ‘Ye shall not go among them, neither shall they come among you; for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods’; Solomon did cleave unto these in love” (1 Kings 11:1-2).

The citing of God’s words is apparently a paraphrase of Deuteronomy’s ban on intermarriage with Canaanites. However, alongside Canaanites, Ammonites and Moabites, none of whom may ever join Israel, according to Deuteronomy, the list in Kings includes Egyptians and Edomites as well, who, according to this week’s reading, could join after three generations, and also Zidonians, whom the law does not bar. Probably, this is the retrospective view of the author, who lived several generations after Solomon and who linked the beginning of the king’s downfall with his extensive diplomatic relations with the region’s nations — relations that, so the author maintains, led to a weakening of Solomon’s commitment to God and to royal consent to idolatry in the kingdom. In Solomon’s time, intermarriage was apparently not prohibited: According to the Book of Kings, King Josiah discovered Deuteronomy centuries after Solomon.

The problem resurfaces with the Return to Zion, in the fifth century B.C.E., but now the events are viewed not retrospectively, but rather in the present tense: The leaders Ezra and Nehemiah call for the banishment of all Gentile women, whom Jews from all social strata had married up until then. Biblical scholars hypothesize that this issue was controversial: The Book of Ruth, dating from that period, sympathetically describes a Moabite woman who joins Judah, and its author even goes so far as to argue that King David is descended from Ruth the Moabite. In another text from that period, the prophet speaks lovingly of the “aliens that join themselves to the Lord to minister unto Him” (Isaiah 56:6), urging them not to say, “The Lord will surely separate me from His people” (Isaiah 56:3).

What is missing in this controversy is a central postbiblical institution: conversion. While delimiting it, Deuteronomy assumes a natural process of assimilation into Israelite society through marriage and residence in Canaan. The books of Kings and, later, Ezra and Nehemiah extend the prohibition to include intermarriage with any non-Jew. In contrast, the Book of Ruth’s author and the prophet speaking toward the end of the Book of Isaiah support the idea of non-Jews integrating into the Jewish people or its religion. However, none of the above sources recognizes an orderly procedure for joining the collective. Conversion as an institution will appear only in rabbinical literature, where the discussion on the collective’s borders will take on a different character.