|Chavruta Newsletter No. 3|
"Where there is no vision the people become unruly" Proverbs 29:18
|Shavu'ot - Chag Matan Torah (Revelation) - and Chavruta: Chazon L'Israel
|The Editorial Board
We are certainly aware of the roots of Shavuoth as a holiday in
the yearly agricultural cycle, as the Harvest Festival and the Festival of
First-Fruits. The testimony to that is the traditional reading of the Book of
Ruth during this holiday and the setting of the main event of this book, taking
place "in the beginning of barley harvest" (Ruth 1:22).
Furthermore, it seems to us that the Book of Ruth raises a
central issue facing the Jewish people (and not only the Jewish-Zionist society
in the State of Israel), the issue of joining the Jewish people and accepting
its Torah. Therefore, Ruth's path deserves a renewed study. To do that we
translated an article by Deborah Dash-Moore - "Today's
Ruth" - that first appeared in the journal Sh'ma
published in the USA.
We wish to examine aspects of the Giving of the Torah and the
question of joining the Jewish people in light of Chavruta's principles
regarding the issue of the Heritage of Israel, as published recently.
Every generation stands before Sinai. It is its right and
obligation to interpret the heritage and its symbols by means of democratic
process in order to ensure the continued creative existence of the Jewish people
wherever it may be in our time.
Every man shall live by his faith. In a democratic Zionist
state no one has the right to impose a particular way of interpreting the
heritage. We must obey the injunction - "tell your son and your
daughter" - through experience and learning, in a manner that will
ensure mutual respect between different attitudes.
The idea of the Divine expressed in its many forms by holidays
and feasts, by the Sabbath and in everyday, in the life of the individual and
the life of the community, is an ever-present bond focusing the Jewish people in
its infinite mission for the reform (tikkun) of the individual, the Jewish
people and the world.
(Chavruta Newsletter 1, February 2000 - Adar Alef 5760)
In the book of Ruth we read an extraordinary expression of love
between two women, spoken by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. The text
has often been read as a reflection of Judaism's position on intermarriage
because Ruth, a Moabite, becomes the great-grandmother of David, King of Israel.
It is worth looking at two verses (Ruth 1:16-17): "Do not urge me to leave
you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever
you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the
Lord do to me, if anything but death parts me from you."
Ruth swears fealty to Naomi, her land, her people, and finally,
to her God. The order suggests a path often followed in forsaking family,
country, nation, and faith. Beginning with intimacy and commitment to an
individual, the journey gradually broadens. Unlike religious conversion, there
is no search for a new God.
For centuries, the Book of Ruth's tradition of welcoming
a poor outsider coexisted with rabbinic interpretations conversion that set
considerable barriers for a potential convert. Ruth's journey represents
an ethnic alternative to religious conversion: first join the people, then
accept the faith. It resonates with American attitudes toward frontiers as
fluid, liminal space that invites exploration, as opposed to European borders
that prevent movement.
Modernity disrupted this Jewish bond linking peoplehood and
faith. Zionism successfully argued that nationhood did not require religious
commitment. A Sabbath-desecrating, pork-eating Jew remained part of the Jewish
nation. Only adherence to false gods (be they Karl Marx or Jesus Christ) severed
a Jew from his or her people. Although the Zionist distinction lacked logic, it
sustained a connection between peoplehood and faith.
So where does this leaves today's Ruth? Does Judaism have
room for someone who wants to follow a secular path of joining a people rather
than a religious journey of adopting a new faith? Have we drawn boundaries
designed to deter the intrepid adventurer who is ready to commit first to an
individual Jew and then to a religious civilization?
Taking Ruth's journey as our guide, we imagine that love
would be present from the beginning. Love, and an ounce of rebellion and risk.
Today's Ruth would be willing to leave her family and homeland and set off
on an uncharted journey alongside her beloved. Likely, such a bold person has
already rejected aspects of her upbringing, seeking alternatives to the
If Ruth's journey begins in love, it deepens with
knowledge. To become attached to a homeland and a people requires learning their
language, history, culture, and traditions. Today's Ruth might study
Hebrew and Judaism as part of her people's heritage. She might learn how
to read the news as a Jew, seeing the world afresh. She might come to appreciate
the Sabbath as a day for rest, contemplation, and family. She might seek out
other Jews, joining organizations that shared her beliefs and welcomed her.
Gradually, as her perceptions, experiences, language, and
culture changed, she might come to wrestle with the God of Israel. Undoubtedly,
those festivals that celebrate a people's traditions, such as Hanukkah and
Pesach, would appeal to her more than holidays that focus on God's power
and glory, such as Shavuot and You Kippur. As for critical events in the life
cycle - birth, bar/bat mitzvah, and marriage - today's
Ruth would see them as part of her culture. She would want to participate fully
Should Jews welcome today's Ruth? I think they should.
Barring her from religious activities in synagogues creates a hierarchy that
elevates rabbinic attitudes towards boundaries over fold traditions. We need to
recognize how Jews as a transnational people consistently violated borders
established by gentiles. Rather than imitating gentile practices segregating
Jews, we should work to reconnect peoplehood and faith.
Deborah Dash Moore is Professor of Religion at Vassar College
and Co-Editor of the award winning book, Jewish Women in America: An
Historical Encyclopedia. She is a Contributing Editor of Sh'ma.
Our Sages consider the Book of Ruth to be the story of a series
of acts of loving kindness (good works).
Rabbi Zeira said: This book has neither impurety nor purity,
nor (has it) forbidden or permitted. And why was it written? To teach you how
great are the rewards of doing acts of good works.
It seems to me that Rabbi Ze'ira is evading the question.
It is possible that there is truth in the speculations appearing in the
Introduction to the Book of Ruth in the Hartum Cassuto Interpretation,
which holds that the book is a "...counter to the attitude of Ezra
and Nehemiah towards mixed marriage".
Let us remember: the laws of conversion that constitute
authority in "normative" Judaism were consolidated in historical
circumstances very different from those that existed in the time of the Judges
or from those existing today. Certainly this fact is of no account to those who
accept the authority of the traditional Jewish interpretation even today. Yet,
from the point of view of sovereign and Zionist Judaism, it can be claimed that
national renewal in the Jewish-Zionist state enables us to review Ruth's
path to the Jewish People in a positive light.
Volunteers in Kibbutzim; young people traveling abroad;
immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Those are the publics in which we
can find bonds of love leading to "Ruth processes" in our time.
There is no point in forcing the torturous path paved by the rabbinical
establishment upon those who wish to join the Jewish people because of bonds of
love to a partner. This path leads to a coerced commitment to the orthodox
stream of Judaism.
Nevertheless, I do believe in the need for a meaningful
learning component as a part of joining the Jewish people. In the end, it is
best that the act of joining will be marked by a ritual event representing the
summation of the process.
In the political reality of the state of Israel I am willing to
accept the compromise of Ne'eman committee as the lesser of evils. The
committee recommended that Rabbis from all Jewish streams guide the process, but
the authority to convert was given to an orthodox court. In case the
recommendations of the Ne'eman committee are not implemented, existing
alternative conversion processes should be encouraged.
Of all the streams committed to the transcendental, only the
Reform Movement (in Israel - the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism
- TELEM) has taken upon themselves to fully integrate Democracy and
Judaism. The reason that in Israel, only TELEM is free to do so since is that
while TELEM recognizes Halachah as a source it does not accept it as
authoritative. Only in TELEM is it possible to have a process of Kabalat Torah
(receiving the Law) and Matan Torah (giving the Law), which integrates democracy
in the process of revelation through which the Jewish people develops from
generation to generation.
Against this backdrop, there are some unfortunate ideological
and organizational occurrences in TELEM. The negative ideological phenomenon is
the desire of many members to "sell" their democratic right to
determine the position of the movement on the issue of Jewish identity according
to the father to the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis. The organizational
phenomenon is the conduct of elections to the Board (Hanhala) of TELEM through
These two phenomenons taken together reflect negatively on the
motivation to build a movement, which can leave its mark on Israeli society. In
the meanwhile, TELEM relies mainly on professional leadership (Rabbinical and
other) financed mainly by money from abroad. This path signifies the desire to
establish Reform congregations patterned on the Diaspora model. On the other
hand, we cannot deny the welcome contribution of the Israel Religious Action
Center in heightening public awareness regarding the need to integrate democracy
and Judaism. On the contrary - this heightens the contrast between the
fully justified public stance of the movement and its internal (non-democratic)
norms of behavior.
A pity. A historic loss of opportunity.
Each generation has the right and obligation to integrate the
Revelation of Torah into the saga of our people. This Revelation is an
expression of the particular experience of each generation and its striving for
meaningful life - in the words of A.D. Gordon: life which is not only for
the here and now but is also a link to the eternal.
Studying the weekly Torah portion enables us to constantly
review the value of the path we have chosen. The role of Torah (study) in the
educational system is to create identification with and commitment to our
eternal and yet changing values. Studying of the weekly Torah portion is meant
to enable the next generation to examine its own values. Therefore, we need
always to put all available commentaries, traditional and modern, before our
students (and as far as the Torah is concerned we all remain students). Thus we
can stimulate, enrich and broaden knowledge and experience to the study of the
Among available modern Torah commentaries, that of Rabbi
Ze'ev Moshe (Gunter) Plaut holds a special place. It is a tremendous
enterprise of an outstanding scholar, one of the prominent Rabbis of the Reform
Movement in North America residing in Toronto. He is currently approaching the
age of 90. Rabbi Plaut brings traditional interpretation together with modern
insights. He supplements and enriches every Torah portion with additional
sources: Halachah, Aggadah, ancient literature and modern literature, history,
sociology and psychology. Plaut's commentary on the Torah would be an aid
to every educator and every family in Israel open to modern interpretation.
Plaut's commentary constitutes an impressive visiting card of Reform
Judaism for Jewishly literate Israelis.
Unfortunately, up to now only the Book of Genesis has been
published in Hebrew by the Institute for Jewish Studies of the Hebrew Union
College, 10 years ago.
The publishing of the other four books of the Torah has been
delayed for the last decade due to faulty priorities within the Reform
"Chavruta - Chazon L'Israel" has
appealed to the Institute for Jewish Studies of the Hebrew Union College and to
the World Union for Progressive Judaism to expedite the publication of the
In the meantime, Chavruta has initiated an arrangement whereby
anyone who is interested can purchase at least the Plaut Genesis
commentary of the remaining stock. Those interested should apply to:
Linda/Dinah, Hebrew Union College - Institute for Jewish Studies, 13 King
David St., Jerusalem 94101. Payment (in advance) - 40 NIS includes
shipment. In case of questions please phone 02-6203333.
We would be happy to receive remarks regarding any of the
articles in this newsletter, up to 300 words, typed with one space between
Chavruta Newsletter is going on summer vacation. Newsletter no.
4 will appear in September, before the holidays. See you then.
CHAVRUTA - CHAZON L'ISRAEL, is an independent
national charted society for spiritual-cultural and social-political tikkun.
CHAVRUTA - CHAZON L'ISRAEL, Mailing address:
P.O. Box 1308, Eilat, 88112
Editorial Board - Editor: Dr. Michael Livni (Kibbutz
Lotan); Board members: Osnat Elnatan (Kibbutz Tamuz - Beit-Shemesh);
Binyamin Ma'or (Hod Hasharon); Yoram Nidam (Tel-Aviv). Articles represent
the views of their authors.