by: Brachah Bogomilsky*

On the eve of the holiday of Shavuot, our thoughts turn to the Book of Ruth, which has become closely associated with the festival commemorating our Receiving of the Torah. The Book of Ruth has attained universal reverence as a classic depiction of a most dramatic episode of our history. Who is not familiar with the touching tale of the Moabite princess who, for the sake of clinging to our people whom she admired, gladly relinquished the privileges and trappings of royalty she had enjoyed in her own land, and became a Giyoret — a proselyte?

The Book of Ruth calls to mind the many other women proselytes who are an integral part of Jewish history — in fact, they made history themselves.

Frankly, the pages of this journal would not be sufficient for a properly detailed and efficient dissertation on the Biblical conception and attitude towards proselytes, their role in history, their qualities, achievements and virtues. However, it is fitting for this journal, which is addressed to the Jewish woman, to discuss proselytism in brief and to give us some interesting sidelights about some of the giyorot whose names are part of Jewish history.

The Qualities of Proselytes

Through the enlightenment and teaching the geirim receive, and because of their sincerity and piety, they become truly exalted. One of our Sages said of them: “The proselytes are more precious at Sinai than Israel was, for the latter would not have accepted the “Kingdom” upon itself had not miracles accompanied revelation, while the former assume the “Kingdom” without having seen even one miracle” (Midrash Tanchumah: Lech Lecha 6).

Concerning women proselytes, the Midrash eloquently expresses a view that ranks them very high indeed: “Though the giyoret is not of Jewish origin, yet she is considered as one of them — a Jewish woman. When she conducts her life in accordance with Jewish laws and tradition, she is blessed with children who grow up to be scholars, imbued with Torah knowledge” (Bamidbar Rabbah 8:9).

Paradoxical Views of the Talmud

Most amazing, however, are the paradoxical views found in the Talmud in reference to accepting proselytes. On the one hand we find praise and commendation; we learn the fact that the Al-mighty loves geirim and encourages them, as the Talmud says: “As a medium to attaining a multitude of proselytes the Al-mighty exiled the Jewish people” (Pesachim, 87b). Yet, notwithstanding the aforementioned, we find a statement which warns that “Evil shall come upon those who accept converts” (Yevamot 109b). Again, regardless of this warning, we are told that because the patriarch Abraham was reluctant to accept Timnah the sister of Lotan as a giyoret she married Elifaz the son of Esau and brought the wicked Amalek upon this world, the oppressor and attempted annihilator of the Jewish people (Sanhedrin 99b, Tosafot Yevamot 109b).

To dispel any assumption that the aforementioned is contradictory, let us first bring to light a major distinction between the Jewish and gentile approach to, and view of, proselytes.

Coercion, oppression, tyranny and persecution was always their approach.

One example, among countless in our history, was the effort of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King who destroyed our Holy Temple, to force the Jewish exiles in his kingdom to worship as he did. He erected a huge idol and arrogantly decreed that everyone must bow down to it; those failing to obey would be burned alive. Chananya, Mishael, and Aazria, three young descendants of Ruth the Moabitess (Sanhedrin 93b), who possessed great wisdom and knowledge, heroically proclaimed that they would not, under any circumstances, deviate from their sublime beliefs. King Nebuchadnezzar, as he had threatened, had them thrown into a burning furnace. But the Al-mighty watched over them, the furnace was miraculously cooled from within, and they were spared from any harm (Pesachim 118a).

Even the tyrant himself could not refrain from praising the Al-mighty G‑d, and was forced to concede and put down in writing to the inhabitants of his kingdom that “His (G‑d’s) kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation!” (Daniel 3:33).

Antiochus the infamous of Greece and Syria, who intended to force his religion upon Jews, proclaimed: “Write it for yourselves on the horns of an ox that you have no part in the G‑d of Israel ... and if not — then death is decreed for him!” (Midrash Tanchumah, Vayikra, Tazria chap. 11)

And again in medieval times, the gentiles, with their sharp swords and malicious tongues endeavored (without avail) to ridicule our lofty beliefs and force conversion upon us.

Jews, of course, never resorted to such methods when accepting proselytes. In all our books of laws, the point is stressed that we must investigate carefully the reasons for someone’s desire to embrace Judaism. Prior to performing the solemn ritual of accepting the ger we must be confident that he/she is aware of the possible consequences, that he/she fully understands the hardships that the Jewish people meet at every turn. And above all we must be sure that no external forces direct him/her to convert. Only then can one become a proselyte.

Such a ger, who successfully passed the preliminary examinations and possesses the aforementioned qualities, is warmly accepted as a member of our people. Such a ger receives Heavenly blessings. To acquire a multitude of such geirim we were exiled.

The proselyte who lacks these prerequisites, the one who converts anticipating personal benefits, is not welcomed to our people. The one who encourages or ministers to such a conversion will not receive Heavenly blessings. Such a ger is truly “as hard for Israel as a skin affliction” (Yevamot 47b).

Ruth, as portrayed in the Megillah, was not of the latter category. Wholeheartedly, despite Naomi’s intensive endeavors to dissuade her from forsaking her native people, she insisted on becoming a member of the Chosen People. She consciously and conscientiously accepted the possible consequences. At a most crucial and precarious moment, her sweet and melodious voice proudly proclaimed “Your people are my people, your G‑d is my G‑d” (Book of Ruth 1:16).

As acknowledgement of her deep sincerity, piety and devotion, she was unexpectedly rewarded with material riches in abundant measure. Ruth also became the ancestor of the Royal house of David. According to our Sages, our Mashiach — redeemer — is one of her descendants (Sanhedrin 93b).

Other Famous Proselytes

A glance at our history will reveal that even in the days of our patriarchs and matriarchs, aliens had already been converted and had become a part of our people. “Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women” (Bereishit Rabbah 39:14).

Likewise our ancestors Isaac and Jacob followed in their parents’ footsteps, and by converting the gentiles they added links to the chain which Abraham and Sarah had spun.

The Torah is replete with examples of exceptional women proselytes.

Joseph, the Tzadik, married Asnat the daughter of Potifera, who merited becoming the mother of Menashe and Ephraim — two tribes of Israel (Yalkut Shimoni, Joshua, remez 9, Midrash Shemuel, II Samuel, chap. 21).

The life of Moshe Rabbeinu — the greatest of our leaders was saved by a giyoret.

According to Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai (Sotah 12b), the daughter of Pharaoh went down to the Nile not to bathe, but for a ritual immersion in order to become a Jewess and spiritually cleanse herself from the idols of Egypt. There in the reeds she saw the box in which Moshe Rabbeinu’s mother had placed him to save him from Pharaoh’s wicked decrees. His cries aroused within her pangs of mercy; she saved him, raised him, and through this preserved the life of our leader. Her reward was Olam Haba — Paradise (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 2:166).

Rachav, the woman whose home served as a shelter for the spies Joshua had sent to Jericho, after living a very mundane life, embraced Judaism at the age of fifty (Yalkut Shimoni Joshua, 9). The Al-mighty rewarded her with righteous children. Her daughters married Kohanim; some of her grandchildren served in the Beit Hamikdash and others were amongst the most eminent prophets (Megillah 14b).

Another giyoret of honorable mention was Jael the wife of Chaver of Canaan (Yalkut Shimoni, ibid.). She is credited with bringing victory to the Jewish people in their battle against the Canaanites. It was she who, imbued with a spirit of heroism knocked a tent-peg into the temple of Sisera, the army chief, thus bringing triumph and freedom to the Jews in the days when the Judges ruled in Israel (Judges 4:21).

To correct a misconception that our readers may be forming, i.e., that women proselytes were common only in Biblical times, we will turn the light on another period of history.

During the days of the second Beit Hamikdash there lived a praiseworthy family of proselytes. The royal family of Adiabene, a Hellenistic state on the Tigris river, Queen Helene, and her sons Monbaz and Izates, were distinguished for their devoutness and reverence for G‑d as well as for their munificent gifts towards the support of the Beit Hamikdash.

Queen Helene settled in Israel during the latter years of her life and was famous for the vast amounts of charity she distributed to the needy. When a famine struck the land of Israel, she sent emissaries to bring food from Egypt. She also erected a golden menorah to beautify the Holy Temple. Though her demise took place in her native land, Adiabene, her son Monbaz brought her body to Jerusalem for interment (see Seder Hadorot, 3804).

Aliens did not only ‘knock on our doors’ when we were at the peak of our glory. Our ideologies attracted thoughtful and sincere gentiles even when we suffered oppression and persecution. During our darkest moments there were converts streaming and clinging to our religion.

After the destruction of the second temple, when the land of Israel was in ruins, the wife of the vicious Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor who reigned during the days of the Bar Kochba revolution, converted and eventually married Rabbi Akiva (Avodah Zarah 20a).

And again in the Middle Ages, when the Jews were persecuted for their belief in G‑d, we find records of two giyorot who died as martyrs: Katherine Malcherov the wife of the Mayor of Krakow in 1539, and Marina Davidova, in 1716.

One of the most moving episodes of proselytism is the case, two centuries ago, of the Polish nobleman Graf Patotsky. Immediately after becoming a Jew, while he was still confined to bed because of his circumcision, his wife visited him and pleaded that he should convert her too, and they would remarry. When she persisted even after being told the hardships which confronted Jews at all times, he consented. Once, when he informed her of his plans to divorce her and marry a woman of Jewish origin who could better enlighten him about Judaism, and advised her to do the same, she intelligently replied: “When we were perplexed we stayed together; now that we have found the right path, we should separate? Let us rejoice together and unitedly offer praise to the Al-mighty Who unveiled before us the true path.” They settled in Amsterdam and later migrated to the Holy Land. Their son settled in Vilna and was named “Abraham the Righteous Ger.”

In conclusion it should be said, that, whether Ruth was actually the first giyoret or not, the lesson she represents, is timeless and of cardinal importance.

Devoted adherence to the laws of the Torah should not be evident only when we enjoy material and physical contentment. Not only when Heavenly blessings have been bestowed upon us in abundant measure should our observance of Torah and Mitzvot be manifest. Ruth the Moabite princess did not embrace Judaism for wealth and security. She was a young widow, dejected and disappointed with her lot in life when she resolved to cleave to Torah and Mitzvot. Impecunious, alone, she nevertheless faithfully proclaimed: “Your people are my people, your G‑d is my G‑d.”