“Weeks”

That’s the translation of Shavuot, the holiday that began at dusk on Sunday. Among other ways, I was reminded of it by an email from Jerusalem—but from a rather odd source.

It came from the ICEJ, the self-styled International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. I say self-styled not as an insult but because it only represents a minority of Christians: those evangelicals who are strong supporters of Jews and Israel. I’ve written about my own experience at one of their pro-Israel rallies (“With friends like these…”) and I know some Jews are wary of their support.

I am too, but much, much less than I was before I got to know them. They really mean it, and they (unlike some other Christians) have no desire at all to convert the Jews, at least not until the end of days. Since I don’t believe in the end of days (nor do any Jews in the sense that evangelicals mean it) I’m not worried.

Now I find myself, having been raised as an Orthodox Jew, being reminded of Shavuot by evangelical Christians. They call it Pentecost, and their director, Rev. Malcolm Hedding, summarizes its meaning, under these headings:

A Day of Longing (for God’s Spirit), A Day of Instruction, A Day of Maturity (you grow by combining the Spirit with the Word), and “A Day of Gratitude. Pentecost reminds us of the uniqueness of Israel. From this nation came the Word of God which, when empowered by the Spirit, has transformed our lives…Truly, we owe this people a great debt!” He goes on to thank his readers “for your continued faithfulness in standing with the people of Israel.” The Spirit, he believes, came especially after Jesus, but far from suggesting replacement, Rev. Hedding honors our priority and our enduring value.

For observant Jews, Shavuot is the culmination of the grain harvest in ancient Israel, beginning during Passover with barley and ending with wheat after seven weeks—seven sevens—of counting. The fiftieth day is the festival (hence the Greek name Pentecost) and the ancient Israelites marked it with pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, where they brought their first fruits as offerings.

During the seven weeks, the first to ripen of each of the “seven species”—barley, wheat, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates—were marked by having a reed tied to them, and then were harvested and on the holiday carried to Jerusalem. Today, Jews still bring plants, flowers, and leafy branches into home and synagogue; even for secular Israelis it’s a great day for flowers.

Another custom has religious Jews up all night in study, because Shavuot also celebrates the giving of the Torah to Israel at Sinai. The Jews, by tradition, have loved study ever since, and show it through a sleepless night brightened by lively discussion and culminating in a prayer service at dawn. I have done this, and it is very moving.

One thing always read on Shavuot is the book of Ruth, one of five short books each tied to a specific holiday. Esther is another, read on Purim. I said in a blog around then that Esther’s is the ultimate Jews-and-others story–she saves the Jews by being married to a non-Jewish king.

But Ruth is a close second. She and another Moabite–enemies of Israel–are married to two Jewish brothers, and when they die in Moab their mother, Naomi, returns to Israel, releasing her daughters-in-law from any further obligation. One takes her tearful leave, but Ruth says words that have echoed through millennia:

“Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest I will go…thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God. Whither thou diest, there will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”

Her loyalty is rewarded; this supposed enemy of Israel is thoroughly embraced. Through a fine seduction orchestrated by Naomi, Ruth wins a rich and noble Jewish husband. Hearing the story from others, he praises her kindness and courage in leaving the land of her birth, to “come unto a people which thou knewest not…a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.”

And later she is welcomed by what seems almost a ceremonial conversion: “And all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said, We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman that is come unto thy house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel.”

Ruth the Moabite could hear no more welcoming blessing, and it comes true: Not only does she make a marvelous marriage, she becomes almost a matriarch herself. Her great-grandson is David, Israel’s greatest king. And Jewish tradition holds that from David’s line the Messiah will come—Mashiach ben David—Messiah, son of David. Or, you could say, grandson of Ruth the Moabite.

The story speaks for itself on the subject of Jews-by-Choice. This one was welcomed with open arms and hearts, and the result, for Jews, was magnificent.

2 thoughts on ““Weeks”

  1. As anthropology teaches, among the interesting things about myth is that it is an imaginative space to work out intractable social and psychological problems.  Along these lines, we might conclude that these two stunning successes are the mythic exceptions that remind readers that the rule against intermarriage is really quite sensible, i.e. “You think you’re going to find a Biblical matriarch out there?  Don’t bet on it!”  

    I find the stories of Ruth and Esther fascinating in that they both focus on the women who intermarry. The men?  Not so much.  I also find the differences in the stories striking. Ruth is welcomed and finds a particular place of honor in history and tradition as the mother of a line of exemplary Jews. Esther does her part for the Jews as a people too, but we have to assume that any children she has are lost to Judaism.  As the non-Jewish woman, though, Ruth would typically be perceived as more threatening to Jewish integrity and continuity, not Esther.  Rescue for the Jews comes in Esther’s story through having to give her up; continuity in the Book of Ruth comes from taking in a stranger.  Intermarriage may not be approved of, but, as you point out, interdependence is a fact of life.

    I have to say that I’ve always had a soft spot for Ruth because I see something ethnographic in her story.  As you say, we can pick up the hints of a conversion of sorts, but the focus is upon public affirmation rather than say, a year-long course on Judaism with the local educational leader.  Her actions demonstrate her commitment to her new people, not the acquisition of a body of knowledge (although if Ruth were a good anthropologist, she would of course figured that part out too).  Ruth expresses her willingness to “participate” and everything flows from there.

  2. Clare,

    Thank you for your generous and extremely thoughtful comment. You are right I think about the myths, since they are in a sense meant to be counterfactual, or at least exceptions to rules. But one of the reasons for the success of the Jews (in genetic as well as cultural terms)  is (in my opinion) that our imports are better than our exports.

    Ruth makes a strong commitment, but she still does come from outside, indeed from an enemy people. Surely the point about that community’s openness to her is as important as her commitment. Judaism today derives Jewishness only through mothers, but this originally non-Jewish mother gives us kings, princes and the Messiah. I guess I think I sometimes see a tinge of racism in Jewish attitudes about intermarriage; for some people, conversion isn’t good enough. Ruth’s story, surely, tells us that it should be.

    As for Esther, it’s true we don’t hear of her children, but in another sense we see them every Purim. Every little girl who as ever dressed up as Esther, and there are millions, are her daughters.

    Ruth figured everything out, and so did Naomi. As Harold Bloom pointed out about Genesis, momentous events in the Bible often turn on women’s trickery, or at a minimum their cleverness: Eve starts history rolliing with an apple, Sarah pretends to be Abraham’s sister, Rebecca pretends that Jacob is Esau, Leah pretends that she is Rachel, and long after them Ruth sneaks under Boaz’s blanket and Esther conceals her religion and her people from her royal spouse.

    Perhaps this thread through so many stories has as great a meaning as anything else.