Image: One of my bookshelves, with Bibles, a crown, and a yahrzeit candle. (Ruth Adar)
This week’s Torah portion has a little surprise in it.
Readers familiar with the Book of Ruth may be puzzled to read the commandment against marrying Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:4:
“An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord.” Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, was born a Moabite: that is the whole point of the Book of Ruth.
How could King David be descended from a forbidden marriage?
The sages struggled with this text and its apparent conflict with the Book of Ruth, especially since the prohibition is reinforced by a line from Nehemiah 13:1-2: “At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of God, since they did not meet Israel with bread and water, and hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing.”
The sages resolve the issue in M.Yevamot 8:3, ruling that the prohibition is only against Moabite men converting or marrying a Jewish woman; Moabite women are permitted to convert. The Gemara elaborates with a story about an Edomite who suggested to Saul that David may not be fit even to be part of the kahal, since he descends from Ruth the Moabite. Saul’s general, Abner, replies that the prohibition applies only to males, because women stay in the house when men go out to meet strangers. (Yevamot 76b)
Another possibility from modern scholarship: Megillat Ruth (The Scroll of Ruth) was composed from a legend that had circulated for centuries. It was written down in the early Second Temple period when Ezra was making his proclamations against “foreign wives.” It was composed as a reply to Ezra’s attitude about intermarriage, by arguing that even King David had an ancestor who was not born a Jew.
At every point in Jewish history, there is someone warning against converts in general or against a particular convert. As a giyoret (female convert) myself, I take comfort in knowing that there have also been, in every age, someone speaking up for us.