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Jews-By-Choice: Asenath and Ruth

Throughout our history, and particularly in our times, the Jewish people have been enriched by converts, people who have chosen to cast their lot with ours, to make our history and destiny their own. We benefit from their enthusiasm, their insight and their mature understanding of Judaism. We honor their new commitments by calling them "gerei tzedek" ("those who have chosen to dwell with us through righteousness") and by declaring them to be the direct descendants of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. They, in turn, compliment us by accepting our sacred heritage and remind us of the life-changing, life-enhancing power of our traditions.

Our ancient traditions present us with two powerful visions of the conversion process. One, represented by the story of Ruth, focuses on the convert's significant relationships with Jewish people. We all know many people who have chosen to join us because of their involvement with their Jewish spouse, their Jewish friends, and the Jewish community. The other, characterized by ancient legends concerning Joseph's Egyptian born wife, Asenath, stresses the convert's spiritual journey towards Jewish faith.

The story of the Moabite woman, Ruth, who after the deaths of her husband and father-in-law, followed her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Naomi's hometown of Bethlehem in Judah, is found in the biblical Book of Ruth. The story focuses on Jewish values of peoplehood and community, which still play a central role in modern Jewish life.

Ruth's story is a tale of a love and loyalty. Ruth leaves her native land and adopts the traditions and beliefs of the Jewish people because of the depth of her relationship with Naomi and because of her admiration of Naomi's words and deeds, which reflected the guiding principles of Judaism. Ruth's declaration of loving loyalty ("Wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people and your God is my God . . . (Ruth 1:16)") is one of the most profound expressions of love in our tradition. But it is also testimony to the transforming power of the faith we express by the way we live our lives.

The legends concerning Asenath focus on the spiritual aspect of conversion and attempt to explain why Joseph, who was so loyal to the God of our ancestors, married Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest, a detail seemingly overlooked in the biblical text. They come to us from a two thousand year old novella known as "Joseph and Asenath," which circulated among the Greek-speaking Jews living in ancient Alexandria and other cities in Egypt and throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Jews of the ancient Greek-speaking diaspora knew that many non-Jews were attracted by the faith and traditions of Israel. In their time, many people converted to Judaism and many more worshiped the God of Israel without becoming Jews because of the spiritual and moral truths they discovered in the Jewish tradition.

The Bible provides us with little information concerning Asenath. This week's portion, Miketz, only mentions her in passing. In it we learn that her father was Poti-phera, a priest in the Egyptian city of On, and that she bore Joseph two children (Genesis 41:45, 50).

The ancient novella uses these bits of information from the Bible as a starting point for a moving romance. It describes Joseph's initial rejection of Asenath because of her polytheistic beliefs and the challenges Asenath faced as she discovered the One God and shared that faith with others. Despite her high station and physical beauty, Joseph's interest in her blossomed only after her conversion to monotheism. However, before the young couple could achieve happiness, Asenath had to overcome the resistance of the Egyptians to her new faith and new husband.

There are many today who say we are all Jews-By-Choice. In our open society we not only have the freedom to decide how we wish to live our Jewish lives, but also the choice of whether or not to be Jews at all. The same factors that bring people into Jewish life, keep them in Jewish life -- a deep personal commitment to Jewish people expressed in a strong Jewish family life and in active participation in the Jewish community, and a sincere appreciation of the spiritual wealth of our Jewish tradition expressed in prayer, study and celebration.

Everyone's tale is different but the biblical Book of Ruth and the post-biblical legends about Asenath underscore the motivations that bring non-Jews to the Jewish people and keep Jews Jewish -- love of the Jewish people and love of God. Neither story provides us with information concerning the rituals of conversion in either biblical or post-biblical times, but they both provide us with a measuring stick to judge the strength of our own loyalty to our faith and our people. Can we, like Asenath, stand up and witness our faith in God in an alien culture and can we, like Ruth, clasp the hands of our fellow Jews and say that we share the same heritage and destiny, and promise that "wherever you go, I will go . . ."?
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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