When carefully reading the story of Ruth, the question of why Ruth decided to convert to Judaism is of crucial and far reaching importance. What motivated this young woman who was educated in a most adulterous and idolatrous society to make such a radical step and commit herself to a lifestyle which, like no other, makes great moral and ritual demands on its followers? What is there in Judaism which is able to defeat the lusts of sensualism, materialism, prestige and easy lifestyle which was represented by the nation of Moav?
This question is most intriguing and of great importance. Once we can discover the answer, we may be able to find a solution to a problem which has the State of Israel in a quandary and which may very well become its most taxing problem in the near future. With a population of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants who are, although of Jewish descent, halachically not Jewish, there is a need to find a way to motivate many of them to make the conversion step. Not to do so will otherwise lead to a great amount of mixed marriages which, in years to com,e will undermine the Jewishness of the Jewish State to an even greater extent than that in which it finds itself present.
In the case of Ruth this question is even more complex since Ruth never did live in a Jewish environment. It is Moav, not Israel, where she meets the highly assimilated Jewish family of Naomi, her future mother in law. Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, is a selfish personality who had run away from his own people since he was not prepared to help its poor at the time of a severe famine. His commitment to Judaism must have been a watered down version with little inspiration. It seems that Elimelech was more interested in the lifestyle of Moav than in the possibility of convincing anybody to become Jewish. His two sons Machlon and Kilyon seem to have lost the Jewish connection altogether when they decided to marry non-Jewish Moabite girls. There was no Jewish trace to be found in these girls, no Jewish connection whatsoever. The only person who seems to have been intensively Jewish was Naomi and it would not be an exaggeration to claim that there must have been a great amount of tension in the home of Elimelech and Naomi due to all the contradictions in the make up of the family. Not a place in which to become inspired by Judaism!
So it is only Naomi and nobody else who must have had an extraordinary influence on Ruth which kept her spellbound and which made it completely impossible for Ruth to make any other decision but to become Jewish. Something about Naomi must have been so persuasive that Ruth could not resist becoming Jewish. It must have been so powerful that it transformed Ruth into another person.
What Naomi shows Ruth is the existence of a completely different mindset how to see the world, its challenges, its ups and downs. When Naomi is left alone after losing her husband and sons and being confronted with extreme poverty she turned fate into destiny and showed a new side of what human beings are all about which was totally unknown to Ruth.
In her desperation Naomi showed Ruth that one can only live life as if it is superfluous or indispensable. It either tragic or holy. There can be no neutrality. Either we are the ministers of the sacred or the slaves of evil and tragedy. There is no escape. Either one lives in blasphemy and eternal scandal or in the presence of God and eternal holiness. Just, as at Sinai, God lifted the mountain over the Israelites and declared: Either you accept the Torah or be crushed beneath the mountain, so every human being must make this decision in his/her own life time. This is what the American philosopher William James called the forced option: There can be no compromise when it comes to the very meaning of human existence and living accordingly. Better to live in a physical wilderness than to be abandoned by profound existential meaning.
What Naomi showed Ruth is that if man is not more than human then he is less than human. To live really is to surpass being average. There is no place for commonplace in a life of meaning. It was in spiritual but lonely nobility that Naomi lived all her years absorbing this into her personality. As such she had transformed herself into a powerhouse of deep religiosity and uncompromising commitment to meaning in life. While other civilizations build physical monuments Ruth realized that Naomi built monuments to life. She realized that in such a life God does not enslave but sets free. What became clear was that Naomi lived a life of spiritual protest. Protest against the neutrality in which one divides ones time between some religious rituals and secularity. In which religious life is another extra layer added to human existence instead of a radical transformation of all that one is. How we live and what we live for are the most fateful decisions we ever make. This component of human existence did not exist in the weltanschauung of Ruth till she met Naomi. The idol worship of Moav like all other forms of worship, is the worship of the common and adultery is the outcome of existential boredom in which man for a lack of a higher meaning turns to his body as his redeemer to find satisfaction. It is not having but being, which is the key to real meaningful life.
Ruth saw that Naomi lived in a spiritual world in which all so called trivialities take place in holiness and hence become transformed in moments of tremendous significance. It is a world in which nothing is trivial and everything is of radical existential importance. To the point that even the tying of a shoe lace is a holy act since it takes place in the presence of God and has therefore royal meaning.
It is a life of grandeur in which nothing is taken for granted and in which all matters become profound opportunities to be amazed. Not a life which is compatible to the ordinary but one to marvel at.
What Naomi teaches Ruth is that life without a commitment is not worth getting born for. The dignity of man stands in proportion to his obligations and it is not human rights which are ultimately important but human duties.
No doubt Ruth must have been a sensitive soul but what she proved against all odds is that all human beings have sensitive souls which when properly approached can be transformed into a flame of deep meaning. With a Moabite background nobody would have believed that she would be even minimally open to Jewish values and living. Still not only did she become genuinely Jewish, but she became the royal mother of the house of David and will one day give birth to the Mashiach. It for once and all puts paid to the notion that some people are beyond hope and cannot transform themselves. And it was only one person, Naomi, living in an un-Jewish family, in an anti Jewish environment, opposed by her husband and children, who was able to convey this to Ruth by nothing else but example and commitment.
When the State of Israel wants to convince its non-Jewish inhabitants to become Jewish, it will first have to learn how to create a grand picture of life and its meaning. There is no point in starting to teach the Jewish religion, customs and laws, or how to observe shabbath and kashruth if one has not shown that all these observances are a response to the ultimate questions of human existence. One first needs to convince people that life is addressed and that it demands an answer of grandeur which uplifts its members to a plateau in which all other matters which are not part of this picture are of no importance. But at the same time it needs to show that all matters when correctly approached take place in holiness and become significant. In this way one does not lose by becoming Jewish but wins new worlds of tremendous delight.
As long as Judaism is taught as a luxury to be added to life, it is misrepresented and will be of little avail in the eyes of those who are asked to become Jewish. But when we teach it as being indispensable, it will become life itself and will make waves in the souls of all those we approach.