Ruth’s “Conversion” – The Targumic Interpretation

Ruth and Naomi - All Souls Chapel, HalifaxTwo days ago I discussed, from a devotional perspective, Ruth’s decision to follow Naomi and I commented that I think it is reasonable to question whether the author is presenting a “conversion” to Israel’s God or Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi, that in its historical context would have included accepting the deity of the community in which she now lives, and so on.

The Targum of Ruth, from the rabbinic period [mfn]I will post comments on dating TgRuth another time[/mfn], has no doubt and directs the reader to understand this passage as nothing less then a clear, firm conversion and acceptance of the Torah.

16- But Ruth said: “Do not coax me to leave you, to turn from following you, for I desire to become a proselyte.” (‏ארום תאיבנא אנא לאיתגיירא)

Said Naomi: “We are commanded to keep the Sabbaths and holidays, not to walk more than two thousand cubits.” Said Ruth: “Wheresoever you go I shall go.” Said Naomi: “We are commanded not to spend the night together with non-Jews.” Said Ruth: “Wherever you lodge I shall lodge.” Said Naomi: “We are commanded to keep six hundred thirteen commandments.” Said Ruth: “That which your people keep, that I shall keep, as though they had been my people before this.” Said Naomi: “We are commanded not to worship idolatry.” Said Ruth: “Your God is my God.”

17- Said Naomi: “We have four methods of capital punishment for the guilty — stoning, burning with fire, death by the sword, and hanging upon the gallows.” Said Ruth: “To whatever death you are subject I shall be subject.” Said Naomi: “We have two cemeteries.” Said Ruth: “There shall I be buried. And do not continue to speak any further. May the Lord do thus unto me and more if [even] death will separate me from you.”

18- When she saw that she insisted upon going with her, she ceased to dissuade her.

The key to this passage is not so much the details of what it means to become a Jew (and I say “Jew” since the targum is not describing ancient Israelite practices but those of the rabbinic period), but the final phrase of Ruth’s opening statement. ‏ארום תאיבנא אנא לאיתגיירא, “for I desire to become a proselyte.” This sets the stage for everything that follows and controls our reading of the text. Naomi’s enumeration of the requirements to be kept, clearly places this text within the rabbinic milieu.

Such a reading of the Hebrew text and the subsequent synagogal reading of the targum thus encourages the audience, that is, the synagogal community of late rabbinic period, to adhere to rabbinic understandings of being Jewish. This, in turn, serves as a reminder that so much of rabbinic literature is prescriptive rather than descriptive. There is a need to exhort the audience to follow “their” (the author’s/targumist’s) understanding of how one is to be Jewish. We can liken this to the Dura Europas synagogue, a far more dramatic example that even when ostensibly Rabbinic authority is being consolidated in the mid-third century observance of practices that are later considered or directed to be the norm were not adhered to universally. And how much they ever were adhered to in antiquity is still an open debate.

It is time to run for the moment, but I will return to this in the future, bringing (I hope) more of my research directly to the blog. Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

4 thoughts on “Ruth’s “Conversion” – The Targumic Interpretation”