Shavuot, Sinai and Ruth: A Renewal of Reform Jewish Outreach
In several days time, we will celebrate Shavuot, which commemorates God’s revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. As part of our commemoration, we will join together as one community, stand again at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah all over again.
In her groundbreaking book, Standing Again at Sinai, published more than 30 years ago, Judith Plaskow calls upon Jewish women to reclaim scripture rather than discard it because of its patriarchal nature. Her inspiring words challenge each and every one of us to stand again at Sinai and reclaim Torah for ourselves—regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, or life experiences that may distance us from or create tension with our ancient, sacred texts.
I have always been profoundly moved that the rabbis associated the Book of Ruth with Shavuot. This moving story describes the bonds shared by women who overcome tribal-national differences to stay together and support one another. Famously and powerfully, Ruth tells Naomi, her mother-in-law:
Where you go I will go
Where you lodge I will lodge
Your people will be my people
Your God my God
And so it goes that Ruth becomes part of the Jewish people and, like the rest of us, stands at Sinai and receives Torah. What moves me most about the story, however, is that Ruth finds herself at Sinai primarily because of the bond she shares with Naomi.
In 1978, thousands of years after we first stood at Sinai, Rabbi Alexander Schindler began an outreach revolution. As president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) Rabbi Schindler called upon our Movement to reach out to the non-Jewish spouses who increasingly were within our families and congregations. He went so far as to throw open the gates of Jewish living to those he called “unchurched.” In the spirit of the Book of Ruth, Rabbi Schindler believed that many, many souls would find meaning, purpose, and connection in the Jewish community—and their entrée would be through the people with whom they shared love and bonds that were stronger than tribal-national differences.
It was truly a revolution. Think of the hundreds of thousands of girls and boys, women and men who, through Outreach, have found the joy of Jewish life, even though members of their families of origin are not Jewish. Think of the number of rabbis, cantors, and Jewish professionals and leaders who are Jews-by-choice or grew up in interfaith households. Just as King David himself was the future progeny of Ruth, so too have the souls we have drawn in over the last several decades contributed countless generations to the Jewish future.
Now, as we prepare once again to stand at Sinai, amongst a diverse, mixed multitude that has found a home among us, we will again read the Book of Ruth. Again, we will hear Rabbi Schindler’s call to reach out, giving us yet another chance to ask, “Who among us might find their way into Jewish life?”
Recently, URJ incoming president Rabbi Rick Jacobs called upon synagogues to “reach out to the uninspired,” challenging the whole of the Jewish community to think boldly and well beyond the walls of the synagogue to meet people where they are. Rabbi Jacobs’ charge renews Rabbi Schindler’s vision and echoes across the generations from Sinai and Ruth until today. Who are the waiting-to-be-inspired women and men to whom we will reach out and ask to join the Jewish people? Who are the people with whom we share bonds so strong that when asked, they will respond: Your people will be my people, your God my God?
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah