First, a reminder that even if the rabbi of a synagogue is preaching stuff that does not align with your political beliefs–that does not necessarily mean that every single person in that community is similarly aligned. There may be other folks who are much more kindred spirits than you might think at first blush — and it might take a second or two to find them, but that does not mean that they are not there or impossible to find. Synagogues are often comprised of communities within communities, and it may be possible for you to find yours. How? Well, first you have to start showing up to things where you might be able to meet people. Is there a social justice or social action committee doing stuff? Are there other subgroups within the synagogue that feel like they might be more likely to have folks on your wavelength? Is there a younger folks group — even if they call it “Young Professionals“ or some such thing, you may find some true kindred spirits there — you never know. I say this from experience, as someone who showed up to a Conservative synagogue in my early 20s, as the youngest (by about 15 years) and queerest (by far) person I could see for miles. With some patience and digging, eventually I connected with an amazing intergenerational group of people (some of whom knew each other before, some not), some of whom I am still in touch with today, many many many years later.
Second of all, even though it is lovely and comfortable to go to community that has been built, don’t discount your own power to build community. You can (eg) host Shabbat dinner for a motley group of people–some of whom may be Jews, some of whom may not be, some of whom may be familiar with Jewish practice, some of whom may not at all. Make it potluck, or do a simple pot of soup and salad and frittata. Or make a vat of chili get some chips and guac you’ve got dinner. Get some wine or juice and challah– bam! Get this going as a monthly thing and see if you can get enough of a community together to get some text study or prayer action before or after dinner (davening first, study after). Etc. Do a lunch! Make it a picnic when the weather improves! Host holiday things! Get creative! Start slow, build.Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg – You asked I answered
At our church this month we’ve been going through the book of Ruth. The series has been good, with the first three messages bringing the story to life, with all of its hard to understand customs, offensive levels of patriarchy, and yet endearing characters. (The recordings are on YouTube: message 1 and message 2 by Steve, and message 3 by my sister Clare.) I’ve also been reading it – it’s only four short chapters and takes me about 20 minutes – it’s worth reading yourself!
One thing that’s standing out to me is the lack of “supernatural” in the story. There’s a famine but no miracles of food falling from the sky or loaves of bread being multiplied, or prophets making it rain or anything like that. There’s death but no coming back to life. There’s infertility but no miracle babies.
What there is, is a story of two women (Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi) choosing to return to Naomi’s home country, her people, her God and way of life.
They were destitute in Moab and running away from famine – for Naomi it is running to her home country, and for Ruth, it is following Naomi to a place she’d never been, where she’d settle in as a foreigner and immigrant.
When they get to Bethlehem, the story narrows in to focus on what they find in that community when they get back. And what they find is a community that’s going about the rhythms of agricultural life – it was harvest when they arrived – but with a few twists that showed they were God’s chosen people who were trying to live according to the laws Moses had given them.
In particular, the harvesters were comfortable making space for Ruth to harvest in their fields (“gleaning”), not attempting to maximise their commercial returns but leaving some leftovers for the poor. This was based off this verse in the law:
When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the LORD your God.Leviticus 19:9-10
And Boaz, the wealthy land-owner and love interest in Ruth’s story, goes a step further. Not just following the law as stated – which as Steve pointed out in one of the linked messages – is open to a stingy interpretation. But Boaz leant into the spirit of it, to care for the poor and the stranger:
Let her gather grain right among the sheaves without stopping her. And pull out some heads of barley from the bundles and drop them on purpose for her. Let her pick them up, and don’t give her a hard time!Boaz in Ruth 2
He was also well aware of his both his rights and his responsibilities for caring for his female relatives in a patriarchal society, and again seemed intent to not just do what was required, but to meet the spirit of the law and do what is right.
And that is one of the miracles in this story, I think. Nothing supernatural, but a community of people actually living with the intent to love each other, and love the strangers living amongst them, as God had asked them to do. And taking a big hearted generous approach to that.
And it makes me wonder, what miracles might be possible if our communities choose to live this way: genuinely trying to embrace God’s heart of love and wholeheartedly embracing that as our guide for how to live. What would we do differently? And what would it mean to the people who wander into our midst, perhaps as destitute as the heroines in this story?
If Ruth and Naomi returned as a poor widow and her foreign daughter-in-law, and found a self-seeking community that didn’t leave any leftovers in their field, and didn’t feel any responsibility of care for their extended family… then this story would have been very different. It would have been depressing, unsurprising, probably not worth writing down.
But instead they found a community committed to living the way God had taught them, and that community made generous space for Ruth and Naomi. And nothing supernatural happened – and nothing supernatural was needed! – because there was a miracle of love, abundance, redemption and hope… entirely because the people choose to live God’s love and make it their way of life.
I want to see that story play out in my church, over and over.
(One of the other miracles in the story of Ruth is the beautiful connection between Ruth and Naomi, and their boldness in taking initiative as powerless women in a patriarchal society… but that’s another post. And covered in the messages I linked above!)