Your People Will Be My People (Ruth)

Ruth 1:16-18

Composition, lyrics and audio © Alexander Massey, 9 Nov 2011

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Vatomeir Rut al-tifgi-bi, l’azveich lashuv meiachara’ich: ki el asher teilchi eileich, uva’asher talini alin – ameich ami, veilohayich elohai; ba’asher tamuti amut, v’sham ekaveir; koh ya’aseh adonai li, v’choh yosif – ki hamavet, yafrid beini uveineich.

And Ruth said: “Do not ask me to leave you, and to turn from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried; may the Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you from me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

My English lyric is a poetic treatment of the moving passage from Ruth where she declares her allegiance to the Israelite people; her words are often considered to be the declaration of her conversion to Judaism. A friend of mine, Rabbi Shefa Gold, gives a wonderful teaching about the idea of conversion to Judaism by calling it a ‘convergence’. I think of it as not so much a rejection of who one has been or the life one has lived, but a coming together of many different strands of one’s life, bringing one’s history (as a ‘dowry’ as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l calls it) and weaving in the thread of a new commitment and deep orientation. ‘Being Jewish’ is complex, and there is deep wisdom in the order of ideas in the Hebrew text. First, allegiance is something that must be strengthened in the fire of adversity. When her husband dies, Ruth asks not to be turned away by Naomi, her mother-in-law. From teachings in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), we learn that potential converts to Judaism (proselytes – or ‘convergers’?) are to be discouraged three times, in order to question and refine their own conviction. Second, Ruth follows her kin (Naomi) – there is an emotional and personal connection that must be made. Third, Ruth identifies with the tribe of her new family; conversion is a commitment to a people (and community) – ameich ami (your people will be my people). Fourth, conversion is commitment to the God of that people, and a particular spiritual and religious heritage and outlook – veilohayich elohai (your God will be my God). Ruth comes to know God through the ways of the people. Judaism is lived; it is a religion of values in action. Fifth, the commitments extend to death and beyond – to be Jewish is to commit to that allegiance forever.

But what is meant by “Your God will be my God”? We know that God cannot be described. And if I cannot know with any accuracy or clarity of definition what or who your God is, how can I say your God will now also be mine? Traditionally, we pray not to ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ but to ‘the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah’; the point is that God was different for each of these people, and by implication, God is different for each of us. God told Moses (Ex 3:14) to introduce Him to the people as ‘I will be what I will be’ (eheyeh asher eheyeh), because (I think) God – the Timeless and Unchanging One – paradoxically presents uniquely to each of us, uniquely in each new moment. I took licence in the closing words of the refrain, adding ‘Your God, my God, they will be One’, an idea not present in the Ruth passage, but central to the Shema, the Jewish affirmation of faith and allegiance to the God of Israel – Adonai echad ‘the Lord is One’ (or the only One). This could also be an echo of Zechariah 14:9 “God will be ruler over all the earth, and in that day God will be One, and God’s name will be One.” Should or could we take the Ruth statement ‘your God will be my God’ literally? I find the idea challenging, but I am deeply moved and persuaded by the poetic force of it.

Parts of the Hebrew have beautiful rhythms and cadences: teilchi eileich, talini alin, ameich ami, veilohayich elohai, tamuti amut. In my English lyric, I aimed to echo these cadences, and then to pick those up in the balancing patterns between the musical phrases; the word emphasis in the musical setting is important for the meaning, often balancing ‘you’ and ‘I’, ‘your’ and ‘my’.

Don’t ever say that I should leave
Or turn from you, or I would grieve.
Where you go, there I will go too.
Where you stay, I will stay with you.

Your people will be my people, and your God my God.
Your people will be my people, and your God, my God: God is One.

Where you die, there I will die.
Where you are buried, there I will lie.
May God do so for all eternity
If else but death parts you and me.

Your people will be my people, and your God my God.
Your people will be my people, and your God, my God: God is One.

As I wrote earlier, my lyric picks up on the central affirmation of God’s Kingship and Oneness in the Shema. The Shema is traditionally recited throughout life (at a birth, in the morning and evening every day), including at the moment of death – which means that echad ‘One’, is the last word that we might speak. At death, we return to the One. It is fitting therefore that the last word of this song, which is a betrothal to the Jewish people and to God, is also ‘One’.

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