If you asked people to name their favourite biblical books, then the Book of Ruth, which we read over Shavuot, would probably figure high among the choices. Its redemptive message of inclusion, about the Moabitess who became progenitor of the Messiah, has made it perennially popular.
It certainly resonates for Rabbanit Ágnes Vetö, who recalls the significance of the moment she stepped from the mikveh on her conversion, to recite Ruth’s pledge of allegiance, “Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.”
She was one of the guest speakers last week at “Revelation”, a six-hour online learnathon staged by Limmud and JW3 for 300 people the day before Shavuot, when her story chimed with the theme of the biblical tale.
But her conversion was more of a homecoming because from one perspective she was already a Jew before it, albeit a “Roman Catholic Jew”.
Raised in Budapest, she explained; “In Hungary Jewishness has nothing to do with Jewish religion. You can be very engaged in a religious tradition that is not Judaism. That was our case.
“In Hungary, Judaism is entirely about ethnicity… Maybe it is about culture. But if either of your parents is Jew, you count as a Jew. It is not going to delete your Jewishness the fact that your father is a Jew and not your mother.
“My father never saw anybody lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night, he never saw a synagogue or knew anybody who went to synagogue or kept kosher. They were culturally Jewish, which they meant they ate cholent every Shabbos — but the meat in the cholent was rabbit they shot during hunting.”
Born three years before the Second World War, her father was an orphan by the end of it, saved along with his brother by a non-Jewish family. Her father was spiitually influenced by her uncle whose church-going was an act of opposition to the secularism of the socialits regime but one day as a teenager underwent a transcendal experience believing that he had levitated during mass.
Though she grew up a practising Catholic, Rabbanit Vetö felt more drawn to her Jewish family on her father’s side. And at Catholic high school, she found “it became fashionable to be a Jew. I desperately wanted to be fashionable. I thought this is a way for me to become a cool kid.”
She started trying to read rabbinic texts and, though it was years later before she could grasp what the Mishnah was getting at, “I was hooked”.
Her wish to be Jewish did not stem from antisemitism, which she had not experienced nor had she “fallen out” with Christianity. Indeed, studying Hebrew, Aramaic and Jewish history at university, she realised that Christianity was “really just a continuation of Judaism… there is nothing in early Christianity that would prove that Jesus himself wanted to create a new religion.” She felt she could let Christianity go without “betraying Jesus.”
Whereas praying in synagogue felt burdensome — “Jewish prayers are very long” — rabbinic texts “brought me closer to God and to other Jews”.
With a few hundred dollars borrowed from friends, after university she set off for Israel, where she hoped to go to a yeshivah in order to study Talmud — easier said than achieved for a woman. But she was able to pursue her studies at Yakar in Jerusalem, the forward-looking Orthodox community founded by Rabbi Micky Rosen of London— and Pardes, the co-educational institute which was happy to teach Talmud to women.
After two or so years of study, she reached the point where she felt “I cannot not convert”. But it had not been an easy decision. “The very idea that I, who was identifying so strongly as a Jew, needed to convert felt to me as an insult and it was very, very painful.”
But once she had made the choice, life became simpler. She completed her conversion in the USA, where she also gained a doctorate in rabbinic literature from New York University.
And just recently she has received semichah from Yeshivat Maharat, the pioneering seminary in New York that ordains Orthodox Jewish women.
Shavuot has a particular meaning for her and not only because of Ruth. As she explained, converts do not enjoy fully equal status in Judaism— for example, in the ketubah, the amount of money due to a woman in the case of divorce is lower for a convert than a native Jewess.
But as expounded in the Midrash, the Torah was given to all Jews on Sinai — not just the Israelites standing around the mountain, but to all Jews throughout time. “There is no distinction between a born Jew and a convert, we are all together on Mount Sinai in an absolute equality,” she said. “All differences are erased.”
When she told her immediate family in Hungary of her intention to convert, they were not best pleased. Hearing the news, her father felt “the earth was opening up in front of him”.
But she appreciated that he “let me go. I think now he has made his peace with it.” When she received her rabbinic ordination last month, “my Dad joined the Zoom celebration and I think he was happy.”