Why the Biblical Ruth Would Not Marry Boaz in the State of Israel

Israel never wanted to become Israeli: this is the tragic paradox of a nationalism that never dared to become one. What would it mean to become Israeli? It would mean for the state to let the diversity of definitions of Jewishness flourish and expand; it would mean building a common culture ample enough to become a meeting point for Jews and non-Jews. This would strengthen its democracy and, ironically, its Jewishness as well.

Since its creation, Israel has tried to square the circle – to be Jewish and democratic, hoping to achieve what all nations want to achieve: to offer a universalist abstract legal framework that is inclusive and equalitarian, while giving a sense of particular historical community and destiny to the people living in its midst. Yet let’s be frank: Israel has failed, even if its failure is a noble one.

Why did Israel fail so admirably? Jews have been persecuted, excluded, and killed both as members of a religion and as members of a people. Because of this, Zionism was intent on providing a national home and political sovereignty to members of the Jewish religion and to the members of the Jewish people. It intended to provide a home for them not as an ethnocracy but as a democracy, a form of power that represents the people living in a territory, in all their diversity and complexity. Yet, it was unable to do so because citizenship, especially the one that would be granted by the state to new immigrants, depended so much on who was a Jew.

But the peoples that make up nations are complex entities. In Israel, this complexity is two-fold: The nation was constituted on a territory that included Arabs. For reasons we cannot accept but can understand, Arabs were ab origine excluded from the definition of the Jewish state. If Israel was to be the national home of Jews who had been obscenely persecuted, the incipient nation needed to affirm and assert its peoplehood. The second complexity is no less daunting as the definition of the people the state was supposed to represent is highly elusive, diverse, and controversial. I focus on the latter question, bearing in mind that it has powerful implications for the first.


The question of what makes the Asantes, Tutsis, or Jews what they are – their identity – has objective and subjective answers[1]: it can be constituted by objective criteria, as common descent or ancestry (for example DNA analysis traces most Jews back to the Middle East) or by a practice (e.g., worshipping the same God in the same language); identity can also be constituted by the subjective identification of individuals with a group (the biblical Ruth being the paradigmatic example of such subjective identification). Sometimes, groups emphasize the objective dimension of their identity, especially when they want to protect it from being too permeable. For example, from the second century CE, rabbinical Judaism ruled and codified that matrilineal descent was to decide the Jewishness of a baby.[2] In so doing, rabbis were introducing a quasi-objective dimension to define Jewishness. Blood filiation (which became a major way of thinking about group boundaries and group identities in Medieval Europe) became a main way of thinking of membership to the Jewish people. Primo Levi recounted how when he arrived in the concentration camp, Ashkenazi Jews did not view him as a Jew because he did not speak Yiddish.[3] Here language served as a quasi-objective criteria for membership. Indeed, in their eyes, he was not Jewish. On the other hand, Marranos (Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism in Spain) were outwardly practicing Catholicism, while feeling inwardly Jewish, and thus enacted a subjective definition of Jewishness (similarly, people can claim affiliation with Christianity through subjective identification only). Most often, objective and subjective definitions of identity do not fit and generate identity questions, tensions, and management. Less frequently, they almost perfectly overlap, as is the case with ultra-Orthodoxy.

Modernity has further complicated these tensions. In disentangling Jewishness from religion, it lay bare both the multi-dimensionality of the Jewish people and the arbitrariness of the early rabbis’ definition. Jews have very different ethnicities (for example they can be of Arab or European ethnic groups, commonly referred to as Sephardim or Ashkenazim); they can belong to different nationalities, since there are American or French Jews who do not speak the same language nor share the same culture; Jews can also be of all races (Caucasian, Black, Asian) as well as of uncertain race (they were considered non-white during most of the 20th century). They can also worship God in very many different ways, as the range of religious practices from Reform Judaism to ultra-Orthodoxy can attest. This multiplicity of dimensions makes Jewishness highly elusive, rich, and versatile. When it wanted to decide to whom to grant citizenship, Israel resorted to the objective definition of the rabbis.


Israel wanted to achieve what all nations want to achieve: it wanted to build fair institutions and a national culture that would bind its members in all their diversity. In addition, it also wanted to be a shelter state to persecuted Jews throughout the world (only Armenia has a similar relationship to its diaspora today). Most democratic countries in the world have tried to establish objective criteria for citizenship but have not attempted to define the nature of the identity of the group, letting it become the result of an evolving common and national culture. Yet rather quickly after its foundation, Israel did just that, and asked quite explicitly who was a Jew, because it wanted to regulate more clearly the fuzziness and diversity of its population. In 1958, Ben Gurion asked 51 scholars  (all men!) who was a Jew. Who, in other words, was entitled to live in Israel’s territory under the Law of Return? This action was a strange act of reflexivity and a testimony both to the odd confusion of Jewish identity and to the desire to obtain clarity. It also showed the dependence of the state on an a priori definition of who is a Jew, the latter being perceived as equivalent with the identity of the nation itself. No country I am aware of, has undertaken an official, explicit, direct inquiry in the definition of the nature of the people supposed to constitute it. Who could define who or what is a French or an American? These definitions vary so much that they are ultimately irrelevant to the conduct of the state. But not in Israel in which the response to the question held no surprise because the state ultimately deferred to the rabbis. Jews were whatever rabbinical authorities had defined as Jews, someone born of a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism according to rabbinical orthodoxy. This response has had the strength of a tautology and the force of objectivity since the rabbis have declared that a Jew is a fact, not a choice. This definition disagreed with one answer given by one of the 51 people asked, the great judge Haim Cohn, who allowed far more amply for subjective definitions of Jewishness (allowing for example parents to decide whether their child could or could not be registered as Jew when immigrating to Israel).

Identities are complex and shifting and Jewishness is more so than most, given the fact that Jews transcend barriers of nation, ethnicity, and religious practice. The tensions between objective and subjective definitions of Jewishness have accompanied the state of Israel. Such tensions are not, to be sure, only specific to Israel.  Are Corsicans, French or are they, as they claim, a different, unique people? Are Basques, French or Spanish or neither? The true response to this question is: who knows?; depends who you ask; depends under which administrative jurisdiction they fall; depends on whom they are fighting. Identities, contrary to what one may think, are shifting sands; they are murky and slippery terrains. This is why the biblical Ruth is the paradigm of  identity: of all biblical characters, she is the most anti rabbinical, she shows best that identities are not fixed, they are left, entered into, negotiated, freely chosen, and valid once they are recognized by others. This is what makes identities rich and expansive. This is what makes a people a living, breathing entity. But there is an additional point: with all the murkiness of their identity, Corsicans and French live together, not in spite but because they have left undecided the question of what Corsican identity is. It is because Naomi did not ask Ruth for her birth certificate, that the latter could join Naomi’s people and marry Boaz. That’s how groups live together: by joining them de facto, by leaving undiscussed and undefined a great deal of what binds them and what defines them. Identity is rarely set in stone. This is also why it is deeply political and politicized. Had we chosen Haim Cohn’s definition of Jewishness, we would have had a very different country. Choose one definition of Jewishness, you have one country. Choose another and you have a different country. These definitions are highly political constructs. Israel and the rabbis who have defined Jewish identity, live under the illusion that Jews are entities with real, objective, definite properties and that they should be defined with such hard properties. But the opposite is true. It is Israel’s definition of Jewishness that creates the entities living in its midst (for example, religious nationalists and a certain brand of ultra-Orthodoxy are purely Israeli constructs).

Citizenship is one of the most guarded and privileged exercises of state power. It defines who can enter into a territory, who can stay in it, who can benefit from the state’s resources and who cannot; how the state connects to its resident non-citizens; how it draws the boundary between the people living inside the country and those outside; how the nation and its people expand; how it opens up to the world; how it regenerates itself through intermarriage and population mixing.

De facto, Israel opted for a mixed definition of citizenship: it was based on jus soli, since Arabs who had remained in Israel were granted citizenship, but it was mostly and mainly jus sanguinis that came to dominate, since the Law of Return was exclusively for the Jews (many countries have such mixed regimes of citizenship). Faced with the diversity of subjective and objective dimensions of Jewishness, when it decided to let the rabbis decide the content of Jewishness, the Israeli state opted for what Johann Fichte (who formalized jus sanguinis) called “objective nationality,” which, for him, was based on “blood, race, or language.” Israel wanted an objective nationality and found it in the rabbinical definition, but with a twist: those with only one Jewish grand-parent could qualify for return (citizenship); yet, these same citizens could not marry inside the state if they did not correspond to the traditional definition of rabbinical Judaism. In other words, the secular state had the prerogative to define who could enter its borders and be registered as Israeli; but when it came to deciding of the mode of transmission of this right, it deferred the definition to the rabbis. In this way, it instituted a rather peculiarly mixed political and cultural regime, one based on nationality (which included a loose, broad definition of Jewishness) and one based on a highly restrictive religious definition of Jewishness and citizenship controlled by rabbis to whom was left the most important prerogative of the state. There are two striking points here, one obvious and the other less so. First, rabbis were given absolute power in the key realm of what Michel Foucault could have called bio-power rights, rights that concern life itself, such as birth, marriage, divorce, and death. The second point is that the Israeli state-based definition of Jewishness was obviously inferior to the religious one since it granted fewer rights. The first granted economic and political rights; the second granted all of them, that is, political, economic, and bio-power rights. Note that the first definition of Jewishness corresponds to the secular rationale and rationality of a state that aims to increase its power through population growth. The second corresponds to the right of entry and membership to a more primordial definition of a people, highly restrictive and busy excluding others on the basis of a vision of the purity of that people. It thus created, inside the Jewish people, two distinct categories of citizens, perhaps in fact more.

Jews from the former Soviet Union are Jewish enough to enter and be drafted, but not Jewish enough to be buried as Jews. In a report for the Jewish People Policy Institute, Shuki Friedman states: “The current situation in which 1.2 million Israelis [from the former Soviet Union] are branded by suspicions as to their Jewish and Israeli identity, and serve as a punching bag for public officials who are the formal representatives of Judaism in Israel, is intolerable, and demands radical and immediate change.”[4] Israel never relinquished the primordial definition of Jewishness based on the religious view of the purity of the people and was blind to the fact that such a definition was fundamentally inimical to two political facts: democracy and state power.


For most of its history, Judaism evolved as a minority religion, which, for its own theological reasons, was an identity religion intent on preventing Jews from assimilating or being confused with non-Jews. Exquisitely complex dietary laws, filiation laws, and conversion laws have revolved around the attempt to block the intermixing of Jews with non-Jews, an admirable goal for a persecuted minority determined to keep its culture alive. Historically, the main vocation of Judaism has been to protect its members from assimilation. To this end, its laws forbid the entry of strangers into the religion and prohibit contact between Jews and non-Jews, all of this based on a hierarchy of human beings. When practiced in the private sphere, none of the injunctions to separation called for by Judaism are anti-democratic. They have a deep theological meaning (for example keeping the covenant with God) which individuals may be free to embrace. When these beliefs move to the public sphere, however, their content must be scrutinized and reveal a conflict with the basic tenets of democracies.[5]

Can such a religion, constructed as a minority religion, be transposed to the majority culture of a democracy? The answer is simple: a religion obsessed with the fear of assimilation, mixity and contact with the other cannot provide the basis for a democratic collective. Democracies have at least three defining features: they are universalist and posit the fundamental equality of all human beings; they are inclusive, as they aim to include all social groups in the social covenant; and they crucially separate state from religion, because only such separation ensures that the state can arbitrate fairly in case of conflict and regulate the relationship between its majority population and its minorities. This presumed neutrality of the state also enables it to build a common culture, which enables various groups to identify with the body collective. Even if such neutrality is imperfectly achieved, it keeps social peace. All great democracies are based on such universalist definitions of human beings as well as the separation of state and religion (the differences between American and French universalism should not hide their very deep similarities in this respect). A state based on a primordial definition of the identity of its citizens cannot fulfill these two key features of democracies.

That religion and democracy do not mix very well should not come as big surprise. A less discussed aspect of this state of affairs, is that it actually weakens the state in its capacity to forge a national culture, and thus ultimately undercuts its own power – the state becomes a shell devoid of any real content in the hands of groups who use it instrumentally, in order to extract resources from it but do not view it as a source of cultural and moral authority. Ultimately, such a religious grip on the state undermines the very meaning and goal of nationalism. Why is that the case?

Originally, nationalism was a universalist project in the sense that it promised a horizontal brotherhood.[6] It abolished clanic membership and aimed to create a new form of community, beyond class, ethnicity, and religion. That is why nationalism, historically, went well with democracy. We forget this because we confuse nationalism and its racist versions. Modern states have drawn their power from their capacity to create horizontal forms of brotherhood and from their capacity to regulate social conflict. Religious states are efficient only when the population living under its power is homogeneous and when it makes no claim to democratic rights; but religious states who legislate over diverse groups who view themselves as entitled to equal treatment, cannot fail to engineer fragmentation and strife, because such states take sides and cannot be the arbiter of social, cultural, and religious conflict. An illustration? Fifty years ago, Israel could claim to represent the entire Jewish people, inside and outside Israel; today, it has lost its power and legitimacy among the variety of Jewish communities throughout the world. What it seems to have gained in economic and technological power, it has lost in its representation of the people.

Israel never wanted to become Israeli: this is the tragic paradox of a nationalism that never dared to become one. What would it mean to become Israeli? It would mean for the state to let the diversity of definitions of Jewishness flourish and expand; it would mean building a common culture ample enough to become a meeting point for Jews and non-Jews. This would strengthen its democracy and, ironically, its Jewishness as well.

Instead of privileging the multiplicity of identities, Israel decided to institute a regime of permanent definition of Jewishness controlled by rabbinical orthodoxy. Ruth, the ancestor of the Jewish messiah would have never been allowed to marry Boaz or to stay in Israel after her visa expired.

Professor Eva Illouz is a sociologist and the Academic Director of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris. A member of the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she holds the University’s Rose Isaac Chair in Sociology. She is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Van Leer Institute.

[1] Appiah, K. A. (2018). The Lies That Bind: Rethinking identity. Profile Books.

[2] Ohen, S. (1985). The Origins of the Matrilineal Principle in Rabbinic Law. AJS Review, 10(1), 19-53.

[3] Primo Levi Le devoir de Memoire, conversation with Federico Cereja and Anna Bravo

[4] jppi.org.il/en/article/the-chief-rabbinate-of-israel-vs-the-jews/#.YybewnaxU2w

[5] The same can be said about Evangelicals in the USA who pose a real threat to democracy precisely because of their relentless attempts to extricate religion from the private sphere and turn into the arbiter of ideological conflict in the public sphere. See Philip S Gorski and Samuel L Perry, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[6] Smith, A. D. (1979). Nationalism in the twentieth century. Australian National University Press.