Recognition in the Book of Ruth
by Dr. Rachel Adelman
A graduate of Matan’s M.A. Program in Tanakh, Rachel Adelman went on to complete her PhD in Hebrew Literature (with a specialty in midrash) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She currently teaches Tanakh and Midrash at Matan in Jerusalem, and lectures widely in North America and England. In the fall of 2009, her first book – The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha – was published by Brill. She is currently working on her second: The Female Ruse – Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible. Next year, she will be a Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard University.
The Book of Ruth, I maintain, is the greatest love story in the Tanakh; the most eloquent expression of love is imbedded within the first chapter.
For wherever you go, I will go;
Wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there I will be buried.
Thus and more may the LORD do to me
If anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17, NJPS)
An adaptation of the last line – “till death do us part” – has been integrated into oaths exchanged at the standard, gentile wedding service. Yet this is not a proclamation of love between bride and groom! Those words are not found engraved on tree bark, nor are they recited by a besotted lover from her balcony in the moonlight, but are spoken by the widowed Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law: What Ruth conveys is that her life, her identity, is bound up in the older woman’s – land, people, God. Like Abraham, she will leave behind her homeland, her kin, and her mother and father’s home in Moab to become a “stranger in a land not her own.” Ruth does not do this at the behest of God, but through a process of recognition, expanding her own identity through the eyes of others. It is precisely this process of re-rooting one’s identity which is at the core of love.
Questions of identity constitute a leitmotif in the Book of Ruth. When Naomi returns to Bethlehem, with her Moabite daughter-in-law, the whole city was abuzz, it hummed (va’tehom kol ha-‘ir aleihen), and the women ask, in astonishment: “Can this be Naomi [ha-zot Naomi]?” (1:19). Later Boaz will ask the reapers about the identity of Ruth as she gleans in the fields, “Whose girl is that [le-mi ha-na‘ara ha-zot]?” (2:6); and later, startled at night by her presence in the granary, he asks: “Who are you [mi at]?” (3:8), and Naomi will ask the same, when Ruth returns early the next morning, in a greeting that combines both intimacy and estrangement: “Who are you, my daughter [mi ‘at biti]?” (3:16).
The answer to these questions are addressed, indirectly, through two key verbs – to recognize/acknowledge (lehakir, root: nun.kaf.resh.) and to know (leda‘at, root:yod.dalet.ayin). Boaz is introduced to us as the mod‘a of Naomi’s husband, meaning ‘kinsman’ (or in the ktiv, mey‘uda, ‘the known one’) (Ruth 2:1); and later Naomi will refer to him as “moda‘atenu” (our relative) in 3:2. So while he is the wealthy man, the well-known one, the obvious candidate to redeem Naomi’s lands – the women need to be drawn out of their outsider status – to be recognized by him before the redemption can happen.
In the first conversation between Boaz and Ruth, he tells her, in a tone of paternal care, to stay gleaning in his fields and remain close to the young women, for he has ordered the men not to harass her (2:8-9). She then falls on her face, bowing to the ground, and bursts forth with these astonishing words: “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you acknowledge me, when I am a foreigner [lehakireni v’anokhi nokhriyah]?” (Ruth 2:10). In an elegant word-play, Ruth reveals a deeper meaning to the verb, lehakir – a seeming oxymoron imbedded within it. The root (nun.kaf.resh.), in the hiphil, indeed means “to recognize” or “discern”, but both as a noun, nekhar, and as an adjective,nokhri/nokhriyah, it connotes the one who is “alien/foreign.” Ruth, at that moment, understands that Boaz has seen beyond her status as stranger, beyond the taboo of “Moabite”, in recognizing her. That act, however, does not collapse the gap between them; rather she remains other (stranger). To recognize, as opposed to knowing, “does not abolish the distance between two people but brings that distance to life” (Walter Benjamin on friendship). The self within her, the anokhi, as stranger, nokhriyah, has been embraced by his recognition of her, as he avers: “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:11-12). However lofty, his words strike a distant, impersonal chord.
Only at the threshing floor, will his own identity become transformed, when the gap between them becomes charged. Here the tension between knowing/being known and recognition of the other reaches an apex. Naomi seizes the day,carpe diem, or rather the night, carpe noctem. This is the moment of transformation “just around midnight” (3:8). She tells Ruth that this very night Boaz will be winnowing barley on the fleshing floor as part of the Harvest festival. So the younger woman is to bathe, dress up, and go down to the threshing floor, “but not make herself known to the man [אַל תִּוָּדְעִי לָאִישׁ ] until he has finished eating and drinking” (3:3). Ruth is to uncover his feet and lie down, and rely on what he will “tell [her] to do” (v. 4). Clearly, her stealthy visit to the threshing floor is riskée; if she were discovered, her reputation would be shot. After lying at his feet all night, she must rise up early, before “any man could recognize another [בְּטֶרֶם יַכִּיר אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ]” for Boaz had told her: “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor [אַל יִוָּדַע כִּי בָאָה הָאִשָּׁה הַגֹּרֶן]” (3:14).
She is “not to be known” (i.e. recognized), initially, by Boaz, and later by any other man, yet she must uncover and lie at his feet (in order to ‘be known’ in the carnal sense). She conceals her identity, while revealing, possibly, his nakedness. Much ink has been spilled over the expression “undercover his feet [legalot margelotav]” as a euphemism for sexual relations. Indubitably, along with the verb, “lie down [shakhav]”, Naomi is setting Ruth up for a seduction. What actually happens, however, is a non-seduction – an act of recognition that does not entail the man knowing the woman, in the ‘biblical sense’ of the term:
In the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back-there was a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked. And she replied, “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your wing/robe [kenafekha] over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman [ki goel ata].” (Ruth 3:8-9)
This is not the script that Naomi had in mind. For one, Boaz wakes up startled, and asks: WHO ARE YOU? She then identifies herself as Ruth, his handmaid, and tells him to spread his robe, or rather his wings over her. This is the most amazing statement. She does not wait for him to tell her what to do (as her mother-in-law had instructed), but has taken those lofty (yet impersonal) words that Boaz had uttered in the field, blessing her to be brought under the wings of the God of Israel, and applied it to Boaz himself (2:12). This is no simple marriage proposal (as Rashi claims) – it is a call for him to draw her into the covenantal community. In Ezekiel, to be brought under the wings of love – implies both a marriage and an initiation into the brit, the covenant between God and his people:
I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak/my wings [kenafai] over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord GOD, and you became mine. (Ezek. 16:8)
She hints that his blessing to her – to be brought under the wings of the God of Israel – entails that Boaz behave as the redeemer. She names him: you are thegoel. In so doing, his identity as the distant “known one” is transformed into one who acts out of love, recognizing the ‘stranger,’ Ruth, and offering her a sense of rootedness, of connection, of belonging. At the Gates of the Law, he takes on that responsibility by fusing the role of the redeemer of both land and seed – conceiving through the widowed Ruth a child that Naomi will nurture.
It is highly significant that we read The Book of Ruth on the Day of Matan Torah, commemorating the consummation of the marriage between God and the Jewish People. In the Exodus from Egypt, God bore us on eagles’ wings and brought us to Himself (Exod. 19:4). To ride the wings of an eagle, as a gosling, entails the risk of falling, the risk of being a stranger, unmoored in a strange land, a people wandering the bleak desert terrain towards a Land of Promise they’ve never known. This is the risk Ruth takes. And it is the risk we continually take in accepting the yoke of the Torah. In Moses’ swansong, the prophet describes God’s love for his people: “As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wing, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions” (Deut. 32:11). When we stand before the Eternal Sinai, at Shavuot, in our betrothal to God, we ask that His wings spread before us to catch us if we fall in our fledgling attempts at flight. And God, in turn, promises to betroth/bind us [‘arastikh] to him as his wife forever “in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy” (Hosea 2:19). May we merit to love and to be loved, the wings of the Shekhinah hovering below or above us!