The Book of Ruth: An Exploration of Jewish Femininity, Tzipporah Heller



(Adapted from a lecture by Tsiporah Heller entitled, “Great Women: Ruth and Naomi”)

PART 1 OF 2:

The book of Ruth takes place towards the end of what is known as the Era of Judges. Throughout this period there was virtually no central government in Israel. What prevented anarchy was a deep allegiance to Torah. Every city had its court to administer the Torah’s laws, and there were exemplary leaders known as judges, who people would follow. The last of these was a man named Boaz, whose name means, “the one who is daring.”

The Book of Ruth begins towards the end of the Era of Judges, with a famine, which according to the Midrash, was one of ten caused by God for spiritual purpose – as a test of faith. (The others included: a famine when Adam was expelled from Eden and those that took place during the eras of the three Patriarchs). The famine was meant to create a situation whereby people would be joined by their suffering, however, in this case the opposite happened.

Enter the family of Naomi, whose husband Elimelech, was one of the leaders of the generation, a man of great wealth and highly developed character who made a mistake. During this famine, Elimelech was besieged by people in need, and left Israel for the adjoining kingdom of Moab. The Moabites were known for two qualities – cruelty and promiscuity.

When Elimelech decided to depart for Moab, Naomi faced the choice of whether to accompany her husband to this depraved country, or to stay in Israel without him. Although she wanted to remain behind (and Jewish law would have allowed her to do so), she chose to go with her husband. Once in Moab, Naomi lost everything. Elimelech died, and her two sons married non-Jewish women – and then died. The Book of Ruth tells us that at this point Naomi was old and penniless, whereas she had arrived wealthy and of high status. Nonetheless, rather than give up on life, Naomi “rose up” and decided to return to Israel. Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, wanted to accompany her on this journey. Naomi, however, discouraged them. Given their Moabite roots, Naomi did not know whether they would be a good spiritual fit with the Jewish people, and she was willing to sacrifice her own well being on the trip for this reason.

(In Naomi’s effort to discourage her daughters-in-law we see the template for a rabbi’s response to someone who approaches him seeking conversion. Today when a gentile seeks to convert, it is the rabbi’s duty to discourage him or her. The rabbi is obligated to tell a prospective convert three things: first, that the mitzvot – obligations of a Jew – are difficult and expensive. If the individual still persists, the next thing the rabbi will say is, “You can convert in but you can’t convert out. This is a one-way trip and you can be a decent person without taking it.” Only Judaism believes that a person can be decent without “being a member of the club”. If the person still persists, the rabbi finally responds, “You’re going to be a member of a persecuted people”).

In the Book of Ruth, after Naomi discourages her daughters-in-law, the text (1:14) tells us that Orpah kissed her, while Ruth clung to her. Kissing reflects the will to love and be loved, beyond just physical sensation. Clinging to someone is completely different. It has to do with deeds, thought and speech. Orpah wanted the feeling of closeness; Ruth wanted a deeper closeness. Orpah ultimately left Naomi in order to remain in Moab. The Midrash tells us that she spent that very night with many men and a dog. In rabbinic literature, the dog is used as a symbol of chutzpa. We are told that in the era prior to the Messianic age, the face of the generation will be as full of chutzpa the face of the dog. In order to best understand this image, visualize a man walking down the street with a pet sheep. In this case, the man would be in front; the sheep in back. A man walking down the street with his pet dog, by contrast, follows the dog. The dog perceives itself to be a leader even though it is not a leader.

A dog is a symbol of a being that is empty. Even though Orpah was a great woman who had lived a Jewish life as the wife of one of Elimelech’s sons for the past ten years, her decision to leave Naomi perpetuated her spiritual decline. Consequently Orpah sought out a partner of lesser character. What she wanted and found was the kind of person who is a dog. This is the invariable consequence of going from relationship to relationship, from person to person. Four generations later, Orpa’s great great grandson faced off with Ruth’s great great grandson. Orpah’s great great grandson was Goliath. Ruth’s great great grandson was David. Goliath was known for his enormous physical presence. He got up in the morning to mock the God of Israel and was not for anything, only against. There was no inner conscience whatsoever – all outside, no inside. David was the extreme opposite. He was so physically unimposing that when the prophet Samuel visited David’s father, Yishai and announced, “I’ve had a vision and God said one of your sons will be king,” the Yishai did not present David amongst his other sons. When the prophet asked, “Don’t you have any other sons,” Yishai responded, “No, there’s only David!”.

In contrast to the limitations that Orpah’s choice reveal about her character, the merit of Ruth’s choice to remain with Naomi is best examined by looking at the text. Ruth said to Naomi (1:1617), “Don’t entreat me to leave and to go back from behind you because wherever you go, I’ll go. Wherever you sleep, I’ll sleep. Your people is my people, your God is my God. Where you die, I’ll die and there I’ll be buried…” The Midrash tells us that Ruth’s words answer implicit statements from Naomi, as follows:

“Where you go, I’ll go”: The Midrash explains this is an answer to Naomi’s question, “Will you keep the laws that limit how far you can travel on Shabbat?” The background to this question is that, wherever one is when Shabbat begins, Jewish law limits his or her mobility to the edge of the city, plus another mile. Naomi points this out as a significant hardship in Jewish observance, due to the limitations it places on individual freedom. Humans are always going somewhere, at will. The first thing that Naomi tells Ruth is, as a Jew, your sense of mission has to be so strong that your decision of where to be has something to do with God, rather than with your own agenda. Ruth replies, “Okay, where you go, I’ll go.”

“Where you sleep, I’ll sleep.” Naomi explains to Ruth the laws of “yichud,” which forbid a woman to be in absolute isolation with a man. In contrast to the permissiveness of contemporary society, Jewish law limits the opportunity for a man and woman to be alone together, if they are not married to one another. For instance, they are not allowed to sleep in the same house, if they are to be the only people there. The laws of yichud are challenging because they presuppose that none of us is perfect and that we are all under suspicion. By contrast, contemporary society tends to hold a double standard: while it is largely sexual and promiscuous, there is a sense of denial about this fact. There is an assumption that of course it is safe to be with anybody under any circumstance, because nobody would ever cross a line. The opposite is often the case. The laws of yichud take into account the reality that human beings are easily tempted. By explaining these laws to Ruth, Naomi implies that a Jewish life openly takes into account this fallibility in human nature.

“Your people are my people.” The Midrash explains that Naomi revealed to Ruth the laws of kashrut which, in effect, keep the Jewish people separate from other nations. While this separateness in not the reason for the mitzva of kashrut (which is not revealed to us by the Torah), keeping kosher effectively puts a damper on certain types of social interaction between Jews and non-Jews, involving food and drink. This is purposeful and allows a Jew to focus on his or her mission as a Jew, which is separate from that of the other nations. The purpose of the Jewish people is to give spiritual direction to the world through our example. God says in the Torah, “I’ve chosen you to be a holy nation and a nation of priests.” Ruth responds to Naomi, “I’ll take your kashrut. I’ll accept that Jews are different.” This is a major statement.

“Your God is my God” In today’s politically correct society, standards of “tolerance” have led to the inclusion of much that is inappropriate or even dangerous. In fact, nobody who has a strong sense of morality could possibly afford to be “tolerant”. It is on this basis that Ruth’s statement “Your God is my God,” implies that she no longer accepts the validity of every existing belief system.

“Where you die, I’ll die. Where you’re buried, I’ll be buried.” In Judaism people make a very big deal about a yartzheit (the anniversary of an individual’s death). Judaism sees death as the most significant day of a person’s life. Being born is no big deal, since one does not make a choice to be born, whereas the person who you are the day you die is the person you built.

Naomi tells Ruth that conversion to Judaism does not guarantee success in life. The Torah sets high standards for human conduct, and failure to achieve them is always a possibility. Ruth chooses, nonetheless, to accompany her mother-in-law into the land of Israel. What happens to them there, and how they develop themselves will be explored in our next class…

PART 2 OF 2:

In our previous class, we left Ruth and Naomi on the border of Israel, poised to re-enter the land from which Naomi had departed an aristocrat and was about to return to a pauper. Ruth has committed to Judaism, in spite of Naomi’s challenges to her decision. In this class we follow their story…

Once in Israel, Ruth – a convert and a foreigner – sustains herself and Naomi as best she can, by gathering gleanings from fields in Bethlehem. She is able to do so, because Torah law mandates that every person who owns a field must leave gleanings from the harvest – as well as a corner of the field itself – for collection by the poor. (The Torah rationale for this type of charity is that it gives the person who is collecting gleanings a sense of purpose, while it instills in the field owner an understanding that his property belongs ultimately not to him, but to G-d).

Enter a man named Boaz, recently widowed, and the owner of the field where Ruth is gleaning. Boaz is a leader of his generation – a judge – whose formal residence is in Jerusalem, but who is in Bethlehem for his wife’s funeral and to inspect his fields at harvest. Boaz notices Ruth, from among hundreds of people in the field. According to the Midrash, she stands out as the only one bending her knees to glean, in order to expose less of her legs, rather than bending from her back. While, according to the more promiscuous standards of Ruth’s Moabite background this gesture might have been considered a wasted effort, from a Jewish point of view it demonstrates to Boaz the important Jewish quality of “tsniut” – modesty. Ruth has, in essence, fully embraced the more dignified standards at the heart of her new Jewish life. What’s more, from Moabite society which valued “me,” with a capital “M,” Ruth has transformed herself to a point where she is committed to laboring in the fields in order to support her mother-in-law.

Boaz approaches Ruth, encourages her to return to his field as often as she needs to, introduces her to the other women who work for him, arranges for gleanings to be left for her on purpose and basically goes his way. Meanwhile, Naomi already knows of Boaz and is aware of the fact that he is Ruth’s great uncle, forty years her senior. Their family connection is significant to Naomi, in light of the Torah law of “yibum,” which obligates one of the male relatives of a man who died before having children to marry his widow. This takes place in order to bring down the soul of the dead man through the life of the new couple’s future child. Ruth’s husband had died and left her childless, so Naomi sees Boaz as a candidate for Ruth, according to the laws of yibum.

Ruth’s contemplated match, however, might be construed as problematic by the surrounding society, since Torah law states that a Jew cannot marry a Moabite. While the Oral tradition is that this mandate does not include women, most people at the time the story of Ruth takes place are unaware of this fact.

Naomi suggests that Ruth appear that night on the threshing floor, where all of the workers including Boaz would be sleeping, in order to be as close as possible to the fields at a critical time in the harvest. She instructs Ruth to uncover Boaz’s feet so as to wake him and set the process of “yibum” in motion. From Ruth’s point of view, the plan is problematic, not only because it is unconventional, but because the marriage of a Moabite to a Jew is unlikely (as explained above). What’s more, such a brash approach runs counter to Ruth’s innate modesty, which is what so impressed Boaz in the first place. While Ruth’s conduct would be for all the right reasons, she is concerned that he may view her behavior as inappropriate and then be unwilling to marry her. This would leave Ruth without a way to bring a child into the world for the sake of her deceased husband.

In spite of the obvious obstacles, Ruth consents to Naomi’s plan, doing so not for her own sake, but for the sake of her husband in the hope that she will be able to bring his soul back into the world, through her offspring. This gesture of kindness and the risk she is willing to take for her husband demonstrate the extent of Ruth’s transformation from Moabite to Jew. Ultimately, the plan works. Boaz awakens and Ruth successfully confronts him with her request for marriage. Their union produces a lineage that leads to King David and eventually will bring the Moshiach. Their marriage merits this lineage because of its purity of intentions and the greatness of the two individuals involved.

For the contemporary Jewish woman, Ruth and Naomi are not only ancient heroines, but role models with relevant lessons to share. Naomi, who refused to be depressed in the face of adversity, can inspire us to seek answers in those places upon which we have turned our backs. On a practical level this might mean facing our past, in order to create for ourselves a better future, or even embracing those close to us who do not necessarily see eye to eye with our own opinions. In this way, we build, rather than destroy, which is exactly what Naomi managed to do.

Ruth, who created for herself a life of dignity, inspires us to assess our own surroundings and to transcend their less desirable aspects. By doing so, we free ourselves to make decisions about who we are, based on what we inherently know about ourselves, rather than what we are told we should be. From this process we emerge unique individuals, surprising ourselves – even delighting ourselves – with an ongoing discovery of our deepest gifts.

Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.


One response »

  1. Pingback: מדינת כל נאנסיה « אני נגד. ככה. הבלוג של זיו.

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