Contemporary psalms
This week's portion: Ways of counting - at Jewess!

Returning where we've never been

This post was initially written as a combination paper and sermon last year. It's long -- about 3000 words -- but as we approach Shavuot, when Ruth is traditionally studied, I wanted to share it here.

A young widowed woman, an outsider technically forbidden to enter into the house of Israel: Ruth seems an unlikely figure to star in her own book of Torah.

There's some emotional baggage weighting the relationship between Moab and Israel. In Deuteronomy we read that Moab and Israel must remain separate. Though the grandchildren of Edomites and Egyptians are permitted to join the community, Moabites and Ammonites never can, because of their former cruelties. Yet in this story Ruth, a Moabite woman, enters Israel as a foreign daughter-in-law, and becomes the ancestor of King David. There's a turnabout, a significant shift which the story never explicitly addresses but which is nonetheless at the story's heart.

On the surface, the book of Ruth is a simple one, a short story about a young woman who follows her mother-in-law into a new world and whose kindness is repaid a thousandfold. But there's more to Ruth than the pshat (surface) narrative. In Ruth's actions and their repercussions we can find teachings about how to transgress -- literally, to cross over -- wisely and well.

Ruth begins in the days when the chieftains ruled, a Wild West era of unlawful action. There has been a famine in the land. Elimelech ("My God is King") took his wife Naomi ("Pleasant") out, away from Bethlehem ("the House of Bread.") He fathered two sons in the foreign land of Moab, but then he died. These sons married local women, and then both of them died, too.

All of this is effectively prologue. When the real story begins, Naomi is in dire straits. Her husband and sons are dead, and though one daughter-in-law has sworn to stay by her side Naomi is unable to see Ruth's presence as a blessing. The two women journey empty-handed to Bethlehem, a painful homecoming for Naomi. "Do not call me Naomi," she chastises her old friends. "Call me Mara,  for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty." Naomi renames herself "Bitter," feeling devoid of hope and utterly alone.

To her credit, Ruth doesn't say, "Stop wallowing!" (Ruth also doesn't say, "What am I, chopped liver?") Ruth simply cares for Naomi, compassionate even in the face of her mother-in-law's inability to recognize her loyalty. In poet Alicia Ostriker's midrashic retelling, Ruth muses[1], "Greeted with joy on her return by her townspeople, she announces that she is empty. It is I then who must fill her."

Naomi is paralyzed by depression, and it falls to Ruth to finagle a way to keep the two women alive. Ruth seeks a place to glean, and in a stroke of luck she happens upon the field owned by Boaz, a relative of her father-in-law Elimelech. From Boaz she receives a blessing, a meal, and an invitation to glean solely in his fields. (He even instructs his men to pull up some extra grain and leave it for her.) Ruth comes home laden with sustenance for her mother-in-law and for herself.

Ruth's proactiveness changes Naomi in subtle ways. By chapter three, Naomi is able to say "Daughter, I must seek a home for you, where you may be happy." Because Ruth has cared for her, Naomi is able to struggle free from the cocoon of depression and to guide Ruth along a path which will lead to happiness and safety.

One of the narrative peaks of the book comes when Ruth follows Naomi's instructions and sneaks into Boaz's barn late one harvest night. Sated with bread and with beer, and exhausted from work, the men are sacked-out on the fragrant hay. Ruth uncovers Boaz, and lies at his feet. He wakes, startled, and whispers, "who are you?" This isn't just the confusion of darkness;  he's asking an ontological question. Boaz is no longer young, and in Ruth's gesture he sees an unexpected kindness.

(I'm reminded of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, in which the blind Mr. Rochester asks Jane desperately "Who is it? What is it? Who speaks?"[2] Jane quotes the Song of Songs in telling Mr. Rochester "the rain is over and gone," and when she indicates her willingness to stay with him he replies "God bless you and reward you!" --  a hint of Boaz's words to Ruth, "Be blessed of the Lord, daughter!")

But before Boaz can bless Ruth, she must identify herself in response to his question. "I am your handmaid Ruth," she says, though on no literal level is she his maidservant. She recognizes that Boaz is asking a deep question, so her answer functions on a deep level. Ruth doesn't respond with a surface answer -- "I'm Ruth" or "I'm the Moabite" -- but rather with a self-description that places her in relationship with the man who speaks.

In Ostriker's midrash, Ruth's answer is even deeper: "I am a foreigner, am a bridge, am the erasure of borders. I am ready to be redeemed."[3]

Though the words Ostriker imputes to Ruth may be implied in the text, the Tanakh depicts her saying simply, "Spread your robe (canaf'cha) over your handmaid." Ruth asks Boaz to clothe her in his garments as a sign of commitment. Her comment hearkens back to Boaz's words in chapter two: "May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings (canafav) you have sought refuge!" Boaz praised her for taking refuge beneath God's wings; now she invites Boaz to protect her in that same capacity.

Then comes the second half of her response: "for you are a redeeming kinsman." Boaz asks who she is; in response, she tells him who he is, and who he is meant to become.

Ruth's character is something of a blank canvas. She becomes first what Naomi needs (a healer, a caretaker) and then what Boaz needs (a dependent who enables him to find strength; a devoted wife.) Ruth is the agency through which the other characters change. In her relationship with Naomi and with Boaz, Ruth does something remarkable: she allows others to discover their go'el capacity, their power to transform themselves and others.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky points out that "God never acts in the book of Ruth. Nevertheless, God is very present in the characters' minds and they perceive God's Providence in the working out of their destiny."[4] One critical piece of Ruth's destiny is the neat way she takes advantage of the Torah's teachings about levirate marriage. As Cynthia Ozick explains:

The levirate law in Israel -- like the rule for gleaners -- is designed to redeem the destitute. The reapears may not sweep up every stalk in the meadow; some of the harvest must be left behind for bread for the needy. And if a woman is widowed, the circle of her husband's kin must open their homes to her; in a time when the sole protective provision for a woman is marriage, she must have a new husband from her dead husband's family -- the relative closest to the husband, a brother if possible. Otherwise what will become of her? Dust and cinders. [5]

It is the obligation of the dead man's family to redeem a widow left childless. Boaz is a kinsman to the late Elimelech; is it then his responsibility to care for Ruth?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, Ozick's explanation is correct: a husband's kinsman must care for his widow, and if that kinsman fathers a son the son is considered the descendant of the man who the kinsman has replaced. On the proverbial other hand, the whole notion of levirate marriage arguably doesn't apply here, because Ruth is not an Israelite. Ruth is, as the text takes care to remind us again and again, a Moabite -- a person forbidden to enter into the house of Israel in the first place! She is a foreigner; Boaz is not obligated to marry her. Indeed, arguably their union is forbidden.

The authorship of Ruth is unknown, and its date is difficult to establish. Maybe it was written between the time of King David and the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel (950-700 BCE); maybe it was written soon after the return from Babylon (586-500 BCE.)[6] If it was written during the return from Babylon, it can be read as an answer to a major question of the day: "What should be the relationship between those who returned and those who came with them, wives for instance, who had joined them in Babylon and had not originally come from Judah?" [7]

Ezra argued that only those who had returned from Babylon were true Israelites, and urged the men of the community to separate from their foreign wives. But Isaiah argued that foreigners who have attached themselves to Israel and to God were welcome at the Temple and need not be separated-out. If we accept the later date of composition, Ruth can be read in support for Isaiah's stance, and in rebuke to Ezra's point of view.

Julia Kristeva argues that Ruth "unsettles the order she joins."[8] Her marriage into the house of Israel secures Israel's future (because she will be the ancestor of David), but also breaks the homogeneity of Israel. In this way, explains Bonnie Honig, Ruth does a great service to the Israelites: "she disabuses them of their fantasies of identity and makes them more open to difference and otherness." In other words, Ruth's entrance into the Israelite community does the Israelites the favor of showing them that their community is permeable...and, implicitly, that this permeability can have deeply positive repercussions. 

"Ruth is the vehicle through which the Law comes alive again generations after the death of the lawgiver, Moses," Honig notes. "Ruth's immigration and conversion reperform the social contract of Sinai and allow the Israelites to reexperience their own initial conversion, faith, or wonder before the Law." When Ruth chooses membership in the community of Israel, she reminds the Israelites how much there is to value in their own culture.

In his book Common Prayers [which I reviewed here], Christian minister Harvey Cox -- married to a Jewish woman -- posits a place for himself within "the Court of the Gentiles,"[9] an image he borrows from the second Temple era.

Such a court is, in Cox's words, "a wide-open space, still sacred but in a different way, in which all the children of God can enter, mix with one another, and benefit in whatever way they can from its atmosphere." Cox's vision of the second Temple may be a re-vision, but it's one I think is implicitly supported by a liberal reading of the book of Ruth, in which the House of Israel benefits deeply from its semi-permeable boundaries.

Ruth has much to teach about how we should behave. Throughout the book, the major characters are paragons of kindness. Ruth's kindness to Naomi and Boaz is repaid by Boaz's kindness to Naomi and to Ruth -- and that reciprocal extension of self leads inexorably to Ruth and Boaz's marriage and hence to the lineage of David, psalmist and king and symbol of hope. The traditional understanding of levirate marriage may exclude foreigners like Ruth, but the text's treatment of her marriage to Boaz shows how a kind of redemption arises in our leaps of lovingkindness, even when those leaps go contrary to the conventional wisdom about who we ought to be.

Another lesson implicit in the book of Ruth is its abundance of blessings. Boaz and his workers greet one another with blessing. Boaz blesses Ruth not once but twice. Naomi blesses Boaz in speaking to Ruth. In chapter four the people and elders at the gate offer a benediction that Ruth be like Israelite foremothers Rachel and Leah. (They also offer the blessing that this new household be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah -- a comparison that legitimates this not-exactly-levirate ge'ulah.) When Obed is born, the women bless God. And in the end, because Obed is the ancestor of David, the lineage proves a blessing to the community.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky sees significance in this overflowing of blessings. "The characters in the book of Ruth," she points out, "themselves act to fulfil the blessings that they bestow on one another in the name of God."[10] They speak words of blessing to one another, but more than that, they enact the blessings that they speak.

In her essay "Woman at the Center," Judith Kates pinpoints one of the central qualities of the book of Ruth, and of its namesake. "Ruth has traditionally been called the book of chesed, a word usually translated as lovingkindness or benevolence. It refers to acts of care and love that go beyond obligation and to a quality of generosity, of an abundance in giving. The Bible attributes this quality most particularly to God."[11] God is the ultimate redeemer, the One Who enables us to live out our potential in the world. In this text, God works in and through creation to make redemption possible.

Ruth is a story about ge'ulah (redemption) and about teshuvah (return.) Naomi returns to her homeland, and to relationship with (and faith in) God. Boaz acts as a redeeming kinsman, taking on responsibility for Ruth and for the upkeep of her land, and in so doing imitates God, the ultimate go'el or Redeemer. As Tamar Frankiel writes,

While God is the true goel, or Redeemer, God also calls upon us to play a significant role in bringing redemption to the world... Teshuva, 'return,' refers to our movement toward God. Ge'ula, 'redemption,' refers to God's movement toward us. The Book of Ruth teaches us that when we take steps toward God, God also moves toward us, although we may not always be aware of it. When we turn toward God, God also turns toward us.[12]

The "four worlds paradigm" -- offered by kabbalists as a tool for understanding our texts and our lives -- asserts that our experiences can be understood through the lens of the four worlds, four planes or levels of being. The book of Ruth, too, unfolds in fascinating ways when viewed through a four-worlds lens.

On the level of assiyah, the practical world of making and doing, this is a story about moving from lack to fulfilment. At the beginning of the book, there is literal famine. Ruth's proactivity, and Boaz's kindness, combine to provide grain for Ruth and for Naomi. Where once there was hunger, now there is satiation; where once there was emptiness (cited in Naomi's words to her friends upon returning to Bethlehem), now there is fullness (grain, pregnancy, fruition.)

On the level of yetzirah, the world of creativity and feelings, this is a story about emotional risk. Ruth follows her heart in accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem. Boaz acts out of kindness when he allows Ruth to glean in his fields; Ruth repays him with kindness when she lies, subservient, at his feet. These are risky moves, which go against the grain of traditional texts which might argue that a foreign woman has no place in the kingdom of Israel -- but these risks yield deep emotional and spiritual rewards.

On the level of briyah, thoughts and intellect and creation, this is a story about the creation of something new. When Ruth enacts hesed in her relationships, she changes not only herself but the world around her.

And on the level of atzilut, essence, this story dissolves into the greater story of which all our narratives are a part. In atzilut, all distinctions melt away. Maybe Ruth is a story about trusting that atzilut is there, even if it's not the reality we live in.

In many ways, Ruth is a story about teshuvah, turning or re/turning to orient ourselves toward the Source of all that is. When Ruth journeys with Naomi to Bethlehem, she enters a place entirely foreign to her, someplace unfamiliar and new. But strange though the landscape may be on a physical level, on an emotional level she seems to be in comfortable terrain throughout -- perhaps because she has already made the spiritual leap of turning-toward-God, and with that grounding, no physical changes can shake her.

As important as Ruth's physical journey is, her metaphysical journey matters more, because it arises out of her conscious effort to turn toward God. When Ruth decides to accompany Naomi into Israel -- the literal kingdom of Israel, and the interpersonal house of Israel -- she is making teshuvah. She is turning toward something greater than herself. She is asserting her intention to live consciously in a way that trusts God and enacts the kindness she expects from God and from the world. She models the essential movement of teshuvah: turning away from old patterns and old habits, and willingly entering a new head- and heart-space, one aligned with God.

Over the course of our lives, all of us will spend at least a little time in Naomi's shoes. We will encounter the loss of loved ones, the bitter taste of depression, the pervasive sense of emptiness that comes with distance from God -- or maybe it creates that distance; the causality seems to go both ways! We can't control when and how we feel like Naomi.

At other times, we may feel like Boaz: blessed with abundant vineyards, secure in reciprocal relationships with our colleagues and employees, able to offer abundance to those around us. We may also keenly feel the limitations of that experience: safe and secure in our professional lives, but lacking deep companionship. We can't control when and how we feel like Boaz, either -- or whether the universe will reward our kindness with an unexpected gesture of kindness in return.

What we can control is when and how we act, and we can choose to act like Ruth. The central figure of this story is loving and giving, committed to connection with her extended family and also open to relationship with chosen-family from another community. Ruth is offered a respectable way to return home to the place she knows and the birth-family that nurtured her, but she chooses to stick with Naomi, and to trust in (and turn toward) the Eternal...and her choice, her trust, and her faith are repaid in ways that reverberate through the generations to follow.

When life presents us with unexpected loss, may we face it with Ruth's equanimity. When we arrive at unexpected journeys, may we move through them with Ruth's grace. When the voices of conventional wisdom or of depression whisper in our ears that all is lost, may we follow Ruth's example and focus instead on hope. May we appreciate the kindness of others, and treat others with kindness, as Ruth did. And even when God feels distant or foreign, may we make the ontological shift of turning toward God anyway -- and may we, like Ruth, have the courage to know ourselves to be endlessly blessed.

M'korim / sources:

1 Ostriker, Alicia, "The Redeeming of Ruth," in Reading Ruth, ed. Kates and Reimer, p. 89.
2 Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, chapter 37, various pages.
3 Ostriker, Alicia, "The Redeeming of Ruth," in Reading Ruth, p. 90.
4 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, Reading the Women of the Bible, p. 242.
5 Ozick, Cynthia, "Ruth," in Reading Ruth, p. 229.
6 Reinhartz, Adele, Oxford Study Bible commentary, p. 1579.
7 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, Reading the Women of the Bible, p. 255.
8 Honig, Ruth, "The Model Emigrée," in Political Theory (February 1997, Sage Publications), p. 116.
9 Cox, Harvey, Common Prayers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), various pages.
10 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, Reading the Women of the Bible, p. 245.
11 Kates, Judith A., "Women at the Center," in Reading Ruth, p. 190.
12 "Verse by Verse," Ruth H. Sohn, in Reading Ruth, ed. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer.

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