In troubled times we can turn to Jewish traditions for insight and inspiration. I want to share some thoughts in advance of this lovely holiday, drawing on teachings by three contemporary chochamot, wise women reading Ruth from a feminist perspective.
On Shavuot we read verses from Shemot, the Book of Exodus, describing Matan Torah, the Giving of Torah. It’s an epic scene with big special effects: The entire Israelite population is gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai which is covered by a thick cloud. All the people witness the thunder and lighting, and the sound of a Shofar (ram’s horn) that makes the mountain tremble! In this attention-grabbing setting, Moses climbs up the mountain and receives the stone tablets inscribed with the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings. The whole tale has an over-the-top (of the mountain) feel! The ethical and ritual rules of the Ten Sayings are delivered in the most dramatic and memorable circumstances. The scene has been etched into the Jewish imagination for nearly 3,000 years!
But alongside this fiery tale, on Shavuot we also read a tender, domestic story: the Book of Ruth, an elegantly- crafted short novella revolving around the figures of Naomi from Bethlehem in Judah and her daughter-in-law Ruth, a native of neighboring Moab. How splendid to have a Biblical tale of such antiquity that centers on female characters!
In contrast to Mount Sinai’s issues of cosmic power and national identity, the theme of Ruth is love, especially as expressed in the Hebrew noun hesed, often translated as lovingkindness, the love-in-action. Just as we ask questions about the meaning of the texts, so did the rabbis long ago. Ruth Rabbah is a collection of Rabbinic midrashim (legends) that were composed sometime between the years 700 and 950 C.E. Rabbi Ze’eira points out that Migilat Ruth (the megillah/scroll of Ruth,) contains no discussions of purity or impurity, prohibitions or allowances. And so, he asks, “Why was it written?” And he answers: “To teach you how good is the reward for deeds of lovingkindness.” (Ruth Rabbah 2:14):
וְלָמָּה נִכְתְּבָה לְלַמֶּדְךָ כַּמָּה שָׂכָר טוֹב לְגוֹמְלֵי חֲסָדִים.
Contemporary scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi writes: “The term hesed appears only three times in the book of Ruth (1:8, 2:20, 3:10), but its meaning is woven into the entire fabric. Hesed in Ruth is not so much a case of good people doing good things, but rather an example of how ordinary people with mixed motives become extraordinary through the cultivation of hesed… Although hesed in Ruth is explicitly ascribed to human beings, the text suggests that those who act with hesed mirror the ways of God, serving as agents of God’s hesed through their deeds of kindness.” (The JPS Bible Commentary, Ruth, p.I)
Biblical scholars tell us that this touching narrative was most likely composed in the fifth century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era.) For about a hundred years, the tiny Kingdom of Judah had been caught in political and military struggles between the Egyptian and Babylonian Empires. After the Babylonians defeated Egypt, they destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) and transferred much of the population of Judah into exile in Babylon. It’s painful to see parallels between deadly ancient rivalries of great powers and current equally deadly and destabilizing struggles for geo-political dominance.
But the Book of Ruth is set five hundred years earlier in the pre-Exilic era, at the time of the ancient Judges, some decades before the birth of the poet-shepherd-chieftain David. The author or authorial school of this beautiful novella focuses not on issues of power but of love. The story opens: “In the days when the judges judged [ruled], there was a famine in the land.” How we wish that famine were a thing of the past! How can it be that nearly 3,000 years later we haven’t yet learned how to feed the world’s population and at this very moment millions of people face famine?
Naomi, her husband and two sons have gone to Moab to escape the famine. Her sons have married local women, Orpah and Ruth. After the death of Naomi’s husbands and sons, she decides to return to her native Bethlehem. She tells her daughters-in-law to stay behind and Orpah does so, “but Ruth clung to her - וְר֖וּת דָּ֥בְקָה בָּֽהּ׃” Ruth is prepared to leave her family and homeland to “cling” or “cleave to” Naomi. As scholar Ilana Pardes observes, “While in Genesis…leaving and cleaving defines the institution of marriage, in the Book of Ruth it depicts female bonding, a hitherto unrecognized tie.” (Countertraditions in the Bible, p102)
Naomi tells Ruth to follow her sister-in-law and return to her people and her gods. (Perhaps Naomi is not keen to take a foreign daughter-in-law home with her to Bethlehem.) But Ruth famously replies with the most powerful declaration of love and loyalty in the entire Hebrew Bible: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. 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 HaShem [the Divine] do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Thus the stage is set for Naomi and Ruth to begin their physical and emotional journey together. There is no pursuer, no antagonist, no one who tries to separate these women. Only hunger and poverty, the social and environmental circumstances, create the tension that drives the story along. How many Naomis and Ruths are at this very moment struggling to flee from regions rife with poverty and hunger?
To keep herself and her mother-in-law alive, Ruth undertakes hard and risky work gleaning harvests in the fields. In a stroke of good fortune, she gleans in the field of Naomi’s relative Boaz. Touched by Ruth’s kindness to Naomi, Boaz extends his own kindness to the two of them, ensuring their survival and safety. How can we use whatever security we have to help our own relatives and neighbors in need, as well as vulnerable members of our great extended human family?
Naomi comes to call Ruth “my daughter,” and by the end of the tale the women of Bethlehem praise “Ruth [your] daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons.” (Ruth 4:15) An extraordinary statement in the androcentric milieu of the Bible! Thousands of years after these words were written, we’re still learning to affirm the worth of girls and women.
In the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Biblical God displays supernatural powers par excellence. In the Book of Ruth, the Divine acts only once, in a very private fashion right at the end of the story, by “letting Ruth conceive” (Ruth 4:13), and she becomes the great-grandmother of David. Although God doesn’t play an active role earlier, in numerous passages the characters invoke the Divine as the source of hesed, lovingkindness, and abundance.
Poet Alicia Ostriker observes that in the Book of Ruth “God’s kindness, invoked by human beings, is also enacted by them. To put it another way, the kindness of human beings reveals the kindness of a God.” (Ibid, p li)
Tamara Cohn Eskenazi observes that in Ruth, “It is only when people have taken care of one another that God intervenes.”
Scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky observes that in the Hebrew Bible in general and Ruth in particular “hesed refers to acts of benevolence that one does out of kindness, not out of any obligation. Yet despite its ostensibly selfless nature, a particular act of goodness, or hesed, often sets up an expectation of reciprocation, and this may be the reason for one’s own benevolent action; the first action can set off a chain of good deeds…It is as if hesed has cumulative force: one good deed provokes another, and each adds to the goodness of the world.”
The Book of Proverbs describes a “woman of valor” -- “Her mouth is full of wisdom, her tongue with kind teaching - torat hesed - a Torah of kindness.” (Proverbs 31:26)
פִּ֭יהָ פָּתְחָ֣ה בְחׇכְמָ֑ה וְת֥וֹרַת חֶ֝֗סֶד עַל־לְשׁוֹנָֽהּ׃
May we be blessed to recognize and revere our tradition as a Torat Hesed, a Torah, a Teaching of Kindness, and live our lives so that every day our deeds, great or small, add to the goodness of the world.
B’shalom ~ In peace,