THE BOOK OF RUTH: AN EXPLORATION OF JEWISH FEMINININITY
(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...
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Women in Judaism, Copyright 2001 by the Jewish Renaissance Center and
Torah.org. The editor is Rebbetzin Leah Kohn, Director of the Jewish
Renaissance Center, a learning institute for women located in New York
City, with a web presence at
https://www.jewishrenaissance.org/ .

This list is part of Torah.org: The Judaism Site (Project Genesis, Inc.).
Permission is granted to redistribute, but please give proper attribution
and copyright to the author and Torah.org. Both the author and Torah.org
reserve certain rights. For full information on copyrights, send email to
copyrights@torah.org .

-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Torah.org: The Judaism Site                        
https://www.torah.org/
17 Warren Road, Suite 2B                                 
learn@torah.org
Baltimore, MD 21208                          (410) 602-1350 FAX: 510-1053
-------------------------------------------------------------------------


Back