Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Naso-Shavuot 5763/ June 6, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Naso-Shavuot 5763/ June 6, 2003
Ruth-A Womens' Story

Dr. Yael Shemesh
Department of Bible and Institute for the Study of Women in Judaism

The Book of Ruth, like any other literary work, can be viewed from many angles (such as the trait of kindness that characterizes the heroes of the story, especially Ruth; the status of converts in Judaism; or the Davidic dynasty).[1] Here I shall examine the Book of Ruth from the feminist view. This decision necessarily affects the choice of narrative material to be selected for discussion, and the choice of things that will not be dealt with, even though they may be worthy of study in other contexts. It should be noted that the feminist reading presented here is not the only possible"correct" reading of the Book of Ruth from a feminist angle; rather, it reflects the choices and preferences of the author of this analysis.

The Central Role of Women in Ruth

The Book of Ruth has attracted the attention of feminist research for several reasons: it is one of the two books in Scripture named after women (the other being the Book of Esther), and this, of course, reflects the fact the Ruth is the heroine of the book. All in all, two women - Ruth and Naomi - occupy center stage. Alongside them are secondary female characters - Orpah (1:4-14) and the women of Bethlehem (1:19; 4:14-17), who through their words reflect the change in Naomi's condition (a change for the worse, at first, and for the better, in the end) and even name the son born to Ruth and Boaz. The matriarchs, founders of the people, are also mentioned in the words of the elders to Boaz: "May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel ... And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah - through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman" (4:11-12).

The opening verse of the book gives no indication of the central role that will be played by women. The book opens with the actions of "a man of Bethlehem in Judah," giving the impression that his sons and wife are only tag-alongs. However our expectation that Elimelech will be the hero of the story is immediately dashed, since the story proceeds to report his death (1:3). The death of his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, puts an end to the readers expectations that perhaps they will be the heroes of the story. The only actors left on the narrative stage are three widows with no survivors: Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.[2]

Until the first half of verse fourteen, the status of the two daughters-in-law appears to be equal: both intend to join Naomi, who is returning to Bethlehem; both weep upon being urged by her each to return to her mother's house, and both insist upon continuing to accompany her. After Naomi describes the bleak future awaiting them if they were to remain with her, they both break into weeping (1:14a). The text that follows immediately makes a distinction between the two: "Orpah kissed her mother-in-law farewell. But Ruth clung to her" (1:14b). It is important to understand that Orpah is portrayed as a positive character who shows more than average devotion to her mother-in-law. Against the backdrop of the normative figure of Orpah, the exceptionally positive figure of Ruth takes the limelight. Contrary to the dictates of reason, she remains faithful to her mother-in-law and refuses to part from her.

Solidarity between Two Women

Ruth's behavior brings us to the central theme that has drawn the attention of feminist research - the special bond between Ruth and Naomi. In this impressive and unequivocal declaration of loyalty, Ruth makes it clear to Naomi that all her attempts to dissuade her from going with her are to no avail: "For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d. 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" (1:16-17). As Zakovitch notes, the Hebrew word used for lodging (lina) refers to the sleep of the wanderer, who has no home of his own (cf. Gen. 32:22; Judges 19:13, and elsewhere). Therefore Ruth's determined and bleak words indicate that she does not expect to live in the lap of luxury at Naomi's side, rather she is preparing herself emotionally for a life of want and hardship. This, however, is not enough to deflect her determination to join Naomi and share with her the hard life that awaits them.[3]

The special relationship between Ruth and Naomi finds linguistic expression as well. The use of the verb davak (= cling) to indicate Ruth's relationship towards Naomi ("But Ruth clung to her" 1:14) contains an allusion to the verse in Genesis,"Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh" (2:24). Here, however, it is not a man but a woman who leaves her father and mother; and she clings not to her spouse but to her mother-in-law, mother of her deceased husband; and the relationship is not one of institutionalized matrimony, but of sisterhood and loyalty between two women. The use of the root a-h-v (=love) by the women of Bethlehem to describe Ruth's feelings towards Naomi,"for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons" (4:15), is the only instance in Scripture where this verb is used to describe a love relationship between one woman and another.

Solidarity between women is not self-evident in the Bible. It is found in the beginning of Exodus, in the brave refusal of the two midwives to obey Pharaoh's heinous order to kill every son born to the Hebrew women, saving them instead (Ex. 1:15-21); and in the joint action of three women to save the infant Moses - his mother, sister, and Pharaoh's daughter (Ex. 2:1-10). It also finds expression in the Song of Deborah, in which Deborah praises Jael and blesses her (Judges 5:24-27), although in the prose narrative (ch. 4) the plot does not bring the two women together. In other instances in Scripture, when there is a meeting of two women in the story, it is usually loaded with feelings of jealousy, hostility, bitterness and competition, as in the case of Sarah and Hagar, or Leah and Rachel, or Hannah and Peninah.

The book of Ruth presents us with a different model of relations between two women, as has been noted by Ilana Pardes:[4]

Ruth's clinging to Naomi makes clear that rivalry is not necessarily a predominant feature in relations between women, even in types of relations which are particularly prone to conflict. We are not dealing here with two cowives, but the relationship of the mother-in-law and the daughter- in-law is, in psychoanalytic terms, similar. The mother, after all, is the son's first object of love. Thus even when the son marries an"outside object," the primal oedipal drama is not over. What this means for the women involved is a delicate situation in which they must share the same man. That the relationship of the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, as a result, may be painfully tense is all too well-known. The mother, "abandoned" by her son, is likely to be hostile toward the young woman who has replaced her, while the daughter-in-law, in turn, may try to ensure her position in her husband's heart by challenging the influence of her precursor.

Pardes continues to say that we are familiar with tense relations between fathers-in-law and sons-in-law (Laban and Jacob; Saul and David), and that the parallel relations between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law could have been portrayed - competitiveness, tension and hostility - according to the conventions of Scripture itself. But the Book of Ruth chose to take a different route: the mother-in-law is an object of love and not a source of hostility.[5]

The triangle of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz is a clear deviation from the biblical convention of tension and hostility between two women fighting over the same man (Leah and Rachel, Peninah and Hannah, and in a certain sense also Sarah and Hagar). Naomi is the one who sponsors the relationship between Ruth and Boaz, coaching her daughter-in-law how to behave with Boaz at night on the threshing floor (3:2-4). She does so because she desires Ruth's well-being, as she explains from the outset: "Daughter, I must seek a home for you, where you may be happy" (3:1). Ruth is fully compliant with her mother-in-law, since marrying Boaz would not only enable her to "perpetuate the name of the deceased," Mahlon, but would also maintain the relationship between her and Naomi. Boaz is the ideal candidate to provide"refuge under his wings" not only for her but also for her mother-in-law, since he is a redeemer and family relation of Naomi's.[6]

The cooperation between the two women finds also expression in their joint"parenting," described towards the end of the book. Obed is the biological son of Boaz and Ruth, but Naomi is the one who takes the newborn to her bosom and acts as his foster mother (4:16), and the women of Bethlehem even declare,"A son is born to Naomi" (4:17). In order not to harm this impression of joint parenting, apparently, neither of the two women - Naomi nor Ruth - gives the newborn his name; rather, it is the women neighbors who name him.[7]

Parallels between Ruth and Abraham

Ruth's loyalty to Naomi and her willingness to cast aside all her previous bonds - religious, national and familial - establishes a parallel between her and the patriarch and founder our people - Abraham. Boaz's praise of Ruth reinforces the parallel both in terms of content and language:[8]

G-d's command to Abraham (Gen. 12:1) ==> Boaz's praise of Ruth (Ruth 2:11)

Go forth ==> you ... came to a people you had not known before
From your native land ==> the land of your birth
And from your father's house ==> how you left your father and mother
To the land that I will show you ==> and came to a people you had not known before

Alongside the similarity in language and content there is, of course, a fundamental difference: Abraham severed himself from his past in response to an explicit command from G-d, whereas Ruth did so in response to the dictates of her heart;[9] G-d promised Abraham a brilliant future for obeying the command, whereas Naomi cautioned Ruth against the bleak future that would be her lot is she were to stay with her. In Abraham we see a model of great faith; in Ruth we should see a model of great devotion and love.

"Like Rachel and Leah" and Especially Like Tamar

The blessing the elders and people give Boaz,"May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel! ... And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah - through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman" (4:11-12), draws a parallel between Ruth (and by extension, Naomi) and female figures in Genesis - the matriarchs Rachel and Leah, and Tamar, mother of the tribe of Judah.
While the patriarchs are mentioned numerous times, also in other books besides Genesis, in order to lay emphasis on the continuity of G-d's blessing,[10]"this is the only case in the Bible where matriarchs are called up from the past to serve as a model for the future"building" of the house of Israel."[11]

The object of the blessing is"a female adaptation" of the blessing to the sons of Joseph (Gen. 48:20): "G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh."[12] There seems, however, to be a certain strangeness in the blessing that Ruth, one woman, build the house of Boaz as the two women, Rachel and Leah, built the House of Israel. What reason does the Book of Ruth have for emphasizing the attribution of building the House of Israel to two matriarchs, and what connection is there between this claim and the case of Ruth?

This peculiarity can be resolved if we interpret the blessing as including Naomi by extension. Just as Rachel and Leah together built the House of Israel, so too Ruth and Naomi will build the house of Boaz. In addition, this blessing comes to correct a flaw in the Genesis story of Rachel and Leah, between whom relations, as we have mentioned, were tense to the point of hostility. The blessing here creates harmony and cooperation between the two sisters, which Pardes calls an"idyllic revisionism" of the Genesis story.[13]

The blessing of the elders and the people continues in such a way as to strengthen the analogy which the story builds between Ruth and Judah's daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen. 38): "And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah - through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman."[14] The personal circumstances of the two women are amazingly similar: both were gentile women who married Israelites; both were widowed, and since they had not had children by their deceased husband, the continuation of their family line was problematic; both widows found themselves in a situation which gave them no hope of having a son - Tamar had not been given to Shelah, and Ruth's deceased husband had no living brother; both had relatives who were supposed to be redeemers but do not redeem - Onan, in the case of Tamar, and the unnamed redeemer who refused to redeem, in the case of Ruth; in the end, however, both are married and redeemed in a manner not according to biblical law - Tamar is married by her father-in-law, and Ruth is redeemed by a relation of her deceased husband; both overcome the problem of assuring continuation of the family line by seducing the man who later becomes the redeemer; and finally, both build the House of David.

In their blessing, the elders and the people relate to Tamar as a model figure, worthy of emulation, and thereby give their sanction to the exceptional measure taken by Tamar in order to build the house of Judah, a step that involved deceiving and seducing Judah - a story with which they were surely well-familiar. Without intending it, their words also imply sanction of Ruth's actions in enticing Boaz on the threshing floor - an act of which they would not have been aware, according to the internal logic of the story. Tamar, by virtue of her exceptional deed built the house of Judah; and Ruth, by virtue of her exceptional deed, built the House of David, which was descended from the tribe of Judah.

[1] This assertion is illustrated in Edward L. Greenstein,"Reading Strategies and the Story of Ruth," in Alice Bach (ed.), Women in the Hebrew Bible, New York 1999, pp. 211-231.
[2] On the development of the reader's expectations, cf. Phyllis Trible,"A Human Comedy: The Book of Ruth," in K.R.R. Gros Louis and J. S. Ackerman (eds.), Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, Vol. II, Nashville 1982, pp. 161-190, 314-317 (162-164).
[3] Yair Zakowitz, Ruth (Mikra le-Yisrael), Tel Aviv 1990, p. 61.
[4] Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible, Cambridge, Mass. 1992, pp. 102-103.
[5] Ibid., p. 103.
[6] Ibid., p. 104.
[7] Ibid., p. 106.
[8] For example, cf. Zakowitz (n. 3, above), p. 76.
[9] Zakowitz, ibid.
[10] For example, cf. Ex. 3:6, 15; Deut. 6:10; I Kings 18:36; II Kings 13:23; Jer. 33:26.
[11] Pardes, loc. sit., p. 98.
[12] Zakowitz, loc. sit., p. 9. Also cf. p. 110.
[13] That is the title of the chapter (6): The Book of Ruth: Idyllic Revisionism. Pardes cites Midrash Lamentations Rabbah (Proem 24, s.v. Rabbi Johanan) as a far-reaching example of an idyllic rewrite of the Genesis story of Rachel and Leah. According to this midrash, Rachel told Leah the signals she had set with Jacob in order to prevent her being replaced by her sister and even hid under the bed on Leah's wedding night and answered Jacob with her own voice in order that Jacob not discover he had been tricked. In other words, Rachel sacrificed herself in order to prevent her sister from suffering great embarrassment.
[14] Cf. Athalya Brenner, The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative, Sheffield 1985, pp. 106-108.