(Adapted from a lecture by Tsiporah Heller entitled, “Great Women: Ruth and Naomi”)
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 (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.