L is for Love: A contemporary reading of the Book of Ruth

On the holiday of Shavout, the Book of Ruth is traditionally read in synagogues. I took an afternoon to ponder this tiny yet meaningful tome, and realized just how significant it is these days.

L is for Love: A contemporary reading of the Book of Ruth
"Summer" by Leopold Karl Walter Graf Von Kalckreuth (image: Wikimedia commons)

Agriculture The Book of Ruth is a beautiful pastoral, set in fields of barley, in which the sheaths themselves play a part in the love story. While traveling for my recent project “The Round Trip,” I found myself again and again charmed by the Holy Land’s fields of grain: expanses of ripened wheat near Beit Shean, harvested fields near Ashkelon, and traditional patches of Barley, sown by Bedouin in the northern West Bank. Some things don’t change, even in our heavily industrialized reality. Other things do, however.

This year on Shavout, as we near the traditional holiday reading of the Book of Ruth, shattered glass still cover sidewalks in south Tel Aviv, where cynical politicians stirred violent rage against African asylum seekers. The contrast between the values of this Biblical tale of a love shared by a Jew and a foreigner, and those of contemporary Israeli politics, are harsher than ever.

Bethlehem Ruth’s homeland is Moab, a region located in today’s Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The town to which she immigrates, Bethlehem, is in the West Bank. In the years following the 1967 war, a “Ruth” would have been shot on the spot by the IDF for attempting to move between these two territories. Following the Oslo accords, visits by Jordanian citizens to the West Bank have been made possible, and legal immigration became possible through family connections (known as “family unifications”). The number of requests granted changes with the political climate, and it is my understanding that as of 2009 family unifications are de facto no longer a reality. Many holders of tourist visas are said to have remained in the West Bank over the years, bereft of documentation that would allow them to travel from town to town through Israeli checkpoints. The Ruths are out there, but they are stuck in Bethlehem and can’t even visit the shopping mall in Hebron.

Cheese isn’t mentioned in the book at all. The correlation made by Israelis between Shavuot and dairy products is entirely contrived. It was likely dreamed up and spurred on by Tnuva.

Danny Danon One can only imagine reactionary Likud MK’s Danny Danon’s Facebook response to the Book of Ruth’s story: “The Jewish people cannot sit idly while pennyless infiltrators swarm our country, preying on innocent, well-to-do Jewish land owners. Today I have proposed a bill that would prevent Boaz and his leftist, Jordanian-loving likes from marrying such scum, even in Cyprus. No marriage between Jews and non-Jews will be recognized by the state of Israel. Shabbat Shalom to one and all.”

Ehem Yes, this is exactly what his (and many other MKs) Hebrew statuses read like.

Fail! Had MK Danon lived in the times of Ruth and Boaz, King David (who was their great grandson) never would have been born.

God Unlike the Book of Esther, which contains no mention of God, the Book of Ruth is religious. The Hebrew God is shown to preside equally over Jews and non-Jews, and even show mercy towards immigrants. On their first encounter Boaz tells Ruth:”It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore.”

He then blesses her: “The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.” She is a stranger in a strange land, and this is exactly why she deserves – extra care from the God of Israel.

Hummus Food historians have traced back the history of hummus as a pasty dish to the Middle Ages, and yet one can’t help but wonder at Boaz’s invitation to Ruth: “At mealtime come thou hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the hometz” (2:14) “Hometz” is translated as “vinegar” in the King James Bible. The word does mean vinegar in Hebrew, and is used in this sense in four other places in the Bible. However, considering the similarity between the words “hummous” and “hometz,” as well as the fact that hummus really is the staple food of Bethlehem and the fashion in which Ruth and Boaz eat it, here may be proof of the cultural roots we share with the Palestinians. Alas, If only we could all sit in peace together all day long, dipping morsels in hometz rather then occupying and resisting…

Israel The promised land goes unnamed in the book, while the tribal territory of Judah is named thrice. The Book of Ruth documents a time when identity and geography were tied up in a very different manner than they are today. Was it better or worse? Here’s something to ponder over the holiday.

Jesus From a Christian perspective, the book is a parable of the immaculate conception, with Ruth in the role of Mary and Boaz as the Holy Father. Their union leads to the birth of a Bethlehem-born “king of the Jews.” Most Israelis, having learned nothing or nearly nothing about Christianity in school, have not an inkling of this. The New Testament is not available in Israeli bookstores.

KKK On a week on which people in Tel Aviv were attacked by a mob, selected according to their skin color, the Book of Ruth should truly be read in a humanist context. This is a book about tolerance, about loyalty that transcends ethnic affiliations, it is a book about care, a book about

Love Yup.

Moab Come to think of it. I too have married in my distant past a girl from the land of Moab. There’s a well known town of Moab in the state of Utah, and my ex-wife grew up in Salt Lake City. She was not Jewish, but she left the Mormon church in our first year together and adopted a Jewish life. She learned Hebrew and lit the Shabbat candles. Having grown up in a religious household, she felt far closer to religious traditions than I did and was eager to learn and to practice. Eventually, she came to live with me in Israel, and thus fulfilled the full meaning of Ruth’s famous statement: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (1:16) The Israeli Rabbinical establishment refuses to accept even proper, serious conversions conducted by Conservative or Reform rabbis. My ex-wife’s candle-lighting didn’t really count for that establishment nor for Israelis at large, and throughout her time here she was made to feel like an outsider, which caused her great sadness.

Nothing This is what Ruth owned when arriving in Bethlehem. She was forced to harvest the leftover sheaths that grow at the edge of fields, to provide for her mother-in-law and herself. Refugees who arrive here often are said to come from relatively affluent social classes, which allows them to afford the escape. Having paid off the smugglers, they are left with nothing, and while Israel does not permit them to work, I have yet to see these people reduced to scavenging and the crime rate in south Tel-Aviv has not risen in the past few years. This is a miracle and it comes about largely thanks to employers who take the risk and give these people work. MKs may make laws driven by ideology, but reality demands flexibility, so that at the moment, the restrictions on refugee labor are rarely enforced. An Israeli employers who employs asylum seekers and pays them fairly, is a latter day Boaz.

Oy vey is what the mothers of most people named Boaz today would say if they heard their son is dating a Jordanian.

Power From a social justice perspective, the Book of Ruth is a tragedy. Social mobility is still most readily available to those with connections. We all follow Naomi’s instructions and dress up nicely for meeting with affluent people. From a feminist perspective – it is a horror story, a candid document of a world where a woman may only achieve a dignified way of life through a man. While things have changed for some women in this country, I can think of more than one society existing here that still abide by similar rules.

Quitting The figure of Orpah, who chooses to stay in Moab rather than join Naomi on the journey to Bethlehem, drops out of the story already in the first chapter. I recently published a post describing my contemplation of leaving Israel. Many, including the brilliant Haggai Matar, urged that this would be the wrong decision. There’s rotten history in the making here, but it’s still history. If I step away now, I’ll be out of the story and ill equipped to help it reach a happy ending. That would indeed be a shame.

Ruth My girlfriend’s name. I’m very fond of it.

Sex “And she lay at his feet until the morning: and she rose up before one could know another. And he said, Let it not be known that a woman came into the floor.” (3:14) The reference to people knowing each other hasn’t to do with the degree of intimacy Boaz and Ruth reached. It is repeated in the Talmud as a distinction of night from day: before dawn appears in earnest, people cannot recognize each other’s faces. Ruth leaves in the dark a situation that was at least very sexually tense, and maybe more than that. I would not take the specification “at his feet” too seriously.

Terminology To contemporary readers, the most troubling verses in the book are certainly 4:9-10: “And Boaz said unto the elders, and unto all the people, Ye are witnesses this day, that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, of the hand of Naomi. Moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife…” The idea of purchasing a woman the same way a field is purchased is hard on us, and the issue of levirate marriage, which is an important factor in this book, is altogether unpalatable. Let this be food for thought to all who think we should live according to the Bible.

Us and them Not only does Ruth adopt Naomi’s land and god. She also says: “Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried” (1:17). Considering her spontaneous conversion (and the fact she is referred to as “Moabitess” throughout the book), a Ruth in 2012 would not be free to keep such a promise. Jews who were not “properly” converted may not rest in Jewish graveyards, not to mention Moabitesses. We are segragated completely from those who do not belong with our tribe, and this segragation goes on after death to all eternity.

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Looking at the Book of Ruth from a contemporary literay perspective can prove a disappointment, especially the final, bureaucratic chapter, but the combination of the five scrolls (“megillot”), which appear conjoined in the Hebrew Pentateuch (but not in the Christian Bible) is so elegant that any true lover of literature is smitten by it. The scrolls include the musings of Ecclesiastes, the epic Book of Esther, the powerful Lamentations, the erotic Song of Solomon and our own little Bronteesque tale. Put together, they form a little mystery. What did the editor of our scriptures mean to tell us by creating such a combination? Could it be random? If indeed it is, then random really works.

Wikipedia It only made sense to read a little bit about the Book of Ruth before writing so much about it, and where does one begin if not on Wikipedia? It is there that I found this lovely interpertive passage, explaining the book’s worldview: “The Israelites’ understanding of redemption is woven into their understanding of and appreciation for the nature of the “Almighty One. God stands by the oppressed and needy. Through his servants, he extends his love and mercy, liberating through hope.”

Xenophobia See under “Danny Danon”

Youth We do not know the age of the various characters, but experience counts more than years, and Ruth arrives into the story no longer a spring chicken. She is already a widow, indeed the widow of a man whose brother also died, and who can thus not be remarried into the same family as tradition requires. If not for Naomi’s good instructions, her own courage and a bit of luck, she would have been done for – a rag of a woman, to be dumped in the sink. As we read the Book of Ruth this year, in a land run by “King Bibi” who killed Israel’s welfare system during his term as minister of finance, let us remember that this land is full of people in need, and let us prepare for the revival of summer protests. This is no longer “The time of the Judges,” this is the present day, and our pennyless widows deserve better.

Zehu Ze Hebrew for “that’s enough.” Now it’s time to start cooking the holiday meal, time to try and enjoy this long weekend despite all sadness. I’d like to wish everyone who celebrates Shavuot a wonderful holiday. May your baskets be filled with first fruits and may hope remain in your hearts always.