Friday, May 21, 2010

Does Ruth Do It for You?

I am not a big fan of Shavuot. I am a huge fan of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), but I think that Shavuot as we celebrate it is kind of lame. And by "lame," I mean that it does not have enough rituals to cover even one day, let alone two, and it really should, because it commemorates the most important event in Jewish history. (You could argue that the Exodus from Egypt was the most important event in Jewish history, because Israel could not have received the Torah without leaving Egypt, but the general point is the same).

I like the custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot (staying up all night to study Torah), even if individual tikkunim can suffer from poor preparation in the part of the teachers. I heard one excellent and two pretty good shiurim this year, which is a good number. A funny thing I noticed is that since, in NYC, unlike in GradSchoolTown, people have jobs and are kind of accustomed to going to bed at a reasonable hour, talks after 1:00 a.m. or so are poorly attended. That is fair enough, and, in fact, I think that there should be organized Torah learning during the first and/or second day as well, since Torah study is always better when the person studying is conscious.

But then, after the first night, what are we supposed to do? Pray and eat. That's it. And read the Book of Ruth in synagogue. But what is with the Book of Ruth, anyway? I love the Book of Esther--it is a fantastically well-written, bawdy satire of Jewish life in Persia in particular and the Jews' relationship with God in general. Lamentations is an incredibly moving tale of woe and desperation after the destruction of the first Temple, and Ecclesiastes, though way too long, can be read (according to Yeshayahu Leibowitz) as a meditation on the few material rewards enjoyed by the dedicated follower of God and halakhah. I'm not going to touch Shir HaShirim with a ten-foot pole because I have never studied it and do not really understand it. (BFF is welcome to chime on this front if she wants).

So I am not a Megillah-hater or anything. But what is with Ruth, anyway? From a literary perspective, it is not very well-written. It is too short to get to know the characters. Ruth makes the most important decision of her life, and the book, about 12 verses in, and we have no idea why she does it. Whoever wrote it was either ignorant of the laws of Levirate marriage or was living in a time when the Jews observed that law completely differently than either the Torah or the Talmud requires. If I were a cynic (ha!), I might think that the main purpose of the book was to declare Davidic lineage to be dubious.

Help me out, readers! What does Ruth mean to you?