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?

8 comments:

frum single female said...

i think that the story of ruth is there to show us that someone does not have to descend from a rabbinic family to achieve greatness. king david is the descendant of a convert to judaism yet he became a king of the jewish people.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

The lack of detail is what gives it so much room for interpretation. And, I don't know why, but my mother always cries when hearing Ruth...sometimes I cry too!

Margot said...

How about this: as far as I know, it's the ONLY sympathetic portrait of a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship in all of Western literature. Though if you're inclined to see "sympathetic" as "propagandistic," that might be a strike against.
Cynthia Ozick has a good essay on Ruth (I think in Metaphor and Memory).

Rabbi Lars Shalom said...

cousin ruth, laughter just like yours

Shira Salamone said...

It's a rare day when I can actually see the Word Verification letters on your blog, so please excuse me for commenting considerably after the fact.

The story of Ruth is the story of a shotgun wedding. Ruth is a hero for caring for Naomi; Naomi is a hero to Ruth to arranging the shotgun wedding. Boaz gets short shrift from me--why didn't he just marry Ruth (or arrange for her marriage to that closer "redeeming kinsman") in the first place? He gets even shorter shrift in the Midrash: What, exactly, is the point of his allegedly having died after his wedding night?

Here's my 2010 post re Megillat Ruth.

Ken said...

Found your blog looking around for other things and browsed it to this. I *love love love* Megillat Ruth. What I see in it is a story that goes out of its way to remind us, at every mention of Ruth's name until the very end, that she is an outsider. Not just any outsider. She is Moab. Ruth the Moabite. Moab is the worst of the worst. Anathema to the Israelite world for all time. Even the stain of being Egyptian goes away in 3 generations but not Moab. Just yuck. Why? Well, Moab's origins are described in Genesis. Lot's daughters inebriate their father and sleep with him, each one getting pregnant. He is so drunk he does not know when she lay down or when she got up. Yuck.

Then we have Megillat Ruth. Far from being poorly written it is a fiercely careful and clever revisiting of that original tale of yuck. At it climax, Ruth approaches Boaz in his own post celebratory stupor in the darkness of the threshing floor at harvest time. She is Moabite and he is old enough to be her. . . father, and lest the reader miss it, he calls her at this moment "my daughter." The author knows exactly what he (she?) is doing.

But this time the story has a different ending. This time the man does know when she lays down and rather than having a moment of incredible yuck, these two speak, and ecnounter each other intimately in a way far more meaningful than the mindless sex from Moab's origins. These two discover actual love. These two get married and Ruth is finally referred to as just "Ruth." No longer "Ruth the Moabite." And the child born is David's ancestor. It is a story of redemption and the first thing it redeems, thriugh this redemptive reimagination, is the story of Moab's origin.

What we learn is this: Redemption--real, Davidic, messianic redemption--comes to the world only when we find a way to include the excluded. The most deeply, fundamentally, stained, excluded. The excluded we see as deeply and fundamentally damaged. Sexually damaged even. Redemption comes to the world when we find some way to admit the eternally inadmissable. The modern day challenge of the Book of Ruth is clear and it is powerful.

I love the Book of Ruth.

Akiva said...

Ruth is pretty radical, in my honest opinion. I believe it shows the tension for people to "love the stranger within your hates", but also having to reconcile that with her being a Moabite. That's my most important deal with the Megillah. It is so powerful. It also shows Boaz as emobodying the ideal Jew; loving the stranger even when your peoples are mortal enemies and helping to provide for them when they are destitute. He loved the stranger so much that he married her! You can only imagine that the surrounding families would not approve of an Israelite man marrying a Moabite woman, but it's a gentle story about what happens when two peoples love each other. I love the story of Ruth.

Akiva said...

gates*