Friday, May 25, 2012

A Slice of the Life of Ruth

To my knowledge, no one has ever made a feature film about the Book of Ruth.  There just aren’t enough exciting moments.   [Though since writing this, I have learned about this 1960 cinematic treatment of the story: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054343/]

There are some passages in the Bible that describe dramatic events, miracles, and moments of great historical significance.  Think of Joseph being sold into slavery and then becoming the second-in-command of Egypt, and revealing his true identity to his brothers.  Or think of the Exodus from Egypt, and the splitting of the Red Sea.  Or think of the ill-fated romance between Samson and Delilah.  It is no surprise that all of these great stories have been made into major films or long-running Broadway shows.

Then there are the passages in the Bible which do not describe extraordinary events.  Rather, they are ‘slice-of-life’ passages, describing what happens in everyday life - and everyday life, for the people in the Bible as for most of us today, is not usually exciting enough to be considered cinema-worthy.  And yet, it’s the ordinariness of the Book of Ruth that makes it more powerful and meaningful to me when I study it each year.  (It is read on the holiday of Shavuot, this year on May 27.)

If you need a refresher:  the story takes place several generations after the people of Israel have come to the land of Israel, during the period when the people were ruled by judges.  There is a famine in the land of Israel, and a man named Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, move outside of Israel, to Moab, to escape the famine.  Their two sons each marry Moabite women, introducing the contemporary theme of interfaith marriage into this ancient narrative.  

Then tragedy strikes:  Elimelech dies, and both sons also die.  Naomi decides that at this time of such agonizing difficulty in her life, she doesn’t want to be in a foreign country anymore.  She wants to be surrounded by her own community, so she prepares to return home to Bethlehem, in the land of Israel.  She prepares for a tearful parting with her daughters-in-law.  But one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, refuses to leave her, and in the most famous episode in the book, she declares, et asher tel’chi elech, u-va’asher talini alin, amech ami, velohayich elohai.  “Wherever you go will I go, wherever you lodge will I lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”

After trying to discourage her, Naomi finally gives up and begrudgingly takes her along.  This may be the most famous passage from the book, but it only takes place in Chapter 1 of the Book of Ruth.

In the remaining 3 chapters, Naomi and Ruth are living in Bethlehem, so desperately poor that Ruth is working as a ‘gleaner’ -- a kind of ancient Israelite parallel to Workfare.  She is assigned to follow along after the harvesters in someone’s field, and whatever they drop, she gets to keep and bring home to support her and Naomi.  (This process protects their dignity; when Ruth comes home, Naomi asks her, “Where did you work today?” rather than “From whom did you collect charity today?”)  Ruth and Boaz, the owner of the field, fall in love, and the one and only scene that Hollywood might be interested in is an ambiguous scene at night on the threshing-room floor when they profess their commitment to each other.  (Boaz is a long-lost relative of Ruth’s deceased husband, so in an extension of Biblical levirate laws, he has a special responsibility to care for Ruth and Naomi.)  Finally, at the end of the final chapter, they get married, and they have a child.

Naomi has been absolutely despondent throughout the rest of the book.  In the first chapter, bereft of her husband and two sons, she laments:  “Don’t call me ‘Naomi’ [which means ‘pleasantness’]!  Call me ‘Marah’ [which means ‘bitterness’]!”  In fact, she says, “I went out [to Moab] in fullness, but God has returned me [to the land of Israel] empty.”  (This has prompted many commentators to imagine Ruth’s quintessentially Jewish reaction to Naomi’s words:  “What am I, chopped liver?”)  But in the final verses of chapter 4 of the Book of Ruth, Naomi is transformed into the world’s happiest and proudest grandmother, and all the townspeople acclaim how fortunate Naomi is to have such a devoted daughter-in-law as Ruth.  Then, in the last few verses, we read that Ruth and her husband Boaz’s son will grow up to be the grandfather of King David -- and therefore the ancestor of the Messiah ,who according to Jewish tradition will be a descendant of King David.

There are various reasons why the Book of Ruth is read on the holiday of Shavuot.  One suggestion is that King David was born and died on Shavuot, so it makes sense to read a book that describes his genealogy.  A second suggestion is that the Book of Ruth takes place against the backdrop of the barley harvest, which falls in the land of Israel at exactly the same time of year as Shavuot.

The most prevalent and powerful explanation, however, is that Ruth is the paradigm of Jews by choice, those who make the free-will decision to become part of the Jewish people, and similarly, Shavuot marks the moment in Jewish history (the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai) that best reminds us all that all Jews are Jews by choice.  


Like many people who choose to convert to Judaism, Ruth initially came in contact with Judaism because of her marriage to a Jewish man.  Also like many Jews by choice, she embraced Judaism not in anticipation of that marriage, but as a result of that marriage.  We do not know to what extent her decision was affected by the tragic loss of her young husband.  But Ruth’s declaration continues to be inspiring to Jews today, and it is recited at ceremonies marking conversion to Judaism even today.

Ruth declares, “Where you go, I shall go.”  The Hebrew word for ‘go’ in this passage, ‘telchi / elech,’ literally means “walk” and is connected to the word halakhah, referring to Jewish law and practice.  The Midrash understands this part of Ruth’s declaration to be a commitment to live a Jewish way of life.   When Ruth says “Your God shall be my God,” she is accepting Jewish theological beliefs.  And when she declares, “Your people shall be my people,” she is acknowledging that joining Judaism is not simply a declaration of belief or a commitment to religious practice, but it involves joining a nation.  It’s a process that in some ways is analogous to the process of becoming a naturalized citizen, or being adopted into a family.   Ruth’s declaration thus mirrors the multi-faceted commitment that Jews by choice make today:  a commitment to Jewish beliefs and values, to the Jewish way of life, and to the Jewish people and the Jewish community.  And in an age when all Jewish commitments are truly voluntary, Ruth’s story resonates both for those who were born Jewish as well as for those who adopted Judaism as adults.

The Book of Ruth tells a profound story of commitment, of personal transformation, and of rebuilding and renewal after loss.  The lack of dramatic action in the story makes it more approachable, and possibly more relevant to our lives than the stories of miracles and kings and princes, as we seek to mirror Ruth’s commitment in our own Jewish lives.

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