Megillat Ruth: When Kindness conflicts with Torah
What does the book of Ruth teach? Rav Ze’ira famously declared:
“This scroll [Ruth] tells us nothing either of purity or impurity, of the forbidden or the permitted. For what purpose was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of lovingkindness” (Ruth Rabba 2:14).
Such a charming statement about this megillah appears at first as a grand affirmation of the book’s worth, given the value Jewish sources place on chesed, often translated as “lovingkindness.” But the book of Ruth is not only a charming book, and it is not only about chesed. It is as much about chuzpah.
Whether intended or not, Rav Ze’ira’s message tames the otherwise radical nature of the book of Ruth. Confining its contribution to chesed as he does, (“nothing either of purity or impurity, of the forbidden or the permitted”) he renders other messages in the book as not authoritative. Yet the book of Ruth teaches a number of seemingly subversive messages. In the swift course of four short, elegant chapters, the reader witnesses the reversal/overturning of several important biblical teachings. The most obvious one is Deut 23:4-7:
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, . . . You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live” (JPS).
This prohibition not withstanding, Judahite Boaz marries Moabite Ruth and together they produce the grandfather of King David (Ruth 4:18-22).
The Talmud’s Solution: Skirting the Prohibition in Deuteronomy
The Talmudic textual attempts to eliminate the contradiction by reading Deuteronomy’s proscription as applying solely to males (“moavi not moavit,” “Moabite male not Moabite female”; see Ruth R. 2.9) is impossible to accept as peshat.
In fact, the Talmud envisions a debate over this subject occuring in the time of King Saul, centered on David’s credentials since he was a descendent of Ruth the Moabite (b. Yebamot 76b-77a). The story ends with a defender of David. According to Ravah, that defender
…girded his sword like an Ishmaelite and exclaimed, ‘Whosoever will not obey the following halachah will be stabbed with the sword; I have this tradition from the Beth din of Samuel the Ramathite: An Ammonite but not an Ammonitess; A Moabite, but not a Moabitess’ (77a) (Soncino translation).
Accordingly, only the threat of physical force and the appeal to the authority of Samuel the prophet win the day for David.
Pesikta de Rav Kahana, Nachamu 16.1 takes the question back in time all the way to Boaz himself. Commenting on Boaz’s acknowledgement of Ruth “And [you] came to a people you had not known yesterday or the day before” (Ruth 2:11), it has Boaz continue:
“If you had come to us yesterday or the day before we would not have accepted you, since the halacha of ‘an Ammonite but not an Ammonitess; a Moabite but not a Moabitess’ had not yet been discovered.”
In other words, Boaz tells Ruth that this new halacha, that the prohibition of marriage applies only to Ammonite and Moabite males, was fortuitously discovered immediately before her appearance among the people of Bethlehem. Other texts try to ammeliorate the problem by regarding Ruth as a convert, solving the intermarriage problem, but they paper over her ineligibility as bride due to her Moabite origins.
Making it All Right: Was Boaz and Ruth’s Marriage Levirate?
Despite the valiant efforts of the rabbis to make the problem of anti-Moabite discrimination go away—and for such efforts one can only say kol ha-kavod—the problem remains in the text itself, and in the tension between it and Deuteronomy. In fact, Boaz’ complicated tactics at the gate are proof that the case is not straightforward: he introduces his public marriage proposal with language that echoes Levirate laws and that many interpreters regard as applicable here.
In biblical Levirate law, an offspring of the union belongs to the lineage of the deceased; this would mean Machlon or even Elimelech in the case of Ruth. But the child of Boaz and Ruth is reckoned as Boaz’s, well integrated into his genealogy (4:18-22). Furthermore, Deuteronomy specifies that the levir must be the deceased husband’s brother, but Boaz is described merely as a “relative” of Ruth’s father-in-law. The allusion to the Levirate situation is most likely a subterfuge to justify a break with tradition—a particular Torah law in this case—by linking it to a worthy cause expressed in another Torah law.
The People at the Gate: Why are they Happy?
Despite the fact that Ruth is a Moabitess and that the levirate marriage is not really a levirate marriage, when Boaz marries Ruth, the community – and most readers – grant their hearty consent. Do the enthusiastic people at the gate not know Deuteronomy 23? I suggest that they do. The author of Ruth answers this question by telegraphing their awareness through the blessings Boaz receives.
May your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah—through the offspring, which Yhwh will give you by this young woman (Ruth 4:12; JPS).
Otherwise, how explain why they would bless Boaz and Ruth by invoking the house of Peretz, whose parents engaged in an irregular union? After all, Genesis 38 records that Peretz is the child of Judah who (unknowingly) impregnated his sons’ widow Tamar, a transgressive act that the Torah proscribes (see, e.g., Lev 18:15). Yet Judah ultimately justifies Tamar, and the fact that Tamar gives birth to twins suggests divine approval as well.
Moreover, why does the book invoke – even emphasizes – the house of Peretz, mentioning him 3 times and using him as a starting point of David’s genealogy? Perhaps Peretz matters in the concluding messages of this book both because of the irregular acts of his parents and also because of what his name means: “a breach” or “a breaking forth.” Could this be one of the lessons that reading Ruth on Shavuot conveys? To remind us how to turn teachings “written in stone” into life-enhancing actions? Are we to consider that sometimes one has to make a breach in the wall to let in the widow, the poor and the stranger?
Ambiguity in Ruth
The reasons usually given for reading Ruth on Shavuot are many, and the suggestion above may depend on an ambiguous conclusion, yet ambiguity is another surprising, and too often overlooked, feature of the book of Ruth. Why is this elegantly crafted book so ambiguous precisely at key moments? Is Ruth asking Boaz to marry her in 3:9 when she says, “spread your kanaf [“wing” or “robe”?]over your handmaid for you are a redeemer”? Or is she echoing his blessing in 2:12 with his wish that she be rewarded by Israel’s God “under whose wings (kenaf) you have sought refuge!”?
Given that kanaf in the Bible almost always means “wing(s),” and given that this is how Boaz himself uses the term, translating “wing(s)” makes most sense. Ruth is asking for his protection. But some commentators suppose the word should be understood as “robe” an allusion to betrothal as in Ezek 16:8. And if it does mean betrothal in the present context, then the chuzpah of this destitute Moabitess asking a wealthy and powerful Israelite to marry her is even more pronounced.
Where does this leave us? In Ruth 3:9, Boaz chooses to interpret Ruth’s request in the most inclusive and far-reaching sense. He does not have to: redemption is not levirite marriage—yibbum. As a redeemer (go’el) he is not obliged to marry Ruth but only to find ways to take care of her. This is what the go’el in 4:14-15 is expected to do for Naomi. Yet Boaz goes well beyond any call of duty; he makes chesed his hermeneutical key for how to carry out Ruth’s ambiguous request. His choice offers another key for understanding why we read Ruth of Shavuot. On the day we receive the Torah again, and are faced with inevitable Torah ambiguities, is the book of Ruth not teaching us the value of choosing chesed when turning written, “unchangeable” laws into life?
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May 25, 2014
January 3, 2020
Professor Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is a Professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, LA. She received her Ph.D. at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology and her ordination from HUC-JIR. Eskenazi is co-author of the award-winning JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth and co-editor of the award-winning The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
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