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Ruth's Inspiration

This article is reprinted with permission from the Jerusalem Post. Visit www.jpost.com.

Having become hosts to thousands of recently arrived non-Jews, Israelis must choose between one biblical book's xenophobia and another's tolerance.

There is more to the Book of Ruth, the scholars say, than meets the eye. On the face of it, Ruth, which is read on Shavuot because it takes place at the time of the summer wheat harvest, is the most sweetly pastoral of all the narrative books of the Bible. Long ago, it relates, "in the days when the judges ruled," the young and childless Moabite widow of a Judean emigre to Moab followed her mother-in-law, herself widowed and bereft of offspring, back to Judea.

First, she stirringly tells her: "Entreat me not to leave thee or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God; where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried."

In Judea, Ruth's natural charm and grace, aided by a few feminine wiles, cause her mother-in-law's cousin, a kind and wealthy landowner, to fall in love with her. He marries her and purchases her late husband's land so that it can be inherited by the son she bears him, thus symbolically continuing her mother-in-law's lineage and allowing all to end happily.

And oh, yes, one more thing: This son is said by the author of Ruth to be the grandfather of David, the greatest of Israel's kings.

Which is why, many Bible scholars think, the bucolic romance of the Book of Ruth is actually a fierce polemic.

Ruth, they say, needs to be read in the context of another book of the Bible, that of Ezra, with which its authorship is roughly contemporary. Ezra tells the story of a different return to Judea, that of the exiles deported to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar after his destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE.

When the Persian king Cyrus smashes the Babylonian empire in 538, he encourages the exiles to go back and rebuild the Temple; several generations later, in the reign of Artaxerxes (464-424), they are joined by a scribe named Ezra, the scion of a Judean family that remained in Babylon after Cyrus's edict.

Religiously speaking, Ezra is a hard-liner. He does not like what he sees when he arrives in Judea. Although the Temple has been rebuilt, ritual observance and knowledge are lax, and particularly upsetting to him are the many Jewish men who have taken non-Jewish wives. So distraught is he over "the holy seed" having "mingled themselves with the people of the land" that he says: "When I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished."

Yet Ezra quickly recovers and convenes a public assembly at which he calls upon the Judeans to "make confession unto the Lord God of your fathers, and do his pleasure; and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives." His audience, "in a loud voice," replies, "As thou has said, so we must do," and the story ends with a list of over 100 Judean notables who proceed to break up their families. "All these," we are told, "had taken strange wives, and some had wives by whom they had children."

How the wives and children felt, we are not told.

Two books of the Bible: one rigid and isolationist, one accepting and tolerant. In one, intermarriage can be atoned for only by divorce. In the other, it is not only approved of, it produces King David, who is the great-grandson of a Moabite--an attribution made by the author, it would seem, in conscious defiance of the Deuteronomic ban, "An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation, shall they not enter."

Two books, one historical and one fictional. It seems probable that the second was written in protest against the attitudes, if not the actual composition, of the first. Perhaps its author had lived through the events described in the first, or been one of those Judeans asked to abandon his family. If so, the Book of Ruth was his answer.

TWO BOOKS. And we have to choose one of them.

True, the rabbinic Judaism of later ages did not think it had to choose. It thought it could harmonize the two. If David descended from a Moabite woman, the rabbis reasoned, this was because the ban in Deuteronomy referred only to Moabite men, and if we are not told that Ruth converted before marrying Boaz, this is because--according to Yonatan ben-Uziel's free rendering of it in his Aramaic targum--her actual exchange with Naomi went as follows:

Ruth: Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee, for I wish to convert.

Naomi: We are commanded on Sabbaths and holidays to walk no further than 2000 ells.

Ruth: Whither thou goest, I will go.

Naomi: We are commanded not to lodge with other peoples.

Ruth: Where thou lodgest, I will lodge.

Naomi: We are commanded to observe the 613 commandments.

Ruth: What thy people observes, I will observe as though it were mine.

Naomi: We are commanded to refrain from other worship.

Ruth: Thy God is my God.

Naomi: We have four deaths [in punishment for infringing the laws of Judaism]: stoning, burning, stabbing, and hanging.

Ruth: Where thou diest, I will die and there will I be buried.

But this is of course not the harmonization of Ezra and Ruth. It is the Ezrafication of Ruth, pure and simple. And the time has come to choose between them, just as, long ago, the author of Ruth wished us to.

It has come now because as long as we Jews were a minority in the Diaspora, threatened with assimilation by the majorities around us, we had no choice but to live by the rules of Ezra.

These are the rules of minority survival. For its sake, openness to the majority, let alone intermarriage with it, must be avoided, since these can only lead to the minority's disappearance.

Ezra had a minority mentality himself, having been raised as a Jew in Babylon. In this he differed from the author of Ruth, a Judean born to a majority. This author never doubts that, even without formal conversion, a procedure that did not exist in his day, Ruth will become a good Judean and have Judean children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, because she, the Moabite, will assimilate to Judean ways.

This is a truth that we in Israel have been slow to grasp.

Although we are again, for the first time in thousands of years, a Jewish majority in our own land, we continue to think like a minority. Assimilation in our own country still strikes us as a threat, even though, on the contrary, it is an opportunity, since when you are a majority, assimilation works for you, not against you. Yet the presence among us of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russians, Thais, Ethiopians, and others has put us in a panic, as if we Israelis were about to become Russified or Ethiopianized rather than the other way around.

We need to realize that, when a Jew marries a non-Jew in Israel, the couple's children, even if not defined as Jewish halachically (according to Jewish law), will be Israeli. In fact, when a non-Jew marries a non-Jew in this country, their children will be Israeli too. The son or daughter of a marriage between a Thai worker and a non-Jewish Russian immigrant will not be, in terms of his or her cultural and political identity, half-Thai

Hebrew for "Jewish law," halacha is the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.

Hillel Halkin is a prominent translator and the author of Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel. Born in New York City, he had lived in Israel since 1970.

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