“And it was, in the days of the judging of the Judges [that the story took place]” (Ruth 1:1)
“It was a time in which the Judges were themselves being judged” (Ruth Rabba)
The Biblical book of Ruth presents a puzzling story. A story, to be sure, sweeping and dramatic—punctuated with moments of sadness, love, despair and hope. And, yet, if one considers the totality of the Ruth story, beginning with Elimelech’s journey from Bethlehem to Moab, Naomi and Ruth’s destitute return to the land of Israel, Ruth’s successful pursuit of Boaz’s redemption and the Davidic family lineage that results from their union, one struggles to understand the story’s message. Is it to teach us the pitfalls of leaving the land of Israel, the process of conversion, the laws levirate marriage, all of these things or, even as it touches on all of these things, something else?
Moreover, why do Jews read Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot, which contemporary Jews associate with the giving of the Torah? Is it merely because Ruth’s story corresponds seasonally with Shavuot? Unlikely. First, Ruth’s seasonality is an entirely tertiary part of the story. Second, factually, the story of Ruth plays out over an entire year, not just one season.
The story of Ruth is recounted on Shavuot, rather, because its primary lesson—how religious leadership is properly exercised—is critical to the perpetuation of the religious law Shavuot celebrates. It is a lesson that is also particularly relevant today.
Because Ruth portrays a community that faced a leadership crisis like the one we face today.
In Ruth’s times, Bethlehem, which would eventually be the birthplace of the Jewish monarchy, was a community characterized by apathy and inaction and focused on prestige rather than propriety. When Naomi returned from Moab, Bethlehem’s citizens, to whom “God…had given bread,” marveled at the once-prominent Naomi’s downfall—“is this Naomi?” Yet none stepped forward to feed the destitute widows. Instead, Naomi and Ruth had to fend for themselves and glean threshings left behind in the fields. Indeed, even Boaz, the story’s hero, initially fell short. When Ruth first encounters Boaz, it is clear that Boaz already knew her story. Why didn’t Boaz affirmatively seek out Ruth, rather than wait for her to chance upon his field? Moreover, now that Ruth had come, why did Boaz not take Ruth and Naomi into his home? Was it so charitable to merely let Ruth continue collecting like a pauper?
Instead of confronting hardship and injustice—Bethlehem’s leaders stood by.
And, when leaders stand aside, chaos reigns. In Bethlehem, exploitation of the weak was rampant, and a lone woman like Ruth—who had the added liability of being a Moabite—was subject to cruelty and abuse. Indeed, relieved that Boaz treated Ruth so kindly, Naomi advises Ruth, for Ruth’s own protection, to continue collecting in Boaz’s field: “best to continue collecting by [Boaz], lest they abuse you in another field.” Yet even Boaz’s field is not safe. Boaz reassures Ruth that “I have commanded my men not to harass you.” A message Boaz reinforces with an instruction to his men to “not humiliate [Ruth].” Because the danger was real. In Bethlehem, even seemingly fervent workers, who littered their greetings with Biblical frumspeak—“May God bless you”—could not be trusted to be Godly.
And where were Bethlehem’s leaders? Quite simply—nonexistent. Risk-averse and self-conscious, Bethlehem’s leaders reacted to religious uncertainty with paralysis and escapism rather than the boldness and innovation that circumstances required. Ruth’s desire to join the nation of Israel presented Bethlehem’s leadership with a legal quandary. The Torah prohibits accepting a Moabite into the nation of Israel, but in presenting that prohibition the Torah uses language that is literally translated as “Moabite man.” Was the Torah’s use of male language purposeful—meant to be construed literally (and narrowly), as prohibiting only the acceptance of Moabite men, but not a Moabite women? Or was the Torah’s terminology just generic and meant to be construed broadly—as prohibiting acceptance of a Moabite individual of any gender?
Bethlehem’s leaders reacted as weak leaders do—they dodged the question.
Boaz was not first in line to redeem Ruth—another redeemer (the “Initial Redeemer”) was. But when presented with a package deal—redemption of the familial field along with Ruth the Moabite—the Initial Redeemer balks. Not because the Initial Redeemer affirmatively interprets the Torah’s prohibition to be generic and broad. He actually takes no position on that question—he just says he’s unsure. “Perhaps I will corrupt my legacy.” When he encounters uncertainty, a fork in the Halakhic road, the Initial Redeemer doesn’t resolve the uncertainty or affirmatively pick a path, he defaults to stringency, taking what he perceives to be the “safer” route.
Ruth’s message is that the more stringent route is not necessarily the “safer” route.
Yes, there is a danger in acting wrongfully. But there is also a price to not acting at all. Who would save Ruth’s deceased husband, who would be left with no legacy—no “name”—at all? And who would save Ruth, who left her family and people on an Abraham-like journey of faith, only to find herself in legal limbo, trapped between the world she left and the one she longed to enter?
What sets Boaz apart from the initial redeemer—and from everyone else in Bethlehem—was his ability to comprehend the entire picture. When Boaz shows her kindness, Ruth asks “why have you seen fit to recognize me, a stranger?” Or, put differently, what makes you, Boaz, different than everyone else in Bethlehem? The answer is that Boaz had perspective: “I have heard of all you did for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death—that you left your parents, your homeland and journeyed to be among a nation foreign to you. May God bless you for all that you have done; moreover, may you be fully rewarded by the God of Israel under whose wings you have sought shelter.” Boaz understood what stood to be lost: “I have taken Ruth… to establish the name of [her deceased husband]…so that his name shall not be cut off from among his brethren…”
Boaz also has a sense of the momentous. One’s shoes were a powerful symbol in Bethlehem, used “to confirm all things.” When one wanted to relinquish one’s rights and responsibilities, “one drew off his shoe and gave it to his neighbor, and this was the attestation in Israel.” Yet the act’s significance is lost upon the Initial Redeemer—just a technical procedure to be followed. He quickly, voluntarily removes his own shoe and hands it away. But not Boaz. Boaz never takes his shoes off—not even when he sleeps. Relinquishing responsibility is something Boaz fears. When Ruth removes his shoes, Boaz wakes up, “with dread.” Boaz’s “cold feet” are not a fear of action, but of inaction—and the opportunities that might be lost.
Ruth’s story is our story. In this hour of destiny, which path shall we choose—that of the Initial Redeemer or that of Boaz?
Like the Initial Redeemer in Ruth, today’s rabbinate is risk-averse and myopic, defensive rather than opportunistic and sees the danger of acting rather than the cost of not acting. With respect to converts, instead of being amazed by the sacrifice that potential converts propose to make, the rabbinate reacts with suspicion and doubt. With respect to feminism, instead of being delighted that women seek greater spiritual involvement and Judaic knowledge—isn’t that what rabbis have been begging their congregations to do for years?—it sees, amazingly, a mortal threat to Orthodoxy. In each, in short, the rabbinate sees pitfalls rather than potential, a Moabite instead of a Ruth. And so, incredibly, in a world in which the number of dedicated Jews is dwindling, the rabbinate puts obstacles in the path of those affirmatively seeking enhanced Jewish observance or, worse, pushes them away.
Is that a recipe for Jewish continuity?
Indeed, in Ruth, the Initial Redeemer’s path leads to his own destruction. Ironically, the Initial Redeemer, who was so concerned with potentially tainting his own legacy that he was willing to shirk his duty to perpetuate the name of another, was not only himself forgotten, but became the ultimate symbol of anonymity—known as Ploni Almoni, the Hebrew equivalent of John Doe. The Initial Redeemer’s legacy is one of failed leadership and lost opportunities.
That cannot be our legacy.
We need a rabbinate that, like Boaz, is bold and courageous. That confronts our generation’s challenges instead of fleeing them. A rabbinate that is open and inclusive, which sees its role as a religious guide—dedicated to providing religious answers and inspiring Jews (and non-Jews) with our religion’s wisdom and beauty—rather than a religious bouncer. Boaz’s legacy is not merely a genetic legacy of Jewish leaders, but an ideological legacy of Jewish leadership. And that must also be our legacy.