The mindset of a people is encapsulated in the writings they hold dear. For centuries the Book of Ruth, recited throughout the Jewish world on Shavuot, embodies the ongoing struggle between the universal and the particularistic, between the inspiring and the petty, between the uplifting and the parochial and between harsh realities and promising futures which so characterizes the human experience to this very day. Its timelessness and timeliness serves as a constant reminder of the challenges of daily life as well as of the transformative power of individual agency.

The story of Ruth the Moabite is usually recounted as a paradigmatic example of selflessness, compassion and inclusion. Her decision to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi back to Bethlehem after the family’s hunger-induced exile ended in the death of her husband and two sons is seen as a lasting symbol of sensitivity and concern for the other. Ruth, despite the fact that she was cautioned that she would be subject to the personal constrictions of Jewish law, made the extraordinarily courageous and humane choice to continue. “Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following 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.” In return, she was embraced into the Jewish fold.

The lesson, on the surface, is undeniable: loyalty is rewarded by kindness; identification with a people by inclusion into their community. The ease with which Ruth’s conversion took place, sadly, does not provide a guide for the rabbinical courts in Israel today. The wish to be a part of the Jewish people is not enough — in the eyes of Orthodoxy — to permit entry into the collectivity. The stark contrast between the openness of the biblical generation and the narrow-mindedness of some of its descendants cannot, however, dim the universality of the message that has been transmitted: humane actions are the foundation for an elevation of the spirit and the key to the expansive tolerance of the social order.

A less known, but equally significant, part of the Book of Ruth highlights the limits of that individual liberty which made her an immortal example of the concept of free will. It is all too easy to forget that hidden behind the universal message contained in this tale is a story of female subjugation bordering on servitude. Although a widow, Ruth was unable to remarry: a childless survivor who was by law considered to be the property of her husband’s closest surviving relative. This next-of-kin has the obligation to ensure, via what is still known as levirate marriage (ibum) the continuation of the deceased’s family line. The only way that a woman can be released from this situation is through an extraction (halitza) at the will of her inheritor — symbolized by the ceremonious removal of a shoe.

A good portion of the book of Ruth details how Boaz, her benefactor, bought her, along with the remaining family chattel, from another, nameless, relative.

And Boaz said unto the elders, and unto all the people: ‘Ye are witnesses this day, that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, of the hand of Naomi. Moreover Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, have I acquired to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place; ye are witnesses this day.’

In order to confirm the purchase, a shoe was exchanged (“Now this was the custom in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning exchanging, to confirm all things: a man removed his shoe, and gave it to his neighbor; and this was the attestation in Israel”).

The custom of levirate marriage is hardly a thing of the past. To this very day, scores of widows are prevented from remarrying unless they go through what is to many an exceptionally humiliating halitza ceremony. In a few notorious instances, the surviving male relative has refused to release the widow, leaving her effectively shackled for years. Repeated attempts to ameliorate if not eradicate this practice — along with its underlying concept of women as the possessions of their husbands and his family — have come to naught.

Above all else, however, the Book of Ruth is about leadership and the dynamics of change. The causes for significant reform are detailed in the text: economic malaise, uncertainty, the lack of a guiding hand. So, too, are the conditions for its realization: inventiveness during a window of opportunity (here the auspicious harvest season). Its historical legacy is highlighted precisely because it is a chronicle of the transition from the period of the judges to that of the kings — from a segmentary system to that of a complex political order.

So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife; and he went unto her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. And the women said unto Naomi: ‘Blessed be the Lord, who hath not left thee this day without a near kinsman, and let his name be famous in Israel…. And the women her neighbors gave it a name, saying: ‘There is a son born to Naomi'; and they called his name Obed; he is the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Two women, in equal measures, play a central role in this transformation: Naomi and Ruth. Indeed, female leadership (Deborah, Yael, Ruth, Naomi, Esther) in the bible is closely associated with periods of crisis and subsequent reform and stabilization. The role of women leaders is viewed not in the standard terms of power or charisma, but in terms of vision and enabling values. Ruth and Naomi are endowed with a mixture of notable individual traits which augment their agency (courage, stamina, care, loyalty and, above all, audacity), as well as with long-term perspicacity. Their quiet — even unexpected — corrective influence (tikkun) conveys a unique, collective, form of leadership. In a sense, the collaboration of Ruth and Naomi (much as that of Deborah and Yael) complement each other, while introducing new elements into the community and enhancing its collective capacities.

Intriguingly, even in biblical times, deep change takes place when gender stereotypes are ignored, the boundaries between the private and the public are (at least temporarily) surpassed and gender cooperation is pronounced. It is no coincidence that the term “woman of valor” is used by Boaz to portray Ruth and to explain her integration into the expanded family. Usually associated with the role of women in the home, in this instance it is utilized to convey public acceptance as well. It is only when the transition has firmly taken root (the full incorporation of Ruth and the rectification of Naomi’s position in the community) that women disappear once again from the narrative. The book closes with the following all-masculine sentence:

Now these are the generations of Peretz: Peretz begot Hetzron, and Hetzron begot Ram, and Ram begot Aminadav; and Aminadav begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon; and Salmon begot Boaz, and Boaz begot Obed; and Obed begot Jesse and Jesse begot David.

Ruth and Naomi, together, embody the concepts of continuity and change. Their central role in societal transformation is linked to their willingness to abide by binding values while taking chances and consciously making their own choices. Although their own experiences often underline adversity and prejudice, in broad strokes their story is one of openness and constructive reform. This dynamic is what makes the book of Ruth so much a contemporary — as well as an historical — tale which is as frustrating as it is appealing.