What’s the connection between the Biblical Ruth, the Rabbinical Courts, compassion, and extortion?

Dikla married Motti, the love of her life and – like any young bride – looked forward to a life of happiness with her soul mate. But shortly after the wedding, the dream was punctured; Motti was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dikla tended to him lovingly for the few short months they had together, and was devastated when he died.  At the age of 30, Dikla now found herself alone, a childless widow.

Two years later, Dikla decided to begin rehabilitating her life. After dating a while, she met Udi, and a year later the couple decided to wed.  But when they went to register for marriage at the local rabbinate they were shocked to discover that Dikla was not considered eligible for marriage.  Since her husband had died without leaving her any children, she would have to undergo a ceremony called “halitza” in order to be considered free.

According to the ancient Jewish law of yibum (levirate marriage), if a man has died without progeny, his brother is obliged to marry the widow.  If either of the parties does not want to go through with the marriage, they are required to perform a ceremony known as halitza, a symbolic ritual freeing the parties from the Biblical requirement. The ceremony, described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, involves the widow approaching her brother-in-law “in the presence of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’”

Dikla, a secular woman, was astonished. “Not only have I been widowed,” she recounts, “but I’m still considered to be married? Besides, my brother-in-law is already married and the father of children!”

She consulted a rabbi in her neighborhood who told her not to worry. Nowadays, the rabbis prefer halitza to levirate marriage, he explained. She was not expected to marry her brother-in-law, he assured. She would perform the simple ceremony and everything would be just fine, he said.

Except that everything wasn’t just fine. It wasn’t just fine at all.

Dikla’s brother-in-law lived in England, and had no intention of coming to Israel in order to perform a religious ritual.

Moreover, a little bird whispered in his ear that he stood to make some money off this deal. Dikla was still young and was likely to pay some cash in exchange for the ability to gain her freedom and start a family…

Ah, the irony: The law of yibum was originally a forward-thinking act of true compassion. It was meant to ensure that the deceased man’s name was carried on, but it also meant food, clothing, shelter and social standing for his widow.

This week, on Shavuot, we will read Megillat Ruth, in which the widowed Ruth follows her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Bethlehem. As a result of this act of charity, Ruth finds herself in a strange land, with the lowest social status possible. Eventually, Ruth was married by her kinsman Boaz in a parallel act of charity; despite the fact that he was a community leader and she was not at his social level, the values of taking responsibility for his relatives and rehabilitating Ruth’s life led him to perform a great act loving-kindness.

It saddens and angers me that the same Biblical directive which epitomized compassion and goodwill has in modern times become a source of blackmail and extortion.

Today, ten years on, Dikla is finally about to see her life taking a turn for the better. As the result of the recent intervention and legal representation of Yad L’Isha – the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline, her halitza ceremony will be taking place soon.

Megillat Ruth ends on a hopeful note; Ruth and Boaz have a son, Oved – the grandfather of the future King David. Although Dikla has missed most of her childbearing years because of her former brother-in-law’s greed, I hope that she too will be able to hold a baby in her arms as soon as possible and look toward the future.

But mostly, I hope that our society will return to its roots and remember the basic values of compassion and kindness on which our religious law is based.