Sorry, Donald Trump, I’m going to play the woman card in this month’s column. As the Jewish community looks ahead to its next big religious holiday, Shavuot, coming in June, the story of two women stands out as one of the most endearing features of the celebration.
To be sure, the central motif of the Shavout festival is the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Yet, as the Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow first pointed out years ago, one biblical verse connected to that event continues to pain many women. Although tradition has always held that the entire community of Israel — men, women, and children — stood in awe and trembling at the foot of the mountain, prepared to enter a covenant with God, Moses seems to speak beforehand only to the men. “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman,” he says (Exodus 19:15). With those words he pushes aside half the Israelites, the women, not only of his generation but also of generations to come — including our own — who were taught to see themselves as though they, too, were present at Sinai. In fact, commentators have shown that by singling out the men, Moses actually distorted God’s own warning that everyone, men and women, must stay pure and wash their clothes (19:10). Be that as it may, Moses’ male-oriented command has left a bad taste in the mouths of many feminists.
Enter the beautiful Book of Ruth, chanted on the second day of Shavuot, a counterpoint to such bad feelings. For if anyone doubts the importance of women in Jewish tradition, he or she need only follow the adventures of Ruth and Naomi, two canny, courageous and remarkable women. During the period of Judges, a time of danger and lawlessness in early Jewish history, these women make their way alone from the land of Moab to the land of Israel, and through sheer determination and strength map out the fate of the Jewish people.
As a child studying the Book of Ruth, I was indifferent to these two women; they seemed too good, too idyllic to stir my imagination. As an adult, with each reading of their story, I have become increasingly awed by them, increasingly impressed as they journey through a man’s world and make that world their own. Naomi’s husband and two sons have died, one of them Ruth’s spouse. Although Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, Orpah, decides to remain in Moab with her family, Ruth clings to Naomi, adopting her land, her people, and her God. In those actions, Ruth is often compared to Abraham, who left his land and home to follow God’s commandment. Ruth, however, does not hear a divine voice commanding her. Of her own volition and with loving kindness, she chooses her path with Naomi. (By the way, Ruth and Naomi are the only two biblical women whose relationship is described in the text with the word “love.”)
Through Naomi’s cleverness and Ruth’s valor, the young woman meets and eventually weds Boaz, a kinsman, and that marriage will lead several generations later to the birth of David, Israel’s greatest king, and, it is said, one day to the Messiah.
How is it possible that the grandest hopes of the Jewish people will be realized through a Moabite, a member of a tribe regarded as Israel’s enemy? In part, of course, because Ruth gave up her origins and embraced the people of Israel. But in large part also because, like all the characters in the Bible, Ruth is not perfect. Abraham lies about his wife Sarah, Jacob is a trickster, Leah and Rachel bicker with each other. Biblical personages do not start out great; they achieve greatness, which is why they inspire us.
And biblical women do something more. In spite of flaws, they develop within them a sense of mission, an inner awareness of creating and advancing Israel’s heritage. The matriarch Sarah has been criticized for her harsh treatment of her maidservant Hagar, whom she banished from her home. Yet she knew, and God supported her, that her son Isaac must bear the line of the Jewish people. Rebekah fooled her husband Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, because she understood intrinsically that Jacob would carry that line forward. Rachel and Leah manipulated their husband Jacob and together begat 12 sons who became the backbone of the Jewish nation.
Despite Ruth’s background, she and Naomi move inexorably toward developing that nation’s future, Naomi instructing and guiding her daughter-in-law, Ruth gathering food and caring for Naomi. We read their story on Shavuot and we have no doubt that in a mystical and mysterious past women, indeed, stood at the base of Mount Sinai, absorbing the Torah’s teachings for all time.
The woman card? Judaism would not exist without it.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” Her biography of Golda Meir will be published in 2017.