“Rabbi Zeira said: This scroll [Ruth] tells us nothing of purity or impurity, of prohibition or permission. For what purpose was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of loving-kindness [gemilut hasadim] (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 4:12).”
At first glance, it makes no sense to read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot. Megillat Ruth contains no explicit connection to the giving of the Torah or the festival of the bikkurim (first fruits), nor does it make any direct reference to the holiday itself. Instead, this midrash teaches us that Megillat Ruth challenges us to think about what it means to be kind, in many ways the essence of Torah, particularly to those who are on the outside looking in to the Jewish Community.
Aviva Zornberg captures how this midrash reflects an underlying tension in Megillat Ruth in The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. Zornberg writes that, “[Ruth’s] situation is sharply defined by the law: she can never find her place within the community of God” (page 458). In biblical Judaism, there is no such thing as “conversion” the way we understand it today, and thus Ruth will always remain a Moabite by-birth, even though she famously tells her mother-in-law Naomi that, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16).
At the same time, Zornberg reminds us that, “as every reader has always known, the book of Ruth will conclude in the way legislated by history: Ruth will marry Boaz, and their child will be grandfather to King David.” Even though we are aware that Ruth is not a “member” of the Jewish covenant, Megillat Ruth reminds us that she is important to the Jewish community, and essential to the Jewish people’s destiny.
In this sense, Megillat Ruth is a case study in what Barry Johnson calls “polarity management,” the ability to understand and develop a genuine sensitivity for diametrically opposing views. He writes:
“Exploring an oppositional view requires a willingness to temporarily let go of your own view and put some effort into seeing and understanding the other’s view. You are in control of the decision to let go of your view and to put your effort into seeing the other’s view. You are not in control of the decision on the part of the other people to let go of their view and put forth their effort at seeing your view” (Barry Johnson P.h.D., Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, page 48).
Johnson does not argue that we should develop an understanding of an oppositional view so that we might change the view of our opponent. Rather, Johnson argues that understanding the oppositional views at play is the first step to developing the capacity to navigate a seemingly intractable problem.
For the Jewish Community, our collective vitality will come in part by the extent to which we are able to manage polarities together. Consider intermarriage. Since the National Jewish Population Survey 1990, intermarriage has remained front-in-center of the Jewish communal conversation, yet there are times when I worry that we are exactly where we started over twenty-five years ago. Of course, there are a number of tremendous Jewish organizations that help institutions rethink the needs of interfaith families, and a growing body of qualitative and quantitative research. At the same time, I find that the conversation has devolved into the communal equivalent of trench warfare, where I am asked to choose between seeing intermarriage as the equivalent of a Jewish public health crisis, the greatest threat to Judaism in generations, or see the organized Jewish community as oblivious, unfeeling and in denial of immovable societal trends that began decades ago.
Judaism must always be understood in context, and this not the first or the last time that the Jewish Community will have to figure out how to navigate polarities. As Megillat Ruth reminds us, the Jewish people always needed to manage their love of Judaism with their love of Jews, and in many ways that is what the Jewish Community is tasked with in the twenty-first century. The more we become attached to seeing the challenge of intermarriage only in dire terms, the more we become paralyzed from finding a third way that will help us turn this challenge into an opportunity to shape more thriving communities for generations to come. When we are caught in our own pole, we ignore the fact that this tension is defined and embraced in Megillat Ruth, the very text that teaches us about welcoming, kindness, charity, and redemption.
This Shavuot, we need to challenge ourselves to engage in polarity management, to identify and live with tensions that are new and not at all new, at the same time. Like Megillat Ruth, we read a text about Jewish destiny that challenges our definitions of community and covenant, and yet we are taught that Ruth, a woman who must face the challenge of being an outsider, is ultimately the person from whom the Messiah will descend. Redemption does not come from extremism; redemption comes from harmony and balance, the values that allow us to live with tension and thrive within it.