Is Ruth really a role model?

When a biblical heroine comports herself differently from our modern expectations of whom we should emulate, is she still a heroine? 3 approaches
'Ruth in Boaz's Field,' by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. (Wikipedia)
'Ruth in Boaz's Field,' by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. (Wikipedia)

The Question

About a year ago, a Midreshet Lindenbaum alumna posed a thought-provoking question to me over WhatsApp about the character of Ruth. Her query unsettled me because it hit on a troubling issue which I didn’t know how to make sense of in a way that would satisfy her or myself. The student wrote that Ruth left her feeling confused. She is extolled for her extreme acts of kindness and self-sacrifice, abandoning her home to cling to her penniless, bereft mother-in-law, selflessly devoting herself to provide sustenance for both of them, and humbly doing anything that might vouchsafe for them a secure future. However, as the student wrote to me, it seems as though Ruth “is so committed to helping Naomi that her own identity is erased, and to me at least it seems to be contrary to the type of person that we’re supposed to strive to be.” In other words, she was asking, Is Ruth really a role model?  Is she the type of character we should put on a pedestal for ourselves, our daughters, our students to strive to emulate?  Chesed, generosity, self-sacrifice, devotion, and commitment are all laudatory traits, but Ruth seems to take them to extremes, perhaps one might even say unhealthy extremes.

The most disturbing scene in her short, four-chapter scroll, is when Naomi bids her to wash and beautify herself, surreptitiously slip into Boaz’s threshing floor at night, lie down next to him, and submit herself to whatever Boaz will instruct her to do.[1]  Surely, Naomi and Ruth must have desperately hoped and prayed for the fortunate ending that in fact transpires, but both of them must have been aware that the provocative scene could easily have ended very differently.  Do we seek to become the types of people who would so lose our own sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth that we would meekly acquiesce to be a pawn in such a plot, as Ruth does with her response “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה” – whatever you say, I will do? [2]

Approach #1: Ruth is more self-effacing than we ought to be, yet she remains a role model[3]

The first approach accepts that in fact Ruth has self-effacing qualities that are more extreme than what we should aspire to ourselves; this does not, however, detract from her standing as a heroine and role model. How so?

There are several possible answers. The same student who proposed the question initially herself suggested a particularly insightful one. She pointed out that the megilla opens by highlighting its historical context – “ויהי בימי שפט השפטים” (and it was when the Judges judged) – indicating that this is a critical nugget of information.  The era of the Judges was a disastrous one for the Jewish people, steeped in repetitive cycles of idol worship and then oppression by other nations in punishment for their abandonment of God.  The most oft-repeated phrase throughout the Book of Judges, the line that best encapsulates the era is “איש הישר בעיניו יעשה” — each person did whatever was right in his own eyes.[4]  It was an era marked by selfishness, insularity, and a lack of concern for anyone outside of oneself.  In such a time period, there could not have been a more perfect heroine or role model than Ruth.

The Rambam writes in Hilchot De’ot 2:2 that the best method for an individual to correct a character flaw is to go to the opposite extreme.  For example, if he suffers from arrogance, writes the Rambam, he “should sit in the least honorable seat and wear worn-out clothes which shame their wearer.” The Rambam explicitly writes that he does not believe it is ideal to subject oneself to humiliation; he recommends it only as a temporary corrective for someone suffering from arrogance.  He concludes, “So too should a person behave regarding all character traits. If he is on one extreme he should move to the opposite extreme and accustom himself to such behavior for a good while until he may return to the proper middle path.”

Perhaps Ruth demonstrates to us that the Rambam’s prescription for correcting an individual’s character traits is equally applicable on the national level. As a nation, Bnei Yisrael during Ruth’s time were falling prey to excessive selfishness; Ruth emerged on the scene and modeled unreserved self-sacrifice because that was precisely what was needed as a corrective measure. Ruth’s contemporaries trampled on others’ identities in order to assert their own; Ruth muted her own identity in order to restore Naomi’s.[5]  The people at Ruth’s time needed to behave selflessly not merely in appropriate amounts but precisely to Ruth-esque excessive degrees to serve as an antidote to their self-centeredness, and help them eventually achieve the “proper middle path.”[6]

Approach #2: Ruth is a role model of trust and faith

A second approach was suggested to me by a wise mother-in-law,[7] who pointed out that Ruth is not blindly heeding the instructions of just anyone; the disturbing command to seek out Boaz in the middle of the night has been issued by none other than Naomi, whom Ruth has learned to trust deeply and unconditionally through many years of living, breathing, eating, sleeping, suffering, and surviving side-by-side.  From all these experiences, Ruth has developed unswerving faith and confidence both in Naomi’s goodness and in her utter devotion to Ruth’s well-being.  Within the context of this relationship, Ruth’s blind obedience to Naomi’s plan is transformed from troubling docility to a praiseworthy act of trust and faith. A trusted, beloved parent asking us to embark on a questionable mission or to perform an arduous favor is entirely different than a random stranger requesting the identical thing.

This point resonated deeply with me. Yet, I was still somewhat unsettled, largely because of recent alarming incidents in which trusted figures, including rabbinic ones, have manipulated and abused unsuspecting congregants. Did I really want to convey the message to my students that they should unquestioningly agree to anything a trusted figure in their life asks of them?

A fascinating twist emerges from noting the specific time that Chazal selected for the reading of the Book of Ruth, the holiday of Shavuot. Numerous commentators have pondered the connection between the two.[8]  Perhaps the key lies in the fact that it was at Mount Sinai that Am Yisrael declared, “נעשה ונשמע!” – we will do and we will hear, placing submission to God’s will prior to, and not predicated upon, understanding it.  Perhaps Ruth and Noami’s relationship is meant to be a metaphor for our relationship with God.  Just as Ruth had developed unwavering trust in Naomi, leading her to ultimately submit to whatever Naomi would suggest, so too had Am Yisrael acquired steadfast faith in God over the course of the Plagues, the Exodus, and the Splitting of the Sea, culminating in their declaration of absolute commitment to His commandments at Mount Sinai. No human being deserves the kind of blind trust that Ruth places in Naomi, but God does. On the holiday of Shavuot when we relive our acceptance of God and His Torah, Ruth is the perfect heroine. Her traits of faith, obedience, and submission are precisely the ones to emulate in the realm of our relationship with our Creator.

Approach #3: Ruth is not as self-effacing as she appears

This final approach goes in a completely different direction than either of the first two.  It suggests that a close reading of the text of the Megilla reveals that Ruth is a much stronger, more proactive character than she appears at first glance.  First, it is Ruth’s own decision, and her decision alone, to cling so determinedly to Naomi.  In fact, Naomi repeatedly attempts to dissuade her, yet Ruth tenaciously holds fast.

More significantly, a neighbor of mine, Micah Gimpel, suggested the following fascinating read: The most disturbing scene of the Megilla is Ruth’s rendezvous with Boaz on his threshing floor. There are many troubling aspects[9] but for our purposes, the most problematic is Ruth’s obedient acquiescence to be a pawn in such a potentially humiliating, degrading plot.  Wouldn’t we want to teach our daughters and students to have the confidence and self-respect to resolutely refuse to participate in such a plan?  How can we possibly view Ruth as a heroine and role model?

What Micah pointed out is that Ruth may not be as passive and docile as she appears. When Naomi describes the plan, she essentially instructs Ruth to be merely a puppet, first her own and then Boaz’s, with no agency of her own. Naomi directs her to bathe, anoint, dress attractively, descend to the threshing floor, lie down next to the satiated and perhaps inebriated Boaz, uncover his feet, and then await his instructions for what to do next. In other words, in Naomi’s plan, Ruth is to pass directly from following her (Naomi’s) explicit, detailed instructions to following Boaz’s without a moment to think or act on her own.  And Ruth dutifully assents, “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה” – all that you say I will do.[10]

Everything begins exactly according to plan. Verse 5 informs us, “ותעש ככל אשר צותה חמותה” – Ruth does everything that her mother-in-law commanded her. She goes down to Boaz’s threshing floor, uncovers his feet, and lies down beside him to await the unfolding of events.  Boaz in fact awakens and is shocked to discover a woman at his feet.  He inquires as to her identity, and Ruth responds, “אנכי רות אמתך” – I am Ruth your maidservant. What happens next is the critical turning point.  According to Naomi’s plan, Ruth ought to be silent at this point and await Boaz’s instructions. But that is not what Ruth does!  She continues speaking, and seizes the opportunity to voice her own hope, nay her own demand: “ופרשת כנפך על אמתך כי גואל אתה” – spread your wing over your maidservant for you are a redeemer.  Rather than silently, passively await Boaz’s response to discovering a woman at his feet as Naomi had instructed her, Ruth veers from the script and takes matters into her own hands, demanding that Boaz do something to protect her and secure her future.[11]  Just as Esther has her transformative moment in her megilla when she ceases to follow everyone else’s commands[12] and pronounces one of her own,[13] this is Ruth’s moment of transformation.

Precisely at the moment when she might appear weakest and most submissive is exactly the moment when she charts her own future and directs the course of how it will play out.  Remarkably, Boaz endorses Ruth’s newfound bold, assertive voice by declaring “ברוכה את לה’ בתי” – blessed are you to Hashem, my daughter.  He then completes the role reversal by declaring that he will do all that Ruth says – “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה לך”, a remarkable turnaround from Naomi’s plan in which Ruth was supposed to do all that Boaz instructed.[14]   Even more striking is that these words echo almost verbatim the very language with which Ruth initially expressed her submission to Naomi’s plan – “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה”.[15]  The fact that Boaz now employs the identical phraseology to affirm his submission to Ruth underscores the stunning reversals that have taken place between the lines of this brilliant megilla.


We have explored three different approaches to understanding why Ruth’s seemingly self-effacing character is in fact a role model: that Ruth was in fact overly meek but she was a role model and corrective for her specific era; that Ruth’s blind faith in Naomi models for us the kind of deep trust and obedience we should strive to develop in our relationship with God (perhaps other trusted figures in our life as well); and that a close read indicates that Ruth is in truth a much more assertive character than she appears.  Whichever approach resonates most with you, I hope you feel as I do – that delving into the character of Ruth has enriched and deepened my appreciation of her, her megilla, and the myriad lessons hidden within its four chapters.

[1] “ורחצת וסכת ושמת שמלותיך עליך וירדת הגורן אל תודעי לאיש… ושכבת והוא יגיד לך את אשר תעשין” (רות ג:ג-ד)

[2] Ruth 3:4

[3] In theory, another approach could suggest Ruth is not meant to be a role model at all.  Not every character who appears in Tanach is a hero meant to be emulated.  However, to me it seems clear that she is portrayed as a positive character from whom we are supposed to learn how to behave ourselves in at least some way. After all, the megilla ends by delineating the direct line of descent from Ruth to King David.

[4] See for example Shoftim 17:6 and 21:25

[5] Naomi’s loss of identity is highlighted by her insisting on a name change for herself.  As she and Ruth are returning to Israel from the fields of Moav, Naomi tells the townspeople, “אל תקראנה לי נעמי קראן לי מרא כי המר שקי לי מאד” (א:כ) – Do not call me Naomi; call me “Bitterness (Mara)” for God has done bitter things to me.   It is incredibly significant then that at the end of the Megilla (4:17), the townspeople proclaim that Ruth’s baby should be to Naomi a “משיב נפש” – restorer of her spirit, and they (the women of the town) are the ones who bestow upon him a name, declaring that a son has been born to Naomi – “ותקראנה לו השכנות שם לאמר ילד בן לנעמי”.  Through Ruth and her son, Naomi’s spirit, her name, and her family line have been restored.

[6] Along similar lines, Dr. Yael Ziegler also posited that Ruth’s historical context provides the key, but she focused on Ruth as the prelude to the era of Kings, rather than as an antidote to the period of the Shoftim.  She suggested that since monarchs are at such high risk of arrogance and utilizing their power to subjugate others, the Torah inserted the story of Ruth immediately prior to the inception of that era as a powerful message to maintain humility and a deep sense of service to others.

[7] Mrs. Chani Poupko

[8] A quick Google search will reveal a multitude of different answers

[9] Such as: What was Naomi thinking in sending Ruth out on such a mission?  Does the Torah approve of using such methods?  See Rav Mordechai Sabato’s article

[10] Ruth 3:4

[11] The specific language that Ruth employs amplifies the chutzpah thinly veiled in her request.  In their first interaction, Boaz praises Ruth for her devotion to Naomi and blesses her that she should be recompensed by God under whose wings she has sought refuge – “ישלם ה’ פעלך ותהי משכרתך שלמה מעם ה’ אלקי ישראל אשר באת לחסות תחת כנפיו” (ב:יב) .  In her transformational moment, Ruth expresses her demand utilizing strikingly similar imagery – “ופרשת כנפך על אמתך” – spread your wing over your maidservant.  Her bold message seems to be, “If you really believe I am so praiseworthy, do not leave it to God to protect me under His Divine wings; take action yourself and protect me under yours!”

[12] Esther 2:10, 2:15, 2:20

[13] Esther 4:15-16

[14] Interestingly, Megillat Esther contains almost an identical role reversal.  Initially, Esther does everything Mordechai commands her, even when she is queen of the land – “ואת מאמר מרדכי אסתר עשה כאשר היתה באמנה אתו” (אסתר ב:כ).  Yet, once Esther undergoes her transformation and issues a command to Mordechai, the Megilla relates: “ויעש ככל אשר צותה עליו אסתר” (אסתר ד:יז) – Mordechai did everything Esther commanded him.

[15] Ruth 3:4

About the Author
Rabbanit Dena (Freundlich) Rock is a core member of the faculty at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, where she teaches Talmud and Halachah, in addition to coordinating the Matmidot Scholars program. Prior to making aliyah in 2010, she served as Talmud department chair at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ. She holds a BA in Biology and Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, an MA in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and was a member of the first graduating class of Yeshiva University's Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS).
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