Once upon a time, a Moabitess girl married a man from Judea. The man died, and the girl chose to accompany her mother in law back to Bethlehem. “I have nothing to offer you,” said the mother in law, “turn back to Moab.” But the girl refused to leave her side. “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” she said, and walked on.
Ruth walked on all the way to Bethlehem. She walked on into Boaz’s fields. She walked on straight into our national story through her great-grandson David. And she walks on into our lives every year on Shavuot, bringing echos of devotion and love.
But at the same time, Ruth seems to have walked out of her own story.
I first noticed Ruth’s disappearance when I was a young liberal arts student, fresh out of my very first feminist theory class. “I love Ruth,” I gushed then. “She is such a great feminine role model, leaving behind the comforts of familiarity, insisting to determine her own course.”
But as I reread the book of Ruth that year, my excitement dwindled. The courageous Moabitess girl from the first chapter continued to dare in the second, where she took initiative and went to glean wheat in a stranger’s field. But by the third chapter, something shifted.
The change was subtle at first: Ruth stopped taking initiative. Naomi, Ruth’s mother in law, devised a plan to help her young friend. She instructed her to bathe, anoint, and dress herself, go down to Boaz’s threshing floor, and lie by his side. Naomi hoped that as a male relative of their husbands, Boaz would marry Ruth and continue the family line.
In itself, this idea didn’t take away Ruth’s independence: Accepting good advice isn’t the same as total submission. But Ruth did more than accepting guidance. Faced with such intimate instructions regarding her body and conduct, she surrendered her free will, consciously, openly and unconditionally : “All that thou sayest unto me I will do.”
Ruth’s compliance with Naomi’s instructions was her last active participation in the course of events. When Naomi asked her “Who art thou, my daughter,” on the next morning, Ruth “told her all that the man had done to her.” She identified herself with what was done to her by another. And indeed, from this point on, things are done to Ruth and words are spoken about her, but she remains silent. The elders discuss her. Another male relative renounces his potential claim over her. Boaz declares that he “acquired” Ruth to be his wife, marries and impregnates her, following ancient costumes that protect the mail inheritance line. And throughout it all, Ruth doesn’t say a word.
When Ruth gives birth, her disappearance act comes to a resounding crescendo. The women of the neighborhoods come to celebrate the birth, but they don’t congratulate Ruth. They don’t even mention her by name. “There is a son born to Naomi’,” they exclaim, looking over Ruth’s boy.
The act that brought Ruth into our national history – giving birth to a king’s grandfather – doesn’t carry her name.
All those years ago, I closed the book of Ruth anxious and sad. Where once I saw a trailblazing role model, I suddenly saw a woman who lost herself and her voice. “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,” Ruth declared. And where once I saw courage and daring, I now percieved a foreshadowing of what was to come: Ruth’s gradual disappearance, her slow submergence into other people’s visions and words.
But then life happened, and my perspective changed.
I became a wife, and learned that being part of a unit means you no longer determine your future all alone.
I gave birth, and realized that while parenthood does swallow up many of our individual pursuits and interests, it doesn’t negate our free will. Yes, a lot of what I am and do revolves around my children these days. Yes, I am sometimes known as my son’s “ima” instead of as Rachel. But the first is my choice, and the second is my honor. Parenthood is an extension, not an erosion, of the self.
I became involved in various causes, and learned that cooperation is the condition of success, and compromising on my vision is the cost of cooperation.
I learned, in short, the difference between disappearing and growing. Sometimes, if we wish to grow into more than what we are, we must give up on parts of our individuality and options. In such cases, the missing parts don’t diminish our freedom of choice; they express it. They show that we are in charge of our course.
I see now that there is another possible reading of the book of Ruth. Yes, Ruth gave up her initiative when she unconditionally accepted Naomi’s guidance. Yes, the author of the text left her very name out towards the end. Yes, her voice disappears towards the end. But every single one of the other voices in the story can be seen as an expression of her own courageous choices.
Ruth chose to dedicate herself to Naomi. She chose to join the Jewish national story and follow new customs and paths. We can perceive these choices as the beginning of her disappearance, or as something else altogether. Naomi’s voice and vision, Boaz’s plans, the voices of the elders and the congratulations of the neighbors drowned out Ruth’s voice. But maybe they became her new means of expression. Maybe, instead of speaking in her own voice, Ruth’s will spoke through the events she set in motion.
Both readings are valid. What we focus on is ultimately our choice.
We can focus on the fact that Ruth’s name disappears towards the end of the story. Or we can focus on the fact the it stands proud and clear in the title of the book.
We can focus on the fact that her neighbors referred to her son as “Naomi’s”.
Or we can recall that generations of Jews remembered her name, and knew that David was a descendant of Ruth the Moabitess.
The choice between these readings is particularly poignant on Shavuot. Almost fifty days ago we celebrated our freedom from Egyptian bondage. On Shavuot we celebrate a new form of bondage, the one we accepted in Sinai. Ruth’s story challenges us to consider the relationship between this bondage and our free will.
Are our Jewish identity, heritage and practice an expression, or an erosion, of the self?
Do we grow through them, or disappear?
I know what my answer is. I may feel constrained when my religious values overrule ideas and practices I wish to follow. Just like I feel constrained when my kid is sick and I can’t go to work. But I remember that it was my choice to accept the constraints in the first place. They are the cost of becoming something more than I was, and they are worth it. My life with them is deeper, happier, and still very much my own.
What is your answer?