The Motherhood of Torah-on Ruth, Naomi and the Fierceness of Mothers

The celebration of Mother’s Day in the US this year coincided with some reflecting on the upcoming reading one of my favorite portions of Torah, the Megillah of Ruth, as well on a critique I encountered regarding the laws of purity described in Tazria.

The Megillah of Ruth is a story of enduring power for many reasons, and at its lies the fierce maternal love between Naomi and Ruth. As the scroll opens, a famine has pushed Naomi and her husband Elimelech and two sons into Moab, a land with a frayed, frequently hostile, and complex relationship to the Israelites. Elimelech dies, and Naomi’s sons take Moabite wives. Within 10 years, both sons also die. Naomi is left, as the scroll describes, “bereft of her two sons and husband.” (Ruth 1:5) It is the words that follow directly after these which speak to Naomi’s extraordinary character. The following paragraph begins “Then she arose with her daughters in law…” (Ruth 1:6). There is no weeping, nor worry for herself, a widow in a strange and hostile land. The first description of Naomi after the decimation of her entire family is entirely active/positive. She rises, she moves forward, and then she is shown placing the needs of her daughters in-law above her own by asking that they return to their parental homes. The text describes the young women weeping and kissing her and, initially, both refuse. She again urges them to turn back, reminding them that if they stay with her it is unlikely she would bear more sons for them to marry as would have been the custom. Indeed, she tells them that to stay with her is to likely consign themselves to a life of unmarried widowhood, demonstrating selfless concern for their welfare.

Naomi’s strength in the face of adversity and her ability to act out empathy and love and to place the needs of Ruth and Orpah above her own is an extraordinary example of maternal love. In the next breath Naomi says something incredible; “it grieves me much for your sakes that the hand of G‑d is gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13). The reader will find soon enough that the case is not quite as Naomi sees it in just then, but in her lament (its simplicity and outward direction almost a complete inverse to Job’s) we hear mostly concern for others. She grieves not just that she is bereft, but more that her situation may leave Ruth and Orpah so.

Perhaps it is a reflection of this pure chesed that causes one of the daughters in law, Ruth, to remain steadfast. Ruth’s decree, “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G‑d my G‑d. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried; G‑d do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part you and me.”(Ruth 1: 16-18) has often been discussed in the context of her great devotion to Naomi, and the great merit of the loving-kindness she showed her mother-in-law. Coming as it does on the heels of Naomi’s own selflessness I see the two women’s declarations and traits as inextricable, in the way mothers and daughters often are. Ruth is who she is because of Naomi’s demonstrable qualities and her deep and fierce love.

There is a curious episode as the women enter Bethlehem and are greeted by those who know Naomi. She says to them, “”Call me not Naomi (‘pleasantness’); call me Marah (‘bitterness”), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’ (Ruth 1:19-20). It is a rare moment of self-pity for Naomi. Perhaps on entering the land of her people, with no blood relatives left by her side she finally mourns. But interestingly, the text never does call her Marah- indeed the name is never mentioned again, nor does she ever live up it. Instead she is characterized throughout the rest of the narrative by her hard work and boundless love. As the story unfolds, Ruth’s narrative is primary, but Naomi is ever present, guiding, even scheming, but always pushing Ruth towards a better life through any means necessary. It is through Naomi that Ruth ends up with married to Boaz. And though modern readers may scan the text with mixed emotions, in the end, what I see are just Ruth and Naomi. The mother working within the limitations of her world, to secure the best possible fate for the daughter whom she both and adopted and who has adopted her and her people. Naomi is by turns, strong- moving past the death of her blood family to make plans for her daughters in law, compassionate- valuing the lives of other before her own, and fierce finding a way for herself and Ruth to survive as they return to Bethlehem widowed and impoverished. She embodies the deepest traits of motherhood, and the Torah makes it clear that she, and these traits are to be praised through the relationships it ascribes to Naomi. Her love and devotion are reflected back through Ruth, who we know as the first convert. Indeed, Ruth’s first child, Oved, will be one of the progenitors of Kind David. The image of Naomi’s motherhood for me, is that her ability to love and raise up Ruth was so great that within it was planted the seed of a King.

I was thinking about this extraordinary depiction of motherhood in the Torah last week when I came across Sarah Rindner’s article “Why Does the Bible Require New Mothers to Atone after Childbirth?” Mosaic Magazine, march 2017 accessed 5/08/2017. What Rindner discusses is the requirement listed in Tazria, which states after that birth, women will bring Hatat, a sin offering (Leviticus 12: 6-7).  There are also requirements for a period of purification, and a routine burnt offering known as olah, but these are not much discussed as they are in line with non-birth specific rituals performed by both men and women. Why, Rindner wonders, is a woman required to make such an offering if birth is considered a mitzvah? I am not a scholar, and I am certain Sarah Rindner is far more qualified to traverse this text than I, but her question intrigued me, especially in light of how opposite it seemed to my reading of Ruth. I wondered if premise of the question itself, with its implication of negativity, was genuine or instead a misdirection aimed at creating narrative tension in the essay.

If the brining of hatat is required for the unintentional transgression of a prohibition- what is the unintentional transgression of birth? Rindner, as a response, discusses the work of Mary Douglas, a writer and anthropologist whose reading of the text is described her published works Purity and Danger (1966) and in Leviticus as Literature (1999).  Rindner lays forth Douglas’ theory that the Levitical laws “designate[s] as sources of impurity not things that are morally sullied but things that by their very nature are unbounded and cannot be hemmed in. After all, Levitical impurity is a temporary state during which a person may not enter the Temple or eat certain consecrated foods; it is not some sort of punishment.” (Rindner, 2017). Douglas’ theory seems compelling, but Rindner swiftly dismisses it for not fully explaining why this temporarily impure spiritual state would necessitate atonement. She forthwith moves into a discussion of Shimon Bar Yahai’s commentary on the topic of interest, citing this passage from the Babylonian Talmud:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai was asked by his disciples: why did the Torah ordain that a woman bring a sacrifice after childbirth? He replied, “When she kneels in labor she swears in the heat of the moment that she will never again have intercourse with her husband. The Torah, therefore, ordained that she should bring a sacrifice.”

Rinder appears to believe what is being atoned is essentially, the breaking of an oath. She writes, “the woman in extremis takes an oath that she will later want to break and must therefore atone for having sworn in vain.” (Rindner, 2017). Finding this a rightly unsatisfactory explanation, she moves on to other commentary. Yet her reading of the passage seems surprisingly opaque- what of this extremis? Why would a mind like Shimon bar Yohai’s give what appears to be such a curiously flippant answer to one of his disciples, over a discussion of childbirth. Perhaps some readers would answer that he found the topic unworthy, but then why was the response recorded in Talmud? It is possible to look again at his wording, and ask, what is it are we seeing? What he describes is a women kneeling in labor, in the heat of the moment forswearing intercourse. Yes, it is an oath, but why this oath? If she is simply swearing an oath against her husband because of the pain of labor- then Rindner is right, the explanation does not hold, certainly some labors might be easier than others and not every woman would swear such a thing. Why, then are we given this image? What Shimon bar Yohai is showing us is woman, who is the instant of birth- fears for her life. This is the unbounded experience described by Mary Douglas. Why else make such a dire oath in that moment- one which forestalls all future creation and connection? The oath reveals to the reader, through its linguistic matrix, the fact that in that one moment of birth, there is always, always the possibility of death- more true for women in ancient times than today but still true nonetheless. Mary Douglas’ modern explication of Levitical purity seems to take its fullest bloom as I read it through the sage’s words.

As a nurse I have had the privilege of seeing dozens of births, and I can say without restraint that there is literally no point at which two beings touch both life and the possibility of death more potently than during childbirth. If there is any experience that, in Mary Douglas’ words “cannot be hemmed in”, it is this. What this small passage does, to my eyes, is acknowledge the enormity of the act of birth, and explain the way in which the birth experience transgresses the boundaries of everyday existence. The hatat then, is a measure which simply brings a new mother back within the boundaries of the expected world. Rindner herself acknowledges that the obligation to bring olah would be a daily ritual. So, as a counter-weight to the truly unintentional boundary-breaking experience that is birth, the obligation exists for her to bring hatat, not unlike this same obligation for others who have crossed socio-communal boundaries accepted by Torah.

To Rindner’s question then, if birth is such a mitzvah why must new mothers atone? As her essay progresses she parses the commentary to find her own unique and meaningful response, one which belies initial implications of her question. For myself, I find the subtle unfolding of Shimon bar Yohai’s commentary striking, and set adjacent to Mary Douglas’ modern exposition the each manage to entwine and enliven the other. The two commentaries together bring to mind a woman stepping through one world to another in the moment of birth, with the hatat a key to bring her back.

As we turn to celebrate our own mothers and the mothers around us, Torah can sometimes act as both lens and mirror. Framing the fierceness and kindness of the Ruths and Naomis in my own world, reflecting back to me the depth of their deeply unbounded experience.

About the Author
Lucinda Lees holds BA in Fine Arts, and is an RN, MS. She is a lifelong writer.
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