This week on the holiday of Shavuot we read the biblical Book of Ruth. Back in grade school when I first met the heroine, Ruth was never one of my favorites. To be frank, she was a bit of a turn-off. Young, widowed and childless, Ruth puts aside all concern for herself in deference to Naomi, her bereaved mother-in-law. Ruth’s generosity and loyalty were of course admirable. But deep down I was resentful of womanly worthiness measured in degrees of self-sacrifice. My distaste for self-abnegation led me to dismiss Ruth. In retrospect, it blinded me to what I now see as her startling subversive dimension. Happily, it’s never too late to reconsider.
I was educated with relentless emphasis on the dichotomy of right and wrong, virtue and vice, the light of faith versus the darkness of doubt. There were good girls (who were not vain or selfish) and bad girls (who were both). Much as I longed for approval, I never did well within those dualities.
The same polarity crops up in the Book of Ruth. If Ruth is the devoted daughter-in-law, lauded and rewarded for staying with her mother-in-law Naomi after the death of her husband, she has her counterpart in Orpah, the other widowed daughter-in-law, she who, after some convincing, goes her own way. Even back then I thought that some sympathy could surely be accorded Orpah a young childless widow who sought to start life anew. But Orpah, the one who looks after herself is lost to us, while the legacy of selfless, obedient Ruth lives on.
Ruth is richly rewarded for her famous “wherever thou go-est, I go-est … your God is my God” devotion to Naomi. In fact, she alone of all women is celebrated as a direct ancestor of the Messiah. (Later on in the story she remarries and has a son who is a forebear of King David; thus she is credited with the assurance of the messianic line.)
Here’s where the story takes on a few unconventional contours. Ruth is a non-Jew, a Moabite princess. The Moabites are a people off limits to the Jewish nation because their tribe originated in a disturbing story of father-daughter incest. The tribe is conceived in the aftermath of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. Fleeing fire and brimstone with their father, Lot’s daughters are convinced he is the only man left on earth. They do not hesitate to get their father drunk and procreate with him. The son born of Lot’s union with his proactive eldest daughter is named Mo-ab (or from the father) and it is from him that the Moabites descend.
The incestuous origin of Moab is an indelible stain on Ruth’s pedigree. Nonetheless, Ruth is credited with insuring the birth of the Messiah. It seems that in the chrysalis that is Ruth, humanity’s misguided impulses and highest aspirations reconfigure in a potent alchemy. What is sown in incest passes through Ruth and blossoms into the redemptive. Far from being a goody-goody, Ruth is a transformative field.
To this day, I wonder what message might lie in this juxtaposition of moral polarities. The extreme contrast between Ruth’s origins, her choices and her destiny explode traditional categories. The righteous Ruth comes to suggest that the separation of high and low, right and wrong, laudable and questionable conduct is not as rigid as I was led to believe.
A discussion of Ruth in all of her dimensions might have avoided much torment among the unorthodox. She brings solace (not only to her mother-in-law but) to self-questioning aspirants to the Good.