In the Jewish tradition, it is always women who take bold action to insure the birth of the Messiah. Brava for proactive women. But there is something these biblical women have in common which is troubling, to say the least. Each of these women initiates a sexual union with a father or father figure in order to conceive an heir. Each of these unions results in procreation and the birth of a child who furthers the Messianic line. Let’s begin our exploration of the theme with Ruth.
Ruth is from the tribe of Moab, a tribe off-limits to the Jews specifically because its origins lie in an act of father/daughter incest. Ruth’s ancestress, Lot’s daughters, get their father drunk and lie with him, presumably out of their fear that all of humanity has been extinguished after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,
Next comes the wily Tamar. We read in Genesis that one fine day the twice-widowed Tamar disguises herself as a cult prostitute and seduces her unsuspecting father-law at the crossroads. She too perpetuates the messianic line with the birth of her son. Ruth’s tactics echo the story of Lots’ daughters and the tale of Tamar: Once again we have a younger woman seducing an older father-like figure under irregular circumstances with conception urgently in mind. However disturbing, the theme of a daughter’s compulsion to return to the father or a father figure, their illicit union and a resultant birth is repeatedly associated with, of all things, the birth of the messiah. What’s more, with the exception of Lot’s daughters, the women’s taboo-defying acts are far from censured. On the contrary, because of the underlying messianic motivation, the acts are highly praised.
It’s important to realize that our three Biblical heroines are not passive women victimized by fatherly lust. The biblical women are in no way coerced by a father; rather they act with pro-active autonomy. Even in the case of Ruth who is instructed by Naomi, it is the women who direct the action. Far from bowing to some external authority embodied in the father, these women fully appropriate his prerogatives. Each of these women acts according to an inner prompting in defiance of an awesome taboo. I dare to consider a startling conclusion: The initiative of bold women who trespass boundaries turns out to be a necessary ingredient of redemption.
When I linger a bit longer on this (to me, still very ) unsavory thematic of daughters returning to their fathers, I can intuit an even deeper layer of meaning. The place where father and daughter meet is the scene of both a highly-charged bond and a deep wound, a sacred place where either the divine or the demonic may prevail. Here, as is true of all that is at once holy and taboo, the destructive may overshadow the procreative or the creative may liberate the potentially demonic. The Zohar says we must redeem the holy sparks that are entrapped in an outer shell of evil. (This is one way of understanding why the redemption is embodied in Ruth who bears within her the tarnish of incest and the messianic seed; through her the ultimate good is freed from its outer shell of transgression.) Whenever we allow ourselves to venture into such attractive and repellent territory we are taking a terrible risk: We may well be annihilated. But if we are not annihilated, we come away with a particular brand of strength. Born of the full knowledge of our vulnerability, this strength has the power to fulfill and sustain.
Could it be that our tradition hints that it is this sort of woman strength that is the necessary ingredient of redemption?