Ruth and Naomi, Devoted Partners

Devar Torah on Megilat Ruth, in memory of Dorothy Braun z”l
Fabrangen, Washington, DC, June 8, 2019

My mother-in-law, Dottie Braun, died eight weeks ago.  I was close with my mother-in-law and sometimes called us a “Ruth-Naomi” pair.  So today, I had planned to comment on that aspect of the book of Ruth, in memory of Dottie.

In preparing this drash, though, I read the book of Ruth more carefully, and no longer think that it conveys the simple story of devotion that many of us imagine.  So my drash is a bit different than what I expected, though it is still a moment for me to pause in tribute to my mother-in-law, Dottie.

So what’s in the book?  Marge Piercy writes in her poem, The Book of Ruth and Naomi,

“When you pick up the Tanakh and read
the Book of Ruth, it is a shock
how little it resembles memory.
It’s concerned with inheritance,
lands, men’s names, how women
must wiggle and wobble to live.”

(from Mars and Her Children, 1992, Knopf; I found it in Poems of Ruth posted on Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s blog.)

Many of us are familiar with Ruth’s statements of attachment to Naomi after the deaths of Naomi’s sons, including Ruth’s husband, Machlon.  Ruth declares (1:16) “wherever you go, I will go: wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

Ruth has thus become a model for conversion, contributing to the tradition of reading Megilat Ruth at Shavuot, when we re-enact our acceptance of Torah.

Looking more carefully at Ruth’s remarks, though, it seems that her attraction to “your people” and “your God” is based on her relationship with Naomi.  Unlike Abraham, a foreigner who also migrates to the Promised Land, Ruth doesn’t embark on her journey because of a direct relationship with God. Rather, she says, regarding Naomi, YOUR God will be my God, where YOU go/get buried, I will as well.  Indeed, this book is very focused on the Ruth-Naomi relationship.  They speak frequently in the narrative – unusual for women in a Biblical text – and jointly enact their plan to safely glean in the fields and to appeal to Boaz and his redeemer status.

Understandably in a long-term relationship, there are missteps.  Avivah Zornberg, speaking at Adas Israel in Washington, DC  on May 7, 2019, spoke of two “microaggressions” that Naomi directs to Ruth.  The first happens when they arrive at Bethlehem.  Naomi laments (2:21), “I went away full, and Adonai brought me back empty” though Ruth was right by her side.  I wonder whether Ruth felt invisible at that moment.  Honestly, though, Naomi was indeed very nearly empty – her husband and sons were gone, she was displaced, her former family wealth had disappeared, and she returns to Bethlehem like a burnt husk left over from a meal offering (“vatesha’er”, Ruth Rabba 2:8).

The second microaggression is at the end of the book; Ruth has a baby, but then she nearly disappears from the narrative. Referring to 4:14, “And the women said to Naomi… “he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons”, but then the text continues “Naomi took the child and became its omenet (nursemaid/foster mother)”.  Next, the women say “A son is born to Naomi!” and (the women? Ruth and Naomi?) name him Obed. Finally, when we are given a male lineage through to David, both women are lost to the story.

So where is the missing Ruth?  I refer you to a midrash shared by Avivah Zornberg at her Adas lecture.

Ruth Rabba 2 2

In this midrash, Ruth reappears at Solomon’s court, seated on Solomon’s right while his mother, Bat-Sheva, is seated to his left. The judgement (Melakhim I, 3:16-28) concerns the story of the two women who each claim to be the mother of a single baby. So Ruth lives to see the wisdom of her offspring and is honored in the court of her great-great-grandson (Ruth-Obed-Jesse-David-Solomon).  And she is present for a court case where the identity of the true mother is revealed, a kind of last laugh, considering her treatment in Chapter 4.

(I find it provocative that Batsheva attends the court for this decision.  In her lifetime, two men desire her and one dies, and David entirely controls the outcome by putting her first husband, Uriah, in harm’s way in battle. In Solomon’s court, two women vie for one baby, and Solomon’s proposed solution avoids a resulting death.)

Separately, I found two midrashim that bear on this, in a blog post by Baruch Cohen. Yalkut Shimoni 2:175 (a compilation of midrashim ~ 1100 CE ) claims that the two women were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, while another midrash (Kohelet Rabba 10:16) identifies them as yevamot, women whose husbands died and who need a live birth to avoid Yibbum, the levirate marriage, to male “redeeming” relatives who were undesirable partners. Meiri (1249-1305, Catalonia; commentary on Yevamot 17a) connects these two midrashim, giving us an astonishing motivation for one of the women appearing in Solomon’s court. The consequences of a dead child – living the balance of one’s life with a distasteful redeemer – might have brought a shrewd bereaved mother to court, claiming that the live infant was hers.

I am now more sympathetic to the newly bereaved mother’s desperate and distorted mental state, than I was as a child hearing the Biblical story for the first time and delighting in Solomon unmasking this cruel, murderous mother. Her scheming brings to mind the careful plotting Naomi and Ruth undertake to procure their best redeemer, Boaz.

Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations, a question of motherhood status, and the complications of levirate marriage are elements present in both the Ruth story and in these midrashim. It takes the wisdom of Solomon, her descendant, to untangle them.

These stories bring us back to Marge Piercy’s observation that in a hostile, controlling society, women must “wiggle and wobble to live”.  The book of Ruth then becomes a narrative of two mutually devoted women who, facing great adversity, together plan to survive and thrive.  To continue with Marge Piercy’s poem:

“Show me a woman who does not dream
a double, heart’s twin, a sister
of the mind in whose ear she can whisper,
whose hair she can braid as her life
twists its pleasure and pain and shame.
Show me a woman who does not hide
in the locket of bone that deep
eye beam of fiercely gentle love
she had once from mother, daughter,
sister; once like a warm moon
that radiance aligned the tides
of her blood into potent order.”

And with that, I recall again the memory of my mother-in-law, Dottie Braun, zikhronah livrakha.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Other sources I read preparing this drash:

Gabriel H. Cohn, Textual Tapestries: Explorations of the Five Megilot, Maggid Books, 2016, on instances of women speaking in Ruth

Avivah Zornberg’s presentation on “vatesha’er” in Ruth Rabba and Mona DeKoven Fishbane’s on Naomi and Ruth’s bond, in Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, Reading Ruth, Ballantine Books, 1994

Quotation from Ruth Rabba 2:2 from Sefaria.

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