Ruth: Canonical and Contemporary—by Ayala Emmett

The Book of Ruth, which was just read in synagogues around the world on the Festival of Shavuot, offers a canonical story of a Jew by choice and a powerful narrative of migration that makes the book contemporary. The customary reading of the book pays attention to Ruth’s traditional female attributes of devotion/loyalty to her mother in law, Naomi. These qualities are etched in her poetic declaration as a Jew by choice, “for where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God.” Ruth is clearly an agentive woman who takes on marriage with an Israelite migrant and after her husband’s death chooses to join her mother in law and opts to become a migrant in the land of Judah.

It is unclear from the text how Ruth a Moabite woman came to be Naomi’s daughter-in-law; what is not in dispute is that she marries an Israelite man whose father (Elimelech) and mother (Naomi) are strangers/immigrants in Moab fleeing famine and hunger in their homeland in Judah. From an Israelite perspective Moab has been, according to Torah, an alien/dangerous place marked by a marriage prohibition. It is unclear how the Israelite parents, Elimelech and Naomi interpret the Torah prohibition of marrying Moabites.

The narrative refuses to offer details of their decision, yet opens up possibilities. One possible understanding is that in times of crisis when people are driven to migrate because of hunger or threats of persecution, they come to see certain rules as less stringent. Maimonides, for example, writes that under the threat of death Jews should convert, and upon coming to a safe place they should reclaim their Jewish identity.

It is also possible that in practice the rules of marrying non-Israelite women were never stringent. After all in Torah we find examples of marrying outside the group in times of crises. Moses, for example, is an asylum seeker in Midian and marries a Midianite woman and forges a close relationship with his father in law, Yitro, a Midianite priest. There is Joseph brought as a slave to Egypt who marries an Egyptian woman whose children are blessed by Jacob and become ancestors and two of the twelve tribes of Israel.

We can turn the focus from Israelite marriage laws and ask from a Moabite perspective why would the families of Ruth and Orpah (Naomi’s other daughter in law) allow their daughters to marry non-Moabite immigrants? The narrative is silent on inter-ethnic marriage. What is clear from the text is that when their Israelite husbands die suddenly the Moabite wives act as cultural mediators and take care of funeral and mourning rituals and of their Israelite mother in law Naomi, now a bereaved mother. Naomi thanks Ruth and Orpah, “may God deal kindly with you, as you have dealt kindly with the dead and with me” (1:8).

Naomi is about to end her migration, “God had remembered God’s people by giving them food” [1:5] and she prepares to return to the land of Judah and Ruth and Orpah join her. Along the way Naomi releases them from all bonds and obligations telling them to go back to their people. Orpah leaves, Ruth clings to Naomi refusing to leave thus changing migrant roles with her mother in law, as she becomes the migrant in the land of Judah.

From the moment that the women arrive in Bethlehem, Ruth is referred to as “the Moabite girl the one who returned with Naomi from the fields of Moab.” The narrative says, “and Ruth the Moabite says to Naomi, I will go out to the field and glean among the ears of grain.” Boaz the redeemer and Ruth’s future husband refers to her as the Moabite. Ruth refers to herself as a stranger, nohria, in Hebrew.

Ruth Gleaning   By Lorie McCown
Ruth Gleaning
By Lorie McCown

When Ruth chooses migration she knows that she is a stranger, and a poor migrant widow who has to go gleaning in the fields so that she and Naomi could eat. While the poor according to Torah have a right “to glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters” for a woman migrant it has not been without risks to her safety as Boaz recognizes when he tells her, “I have told the young men not to harass you (touch you).” Boaz understands Ruth’s precarious status, “you left your father and mother, your homeland, and went to a people you have not known,” yet he chooses to marry her.

Three generations later the most powerful man in Judah is King David, the great grandson of Ruth the migrant Moabite woman.

To view Ruth as a canonical person opens the way to consider the biblical narrative’s contemporary significance since the bible is the number one favorite American book (Harry Potter is number three). To honor her we could  propose to Congress to pass “Ruth the Moabite Bill” (known first as the Dream Act Bill) that would recognize all the children of undocumented immigrants as citizens and turn their parents into American ancestors.