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Ruth and Ruthlessness

Today is Shavuos, when we commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Sinai events, and also the First Fruits of summer. Wonderfully enough, we had a few ripe strawberries yesterday, so we got the First Fruits right on time. We’re still waiting for the First Vegetables (although the First Greens have been eaten, lettuce and spinach, and now that I think about it we pulled the First Radish, tho’ we haven’t eaten it yet).

The traditional reading for Shavuos is the Book of Ruth. I read it last night with my Perfect Non-Reader and my parents; it’s short and full of incident, although it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, really, in a lot of ways. I don’t mean the story in terms of what happens, which is very clear, but in terms of why people want to tell the story, why it is included in Scripture, what lessons we should draw from it—I think it’s a little perplexing.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Naomi and her husband Elimelech, along with their sons, move to Moab to find work (there’s a famine back home). The husband and sons die; Naomi returns home to Bethlehem, destitute, accompanied by her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Ruth engages in manual labor to support Naomi; Naomi arranges for her to be seen by one of Naomi’s wealthy relations, who falls in love with the young widow and marries her, taking care beforehand to observe the legal formalities. That’s it.

There are a couple of points that I want to make. The first is that in a holiday that commemorates the legal framework of our religion, this story is very clearly about the ways that the people are more important than the law. Not that the law is deprecated or ignored, but that both Ruth and Boaz (Ruth’s eventual husband) go further than their legal obligations, and are rewarded for it. Ruth is not obligated to go with Naomi, and in fact Orpah (Naomi’s other daughter-in-law) goes back to her parents with Naomi’s goodwill and is not vilified because of that.

In fact, when the Rabbis choose to vilify Orpah to make a contrast with Ruth, they add on new destructive and bestial behavior—this is typical of midrash, I’m afraid. Orpah, after kissing Naomi goodbye, is said to have that very night engaged in fornication with one hundred men and a dog; she is also said (based, presumably, on these allegations of promiscuity) to have given birth to Goliath and to the four giant’s-sons in 2 Samuel 21:15-22. On the other hand, these powerful children owe their might to Orpah’s kindness to Naomi; her good as well as her wickedness were rewarded. On the other other hand, you can search the actual text for Orpah’s wickedness from now to the End Times, and not come up with anything that is actually there.

Oprah doesn’t do anything wrong, but Ruth does something right, that is, she goes further than her obligations. Boaz more specifically goes further than his obligations: he lets Ruth (and others) glean, but then he tells his workers to (a) keep an eye on her and make sure she’s OK, (2) let her drink from their water, and (iii) leave extra barley behind to make it easier for her to glean. You have the obligations—the Ten Commandments I heard read out at synagogue today, and the rest of the Law—and then there’s doing the right thing, which is something more. In what could be, and often has been characterized as a legalistic religion, a cold scheme of laws and rituals, Ruth and Shavuos emphasize the humanity that runs through it.

Here’s my question, though: before Boaz will marry Ruth, he goes to an unnamed kinsman, who is by the Law obligated to accept Ruth in leverite marriage. He refuses, even when Boaz sweetens the deal (or attempts to trick the guy by first offering the sweet part and then the leverite part) but instead submits to halitza, although the halitza is done sort of backwards and by proxy—there is no spitting, and it is Boaz who takes the sandal, not Ruth. Anyway, this kinsman refuses Ruth. Why? We are not told—or, rather, we are told that he can’t accept it “lest I mar mine own inheritance”. That makes a good excuse, but a terrible reason, if you see the difference. Yes, any children of this guy’s marriage to Ruth would inherit Ruth’s first husband’s estate… sorry, this is complicated.

Say that Ruth’s husband Mahlon left an estate (which appears not to be true, but Boaz does tell this kinsman guy there is land) and this kinsman (who I will call Kinsman, for clarity) does marry Ruth. Kinsman does not inherit Mahlon’s estate as a dowry; he controls the estate (probably), but may not sell it or claim ownership of it. If Kinsman and Ruth have a son, that eldest son is named Mahlon and he inherits the estate (again, Kinsman will probably still control the estate as a guardian for a few years). But none of that should mar Kinsman’s own inheritance, should it? Young Mahlon, Jr. does not stand to inherit Kinsman’s estate, or even a part of it, as he is considered by the Law to be Mahlon’s son (for inheritance purposes). So Kinsman, Jr., should there be one, is still OK to inherit Kinsman’s land. Nor should Kinsman himself lose out—there is surely no mechanism for Kinsman’s father to cut him out of an inheritance for following the law of Leverite marriage. Surely, in fact, Kinsman stands to benefit, as he is more closely tying himself to the wealthy Boaz—perhaps not in regards to inheritance, but certainly Boaz could be counted on to put a few good things his way.

Now, it’s possible, tho’ the story doesn’t to my eye hold up to this interpretation, that Boaz got to Kinsman beforehand and bought him off, and that the reported dialogue is purely playacting to fulfill the technical requirement of the Law. Or it’s possible that Kinsman is just a jerk, and isn’t going to exert himself to care for a young widow despite the obligation placed on him by the Law. That’s the implication I see most prominently. But why does our Scripture show such a scofflaw without any consequences? Is declining leverite marriage so common (yes, it is in modern times, and even in Medieval times in the West where polygamy is not traditional)? That seems very strange to me.

So here’s my take on it: Kinsman rejects Ruth, using the inheritance dodge, because she is a Moabitess. Even though she is a Jew (whether she undergoes a conversion ceremony or no), and even though the Law clearly states that we need to welcome strangers in our midst, much less Jews, there is and was a tremendous reluctance to accept outsiders into our community, to shirk our responsibilities to them. She is other, and Kinsman doesn’t want her. But Boaz doesn’t care—he describes her as coming under the wings of the Lord, sheltered with the rest of the Tribe, using a metaphor of inclusion, not exclusion. That’s another lesson of Ruth at the moment of Shavuos: we are all, each of us, over time, at Sinai, and that is true of those who think they have ancestors who were there as well as the Moabites among us.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I've long been intrigued by Ruth and her book. This interpretation resonates nicely; thank you. And I have now been led down the Wikipedia paths to, among other things (Kohen, Vilna Gaon, dysphonia, panentheism, Richard Thompson), the phenomenon of double cousins. So now I know I have double cousins once removed on my mother's side.

[Why yes, I *am* in the middle of updating my resume for the latest job app. I hate these things so. much.]

Is it possible that if there is a Mahlon Jr., then Kinsman stands to inherit Mahlon's property directly, as next of kin? But then I guess he still loses out if Boaz marries Ruth, unless that marriage isn't a levirate one, or Boaz compensates him somehow.

Kendra, I am not an expert in inheritance law, but (a) I don't think that Mahlon can inherit from Elimelech's estate without marrying Ruth. Not that there is an estate to inherit, but it seems that Boaz is pretending there is one. In fact, rereading (again) it now seems to me that Boaz claims that there is a parcel of land that is mortgaged, and that Kinsman offers to redeem that land, that is, to buy it out of debt. Doesn't that imply that there is no (unmortgaged, positive value) inheritance?

I think my takeaway here is that I really would need to read a commentary that goes into detail about the inheritance laws of Israel and other contemporary societies. I suppose I could check the Anchor for a bibliography. Hmph.


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