No Legal Standing


We could all learn a thing or two about loyalty and friendship from Ruth and Naomi.

by Beth Kissileff

Friendship is a relationship that has no legal standing. This is an oddity, both in life and in literary depictions of it. The value of a friend is that she is someone outside a kinship circle, to whom one has no obligation but affection and common interests. This is both the advantage and the pitfall of relationships. The advantage is that both friends are in the relationship because they want to be, but the disadvantage is that the relationship can fray if there is nothing left to hold it together. Friends can do tremendous things for each other, because they want to, out of devoted caring for another human, without expectation of reward. Finding a relationship with such a fantastical level of devotion is rare, in life and in literature. Yet, interestingly enough, one model in the Hebrew Bible of this kind of relationship holds such significance that the reading of the story of the devoted kindness of one woman to another is the liturgical cornerstone of the holiday that commemorates the giving of the word of God, the Torah, to humans.

The book of Ruth contains relationships which defy our abilities to categorize them adequately; this is where their value lies. The scroll named for Moabite Ruth is really the story of Ruth’s erstwhile mother-in-law, Naomi. The text opens with loss; Naomi’s biological family passes away within the first five verses. Poignantly, Naomi is described as the “remnant,” the one who is left without first her husband, and then her two sons (Ruth 1:3,5). Naomi is now left as a character with no hope of connecting to others. She declares to her daughters-in-law bitterly, “If I said there were hope for me, if I lay with a man tonight and bore a son would you limit yourself until they grew up and anchor yourself? No my daughters, my lot is more bitter than yours because the hand of God has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1: 12-13) It does not take a skilled diagnostician to see this is language of a deeply depressed person. Naomi clearly needs someone to stay with her and allow her to feel that she is not wholly alone, emptied out though she feels.

Basically, this is a text about the creation of a family where there is no biological possibility of one. What ultimately makes family possible is friendship, simple human affection by one woman for another, and a pledge to remain with her. Ruth’s famous declaration to Naomi, used notably in many marriages and commitment ceremonies, is that she will cleave to her and go where she goes, only death will part them (Ruth 1:16-17). What Ruth is actually affirming seems to be that she is ready to form a family unit together with Naomi, to remain with her. At this point in the story, it does not seem as if the relationship can be beneficial to either one of them. Ruth seems to remain with Naomi strictly out of hesed, devoted caring, not for personal gain or any other calculation; there is nothing logical or official in her language, which is entirely in the realm of emotion. Naomi doesn’t completely accept Ruth’s definition of family, but stops arguing with her that she should leave (Ruth 1:18).

This declaration of friendship is the first time something shifts in their relationship, and it introduces the many other shifts that occur in the book. The setting of the two women is changing; they journey from Moab back to Bethlehem. At their arrival, no one in the city recognizes Naomi, whose name means “pleasant one.” She tells the chorus of women who ask “Is this Naomi?” that she is now “Mara,” bitter (Ruth 1: 20). The formerly pleasant woman has been rendered unrecognizable because of the what she has endured and because she believes God wanted this for her. Naomi tells the city’s women that she “went out full, and God brought me back empty.” (Ruth 1:21)

Yet God is not finished with the two women. The ancient equivalent of social welfare provided that all landowners must leave the gleanings in their fields, along with the corners, for any person in need to take what food is necessary. By “chance,” though astute readers of the Bible know the hand of God even in what seem to be random events, the field Ruth picks to glean is one belonging to a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Naomi is moved by this chance to declare, “Blessed is he to God who has not failed in his devoted kindness to the living or to the dead.” (Ruth 2:20) Naomi’s declaration of a sense that God is with them has come about through Ruth’s actions. Ruth’s steadfastness is beginning to allow Naomi to shed some of her bitterness. A relationship slowly develops between the field owner Boaz, and the widow Ruth. Naomi decides that she will move things along and force Boaz to become the “redeemer” this family of two needs.

Naomi instructs Ruth to go to the threshing floor alone at night and wait for Boaz to tell her what to do. She does not wait, but tells him “you are a redeemer.” This relationship ultimately yields a child who is declared as a “son to Naomi.” (Ruth 4:17)

Ruth the Moabite, is not a Moabite at all, in fact, but an ideal Jew. She is a person whose sense of what is appropriate goes beyond what any kind of legal framework would suggest is binding. Ruth the Moabite, the outsider in the community of Jews in Bethlehem, actually turns out to be the more faithful character than her Jewish mother-in-law. It is Ruth’s behavior that enables Naomi to see the hand of God at work. Naomi must learn to recognize the worth of Ruth, that Ruth is better for her than seven sons. (Ruth 4:15) And unique to Ruth, her ability to intuit the needs of others and help them with unbounded kindness makes her unlike any other character. In fact, the midrash on Ruth says, “this scroll tells us nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, either of prohibition or permission. For what purpose was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness.” (Ruth Rabbah 2:14)

Oddly, on the Jewish holiday celebrating the receiving of the law, one of the texts Jews read liturgically in synagogue is this one, of the simple relationship of kindnesses which extend beyond the law, with no legal means to define or contain them. This story is a macrocosm of a larger shift in Israelite society; the book begins in the time the judges judged, a period of anarchy when each individual does what is right in his or her eyes, and concludes with the genealogy of David, a stable monarchy that governs with sensitivity. Ruth recognizes her capacity to give hope to Naomi even though their situation is one that appears hopeless. I believe one of the many reasons Ruth is read on the holiday of giving of the law is its awareness that legal codes and relationships are not the true meaning of Torah; the law is primary, but to really live it, one must go beyond the law as Ruth did. Ruth is exemplary because of her capacity for hesed and her recognition of her ability to give hope to others.

The importance of the story of Ruth and Naomi suggests the value of all human attachments and connections, even those for which there is not an official legal standing. Ruth is able to turn Naomi’s life around and take her from being a depressed and bitter woman to a joyous one who praises God, and enables others to praise God, in her joy at the son that has been born, to her, though he has no biological tie with Naomi herself. A friend who embodies hesed, the kindness that is Ruth’s hallmark, can take a situation that seems void of possibility and exchange the hopelessness for hope. When this occurs, a human is acting b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s stead, a potent feat.

About the Author

Beth KissileffBeth Kissileff
Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis and has completed a novel. She has received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Lilly Endowment, and the Humanities Center at Carleton College for work on her second novel. She has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College. She spent two years studying Jewish texts in Jerusalem.

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