I found this wonderful blog, entitled, This is What a Rabbi Looks Like. I asked its author if I might copy some of her posts here from time to time, in order that we might hear another voice. A voice that might echo our own reflections; and a voice that might lift something bright, shiny and new into our vision. With thanks to Leah Berkowitz for her permission! (Please take an extra moment to click on the YouTube video of Tovah Benjamin’s poetry. It is funny and poignant and wonderful.)
From Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz-
“We celebrate the festival of Shavuot by reading the Ten Commandments and the book of Ruth. Ruth’s story dovetails nicely with the holiday of Shavuot: It takes place during the barley harvest, the agricultural basis of this festival. It tells the story of a woman who accepts Judaism of her own accord, just as we commemorate our own acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.
Some suggest that the book of Ruth is read on Shavuot because Ruth’s narrative highlights the observance of several of the Torah’s laws. Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are saved from poverty by the laws of peah and leket, leaving behind the corners of our fields and the dropped grain of our harvest, so that the poor can glean them. Ruth meets her second husband, Boaz, by gleaning in his field.
Romantic as their night on the threshing floor may seem, this is not simply a marriage of love. As a childless widow, Ruth cannot inherit her husband’s property, and thus would have no choice but to return to her parents’ home, or roam around penniless, depending on the kindness of the stranger. But Boaz is what is known as a “redeeming kinsman.” By marrying Ruth, he performs the biblical duty of yibum, levirate marriage, marrying a relative’s childless widow, in order to bear children in her dead husband’s name, who can then inherit the land that she cannot.
Ruth, then, can be read as an idyllic tale of what happens when we follow the commandments of the Torah. Through Ruth’s love for Naomi, Boaz’s love for Ruth, and the observance of peah, leket and yibum, the women are saved from poverty and the ancestors of King David are born.
However, there is a dark underbelly to the themes of this story. While this is a tale that celebrates a woman’s boldness and her kindness, her perseverance and her loyalty, it is also a story grounded in the idea that a woman is worthless if she is not a wife or a mother.
Naomi says as much as she urges her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to return to their families. “Turn back, my daughters! Why should you go with me? Have I any more sons in my body who might be husbands for you? . . . even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?” (Ruth 1: 10-13).
Naomi is referring to their prospects for levirate marriage, of which there are none. Ruth’s decision to stay with her mother-in-law would therefore have been perceived as irrational. As two childless widows, bound by their relationship to a man who no longer exists, they have nothing “of value” to offer one another.
Furthermore, Ruth and Naomi are consigned to this vulnerable position not because their husbands were poor, but because, as women, they cannot claim their husbands’ land as inheritance. The Torah tells us repeatedly to care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, because these are categories of people without property and without advocate, unable to care for themselves.
Later, Naomi advises her daughter-in-law on how to land Boaz as a husband, saying, “Daughter, I must seek a home for you, where you may be happy” (Ruth 3:1). Ruth then puts herself in the even more vulnerable position of coming to Boaz in the night and asking him to “cover” her with his garment, a symbol of care, protection and ownership.
Boaz agrees, though he first has to clear this with another potential redeemer, who has “first dibs” on Ruth and her husband’s land. The other redeemer wants the land, but not the woman who comes with it. So he is forced to turn both over to Boaz, who is next in line to marry Ruth and produce an heir.
Although this story has a happy ending, it is clear in this text that, while women have emotions and needs and even possibly good ideas, they are, essentially, property, something that can be transferred from one man to another, for the sole purpose of generating offspring.
This is probably not what you want to hear about the very text we are honoring this weekend. I share this with you so that we might learn to guard ourselves against the dangerous trend of using the Bible as a basis for our definitions of marriage and the treatment of women.
Our ancestors believed that the Bible was perfect, written by God and meant to be eternally relevant. The rabbis devoted their lives to using creative and logical means to connect the ancient text with their current concerns.
There are also those in our own world who would look to the Bible for guidance on how to build a just, or even a holy, society, and we count ourselves among them. There is a lot of material with which we can work. The stories of the Bible depict universal human emotions like grief, jealousy and love. Many of the laws of the Bible remind us of our responsibility to care for the vulnerable and protect the stranger.
But we must never forget that this text was written in a different time and place, an era in which the idea of women having agency and autonomy, and not merely being perceived as property or as an incubator for the next generation, was as bizarre as the idea of an automobile, or the Internet.
Most of mainstream society, even those who follow more conservative religious teachings, have found a way to adjust their beliefs and practices to include cars and computers. The equality of women should be no different.
And yet lawmakers, both at home and abroad have shown us that they have not completely shaken off the biblical notion that a woman is property of the men in her family or her community. They may couch this notion in some idyllic vision of a two-parent, middle-class home, with the woman as happy homemaker. But underlying it is the idea that a woman is still not quite on the same level as a man when it comes to making decisions about her body, her family, or her place in the workforce.
NARAL reports that, in 2011, 26 states enacted one or more anti-choice measures, twice as many as were enacted in 2010. This year, lawmakers on both the state and federal levels continue to enact legislation that limits access to both abortion services and the basic health care provided to women by institutions like Planned Parenthood. They have also taken steps backwards in protecting women—and minorities—from workplace discrimination and domestic abuse.
Our lawmakers deny that their actions are a “war on women” and instead try to engage us in “mommy wars” about women who choose not to work. But real freedom of choice still eludes many women, whether that choice is to work or not, to marry or not, or to have children or not. If a woman cannot make such choices without having to worry about consequences for her own health, education and financial stability, she isn’t really free, and she isn’t really choosing.
Not all lawmakers draw their ideology from the Bible, which by the way says nothing that promotes the cause of fetal personhood, monogamous heterosexual marriage, or stay-at-home moms. If these lawmakers want to claim the Bible as the source of their vision for a just society, they might think twice about making laws that harm the weak and the vulnerable. But just as in the book of Ruth, many still operate under the assumption that a woman is “less than,” and/or needs to be “controlled” by men who know better.
Many of our high school students are really into slam poetry, so I get a lot of videos of poets performing. I was particularly moved by a poem by Tova Benjamin, a teenage girl who left the Orthodox community. In it, she records a conversation between herself and the rabbi of her day school about going to college.
“And so I argued with the rabbi and said,
What if I don’t JUST want to have nine children?
And the rabbi stroked his long beard and said,
Would you have an envelope opener do anything
Other than open envelopes?”
And Tova answers, amidst a slew of other suggestions on how to use an envelope opener, “Yes. I would use my envelope opener to open up the packaged potential inside of me.”
Tova’s words made me realize that in the so-called “war on women,” we are no longer arguing about religious freedom or about when life begins or whether it is considered “work” to stay home and raise children. We are arguing about a woman’s right to be more than an envelope opener.
As we celebrate the grain harvest, we can use our envelope opener to separate the wheat from the chaff. As we celebrate the Torah, in all of its complexity, we can choose to leave behind the attitudes towards women that sent Ruth and Naomi wandering in the first place, and glean from this complicated text how loyalty, bravery, and kindness to strangers can bring about redemption.”