Sugar and Spice: Ruth as a Paradigm for Unsustainable Niceness?

Mon, 05/13/2013 - 12:32pm -- JOFA

By Chava Evans

Have you ever seen the Saturday Night Live parody, “Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy?” (If you haven’t, I’ll wait a minute while you Google it. Got it? OK.)  If there were a Bat Mitzvah version of this spoof, I imagine the young woman would be delivering a pre-packaged discourse on Ruth as a model of loving-kindness. Orthodox pedagogy relentlessly presents Ruth as angelically kind and unerringly modest. By middle school, especially in girls-only institutions, Ruth’s loving-kindness and modesty are ubiquitous topics for divrei torah, school projects and, yes, Bat Mitzvah speeches.  This depiction of Ruth has always set my teeth on edge because a) niceness is boring and b) some of Ruth’s choices are, shall we say, questionable. After my daughter brought home yet another colored Xerox of Ruth dressed in what appeared to be a burkka and smiling like she had overdosed on Prozac, I decided the time had arrived to revisit a more nuanced version of this favorite Jewish heroine.

Megillat Rut is a pastoral with four acts, each act revolving around the Ruth’s devotion to her aging, isolated mother-in-law, Naomi. Chazal regard Ruth’s alturism as the rationale for the canonization of the story:

R. Zeira said: This megillah does not contain the [laws of] impurity or purity, or prohibitions or permits, so why was it written? To teach you how good is the reward of those who do kindness. (Ruth Rabba 2:14)

The reward of which R. Zeira speaks is the Davidic kingship. Certainly both Ruth and Boaz show tremendous kindness and I wonder whether R. Zeira is implying here that both Ruth and Boaz are rewarded, or just Ruth. For now, I want to focus on Ruth and her acts of kindness towards Naomi. 

Let’s review the litany of Ruth’s sacrifices. First, she forfeits all hope of marriage, a family and livelihood in order to accompany Naomi to Bethlehem.[1] Once she is settled in the inhospitable foreign town, Ruth surrenders her dignity and becomes a public pauper.[2] Then, she makes herself even more vulnerable by offering herself sexually to Boaz, for the sake of ensuring the continuity of Naomi’s family line.  I imagine presenting herself to Boaz in this manner would have cost Ruth a particularly high psychological price, since Ruth would previously have had to work hard to establish herself as chaste, counter to the prevailing assumptions about the loose morals of Moabite women.[3]  In the final scene, Ruth performs an almost superhuman sacrifice by relinquishing her child to her mother-in-law to raise as her own. [4]

Ruth repeatedly sabotages her own personal interests, health and future in order to care for Naomi.  This self-abnegating brand of altruism is neither healthy nor sustainable, and I am uncomfortable touting it as an ideal for my daughter or for any young woman. True, circumstances do sometimes require us to put aside our own good for the sake of others—as any parent of small children or any child of aging parents knows well. But, these caregivers will also be the first to warn that extreme, unbalanced altruism and disregard for self-care usually end badly.

What are we to make of this remarkably kind heroine whose selflessness is lauded as the raison d’etre for an entire biblical book? The Zohar gives an alternate explanation for the canonization of Megillat Rut:

I would not be surprised if this Megillah were here simply to trace the genealogy of David, who was born from Ruth the Moabite.  (Zohar Chadash, Megillat Ruth, 25b.)

Is it possible that the crux of Megillat Rut is not to present a message about loving-kindness but rather to fill in the genealogy and back-story of David?

Perhaps, but I prefer a synthesis of the two answers, genealogical and ethical. Dr. Yael Ziegler suggests we read Ruth’s kindness within the context of a Davidic genealogy.[5] Tanach is, at best, ambivalent towards kings and kingship, the main concern being that concentrated power inevitably comes to serve the private interests of corrupted leaders.[6] The megillah takes a pro-monarchical stance and employs Ruth’s character as a rhetorical tool to assuage anxiety regarding the nature of one specific king, David. Who, the text seems to ask, is more fit to rule than one with an ancestor as selfless as Ruth?

Thus, we see that Ruth’s brand of kindness is not primarily a gold standard by which to evaluate the behavior of private citizens. Rather, her extreme self-abnegation is more accurately appreciated as a crucial limit to the excesses of a future monarchy. Instead of using Ruth to reinforce unhealthy and unsustainable selflessness in young women, it might be wiser and more appropriate to read this story as a cautionary tale aimed at the men and women in leadership roles within our communities.

Chava Evans is a student at Yeshivat Maharat and an educator and community leader in Baltimore, Maryland.   She wishes to thank Dr. Yael Ziegler for clarifying her thoughts on some of the ideas in this article.

[1] Megillah Ruth 1:7-14. Ruth’s choice to accompany Naomi need not be read as religious conversion.

[2] Megillah Ruth 2:2-3.

[3] Talmud Bavli Sotah 42b. 

[4] Megillah Ruth 4:14-17.

[5] Dr. Yael Ziegler, “Shiur 1/14: Ruth: Why was this Megillah Written?” Delivered at Herzog Teaching College, Spring 2010 and Lectures 1 -5, delivered on Radio KMMY, Israel, Summer, 2010. 

[6] Deuteronomy, 17:16-20.


Submitted by Sue Levin (not verified) on
Right-wing yeshivot are ignoring the obvious if they insist that Ruth is the epitome of modesty. What happened that night when she 'uncovers his feet?' The text is a little obscure but also very suggestive.

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