Sisterhood is Powerful and Universal
My husband Milton and I will lead a Midrash writing group based on The Book of Ruth, the Hebrew Bible’s shortest book, actually a short story. In ancient times, rabbis wrote elaborations on biblical lines as if they were writing prompts. Midrashim, from the Hebrew root “daras” meaning “expound, ”are imaginative extensions of biblical texts that fill in whatever the author senses can be added to extract deeper meanings. Often, Midrashim take the form of giving speech or utterance to biblical characters whose behaviors, actions, or words raise unanswered questions. The Midrashic process lives on today as writers and speakers continue to elaborate on biblical sources in poems, narratives, songs, and sermons that illustrate the text’s vitality and universality.
Traditionally The Book of Ruth is read to mark the revelation on Mount Sinai — Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and the entire five books known as Torah. What lines in The Book of Ruth encode messages for today’s world? Can writing Midrashim about Ruth bring any revelation to us?
We began with the main characters. Ruth is a Moabite woman, born into a dark-skinned, pagan tribe that warred against Israel. She marries the son of Naomi, an Israelite who fled to Moab with her family to escape famine in Bethlehem. The strong bond that develops between Ruth and Naomi, despite their wide, religious and ethnic differences, gives rise to some of Hebrew scripture’s most memorable lines. Instead of Ruth’s returning to Moab as Naomi implores after both of their husbands tragically die, Ruth utters her famous devotional vow to Naomi: “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God, my God.” These lines invite Midrashic elaboration, because Naomi, now crestfallen and bereft, intends to return to Bethlehem where Ruth would inevitably become a stranger, a poverty-stricken, childless widow. Why then does Ruth place sisterhood with Naomi as her highest priority?
To answer this provocative question, Milton wrote a Midrash in Ruth’s voice, offering the writing group an example, if required:
Why I Followed Naomi into the Unknown
Because she opened my eyes
Because she made the love of God,
the neighbor, the stranger
Because for her,
was always a feast,
so full her sense of
And when tragedy struck
in hammer blows
taking sons and husbands from us,
she taught me to enquire:
“What is God asking of us?”
Another question arises. If this bond between the two women is so palpable, why would Naomi send Ruth away? Is Naomi’s dismissal of Ruth a rejection? Naomi says:
Turn back . . . Why should you go with me? Have I any more sons in my body who
might be husband for you? Turn back . . . for I am too old to be married . . . Even if I
were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?
Should you on their account debar yourself from marriage?
Why did Naomi assume Ruth would choose marriage to a Moabite husband over continuity of their deeply felt sisterhood? Naomi’s lines warranted extrapolation in Midrash. I composed a Midrash of Naomi’s reflections:
Dear God! For Ruth, my loving and devoted daughter-in-law,
I want only what is best.
When I think of her and all that she has sacrificed—
her home, her culture, her goddesses,
this is no time for my selfishness,
for thinking of my needs, my loneliness.
At this time, our world belongs to men
and to women who are mothers.
How will this childless widow-girl fare in my land not her own,
In my land, following God’s command to multiply,
women who are fruitful hold value,
as do women in Moab when they resemble the Goddess,
the fertile Astarte, stomach pregnant with child.
In Moab at least my poor Ruth may find
a husband, and the motherhood that can save her.
Go child, I say.
But Ruth’s determination to accompany Naomi to Bethlehem underscores the depth of her commitment. She says to Naomi, “Where you die, I will die; and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”
When Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem, the unexpected occurs. Ruth marries her deceased husband’s relative, the well-to-do farm owner Boaz, following the charitable Israelite custom of levirate marriage. The custom allows a widow to gain security and protection from another member of the family. When Ruth marries Boaz, their child Obed is hailed by Bethlehem’s women in another line worthy of Midrashim: “A son is born to Naomi.” Why to Naomi, and not to Ruth? We are told that “Naomi took the child and held it to her bosom.”
Ultimately, Obed became the grandfather of Israelite King David. Ruth, the Moabite, is the vehicle of Jewish continuity! Does her child belong to her alone? Is ownership, even of children, a human invention? Do God’s words in Exodus, “The whole earth is mine,” apply to children too? Are children God’s harbingers of hope that diverse peoples can find peace?
Our final Midrash is in Naomi’s voice, the revelation she proclaims at the miracle of Obed’s birth:
I came to Bethlehem empty, but now my heart is full.
Can I doubt God’s power?
If hope can flower after storms, and famine,
our lives, with God’s help, can be transformed.
Under God’s wing, my people have learned to grow
and flourish. Compassion is now the crop we sow.
May it continue!
This child is gift to us all, as are all children.
Can we doubt the transformative power of the universe?
God help us! May our children discover more permanent paths
to plenty and to peace.
May our children help us turn our swords into ploughshares
and bring loving kindness to bear
wherever, whenever nations threaten war.
About Sharon Leder
Sharon Leder, Professor Emerita of English, Women’s Studies, and Jewish Studies, SUNY-Nassau Community College. Author The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search, Silver Winner Benjamin Franklin IBPA Award, Best New Voice in Fiction (2018), co-editor with Milton Teichman Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust, nominated for the National Jewish Book Award (1994), and author or editor of fiction and books on: women writers, literature of the Holocaust, women in academia, and family dynamics. Founder Creative Outlets: Finding Your Voice Through Arts at Cape Cod Museum of Art (2017-21)
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