I returned recently from a wonderful summer in Israel, where I had the privilege of serving on the faculty for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel program. It was a total treat to teach the group of 26 fellows — high school seniors from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and communities across North America.
Each morning, the program began with a shiur, a Torah study session, and faculty members were encouraged to pick a text they loved to teach. I chose to do a close reading of the biblical Book of Ruth with the fellows. The themes that emerged from our conversations — including loss, intimacy, and loyalty, to name but a few — all felt incredibly relevant and contemporary.
Returning to Seattle in this election season, I realized an even clearer application of this text: Referendum 74, the voter referendum in favor of marriage equality. The Book of Ruth and its interpretive tradition provide one of the clearest illustrations of how the Jewish tradition has historically been willing to overlook or overturn a scriptural injunction in order to adjust to reflect changing moral expectations and world views. I believe that today there is a clear parallel in the movement to grant legal recognition to same-sex unions.
Ruth herself is the quintessential outsider-turned-insider. She begins her life as a Moabite in the land of Moab but, following the death of her Israelite husband, willingly chooses to align herself with her mother-in-law Naomi, returning with Naomi to her ancestral land in Bethlehem.
Throughout the remainder of the book, Ruth is more or less treated as a member of Naomi’s extended family, yet her status is not 100 percent clear. The text seems to assume that the Torah’s commandments — including the mitzvot of gleaning, redeeming property, and levirate marriage (to the extent that they apply at all in this family’s situation) — apply to Ruth as they would to any Israelite. However, throughout the book, Ruth continues to be referred to as “Rut haMoaviyah,” “Ruth the Moabite.” Has Ruth become an insider, or does she forever retain her outsider status?
To see the insider-outsider tension even more clearly, it is helpful to read two texts in juxtaposition with one another. We begin with the coda of the Book of Ruth, chapter 4, verses 18-22:
This is the line of Perez: Perez begot Hezron, Hezron begot Ram, Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, Nahshon begot Salmon, Salmon begot Boaz, Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.
Although Ruth’s name doesn’t appear in this all-male genealogy, it is clear from the context of the narrative that “Ruth the Moabite” (the wife of Boaz and the mother of Obed) has really made it: She is the great-grandmother of King David! But how can this possibly be the case, given Deuteronomy’s attitude toward the Moabites, in chapter 23, verses 4-5?:
No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt…
Reading the Deuteronomy text, it seems almost impossible that the Book of Ruth can end on such a positive note, given Ruth’s Moabite origins. However, the interpretive rabbinic tradition considers Ruth the first convert to Judaism, with numerous midrashim emphasizing her inner qualities such as modesty and loyalty and generally casting her in a very positive light.
At the end of the day, Ruth’s Moabite origins never totally disappear from the narrative, and yet she seems to be fully accepted as an Israelite. As I said above, this tension and resolution is one that I believe has a parallel in our own day and age; this fall, in particular, I can’t help but read this text in light of the campaign for LGBTQ inclusion in our American society and, more specifically, for marriage equality in the State of Washington.
Many of the opponents to Referendum 74 claim to speak in the name of religion, using a verse from Leviticus to demonstrate that the Bible does not accept homosexuality. However, as the Ruth case reminds us, our textual tradition is not monolithic, and the weight of our religious texts and traditions can also be brought to bear to support precisely the opposite conclusion. In the case of marriage equality, it is easy to think of numerous relevant Jewish values: That all human beings are created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image), v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha (the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself), the principle of k’vod ha-briyot (human dignity), the calls for us to empathize with society’s underdogs based on the principle that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
The Ruth example provides us with a model for how we can approach our own contemporary version of this question of boundaries and inclusion vs. exclusion. Just as the Ruth text and subsequent rabbinic interpretations seem to outweigh the punitive attitude of the Deuteronomy verses, I believe that the weight of our Jewish traditions and values around interpersonal relationships — which emphasize principles like inclusion, humility, dignity, and equality — can and should be heard over a single verse from Leviticus.
I am proud that the Seattle Jewish community has largely banded together in support of marriage equality and Referendum 74, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done between now and Election Day in November. As we head into this High Holiday season, I hope that we will have the opportunity to reflect on and be inspired by our own tradition. The challenges of creating and maintaining a pluralistic and open Jewish community are very real; our Jewish texts have bequeathed to us a complicated and often contradictory set of traditions and guidelines. It is my hope that we will learn from the way that “Ruth the Moabite” has come to take her place in our canon, in the genealogy of King David, and in the line pointing us toward redemption.
In this election season, may Jews from across the widest possible spectrum of our community take the lead in ensuring that our American society can offer the possibility for finding sanctity in heterosexual and homosexual unions alike.