Nothing New: The Threat of Rape in Ruth

Image: Laborers work in a field. Public domain, pixabay.com.

Earlier this week I posted a study on Ruth 2:21-23.  I used a rather old-fashioned translation available on the Sefaria.org site because it was sufficient for my purpose at the time:

And Ruth the Moabitess said: ‘Indeed, he said to me: You will keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest.’ And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law: ‘It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens, and that thou be not met in any other field. So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. – Ruth 2: 21 – 23 (JPS translation, 1917)

But now I’d like to look at a different angle on the passage using a more nuanced translation:

Ruth the Moabite said, “He even told me, ‘Stay close by my workers until all my harvest is finished.” And Naomi answered her daughter-in-law Ruth, “It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls, and not be annoyed in some other field.” So she stayed close to the maidservants of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished. Then she stayed at home with her mother-in-law.” – Ruth2:21-23 (JPS translation, 1985)

The 1985 JPS translation seems quite a bit different, although it is a translation from exactly the same Hebrew text. The difference important to me here is the translation of יִפְגְּעוּ, which 1917 translates “be met” and 1985 translates “be annoyed.” (If you wish to see the Hebrew, you can do so here.) Other possibilities for translating that verb include “be hurt,” “be bothered,” or “be disturbed.”

Naomi is explicit that she worries that Ruth may be “hurt, bothered, disturbed, or annoyed.” Plainly, Naomi is afraid that if the male workers see Ruth as vulnerable, she might be raped. Her advice is to stay with the other women, seeking protection in numbers and perhaps in the protection of their respectability.

Today when I was studying the passage with some other women rabbis, we read the passage together. Then they were surprised when I continued with the study from my previous post. The were surprised because there has been a particularly horrible story in the news here in the Bay Area about a rape trial, and they thought that I was going to teach a lesson in connection with that.

And certainly there is such a lesson here, although it is a sad and frustrating lesson. We have here evidence that even in the 5th century BCE women felt the need to warn other women about the possibility of rape. Ruth was exactly the sort of woman who is still the most vulnerable today: poor, without influence, and a member of a minority group who was despised because of stereotypes that painted minority women as hypersexual and available. Naomi feared that a man might see Ruth as someone who could be used and discarded without serious consequence.

We know that such warnings are of limited help, that “doing everything right” is sometimes no protection at all. The dramatic tension in the Book of Ruth derives from the vulnerability of the two poverty-stricken women and their uncertain fate.

Ultimately the Book of Ruth teaches that every human being has a right to respect. Ruth the Moabite, vulnerable in the field because of her minority status, was the same Ruth who was worthy of being the great-grandmother of King David.

This is one of the larger points the book makes: Ruth, the ultimate outsider is always also the ultimate insider, a woman fated to be the ancestor of King David. David, the ultimate insider, chosen by God, is also the great-grandson of a poor foreign woman.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. – Eccesiastes 1:9

I pray for a day when no woman has to worry about rape. I pray for the day when Ecclesiastes will be wrong.

 

Naomi and the Art of Rebuke

I confess that I’ve retreated into study lately, and it has made for rather sparse blog posts.

One project is a study sheet on Sefaria.org, looking at the way Naomi instructs Ruth in living a Jewish life. Naomi fascinates me: she’s a very prickly character, but when Ruth messes up, Naomi is very gentle with her:

And Ruth the Moabitess said: ‘Indeed, he said to me: You will keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest.’ And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law: ‘It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens, and that thou be not met in any other field.’ So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. – Ruth 2: 21 – 23

Boaz had said to Ruth, “Stay with my young women” (Ruth 2:8) but when Naomi asks about it, Ruth says that he told her to stay “with the young men.” Perhaps this sounds like no big deal, but in the context of the book, it’s a problem. Ruth is a foreigner, and subject to stereotypes about her origins: Moabites have a reputation for immodesty and immorality. (Genesis 19:35-37)

Is Ruth actually immodest?

Or is Naomi worried that she will be victimized because of that stereotype?

Is Ruth simply a beginner at Hebrew, and having trouble distinguishing male and female forms of the word?

What strikes me is Naomi’s gentleness. She simply answers in such a way that she can correct the mistake. Ruth is smart enough to catch the hint and stay with the young women in the field.

Naomi doesn’t harangue Ruth. She doesn’t remind Ruth that she’s a foreigner. She just restates the matter, and trusts that Ruth desires to learn.

Naomi is my role model in teaching people who want to become Jews. They need help learning how to be Jewish – it is not something one knows intuitively. There are things that might be fine for a “Moabite” to do or say that are not appropriate for a Jew. A good teacher finds ways to correct the student without embarrassing or haranguing them.

The most effective teachers I’ve had have also been the gentlest.

If you would like to see the texts on which I draw for this study, you can see the source sheet I compiled on Sefaria.org, The Art of Gentle Rebuke: Instructing the Convert.

Our Interfaith Family

Image: Aaron, Linda, Ruth, and Jim, at the Alameda County Courthouse for our civil wedding on July 19, 2013. Photo by random stranger.

My family is an interfaith family.

I became a Jew 20 years ago this summer. At the time I had two middle school age sons who already had a sense of who they were, and they were not interested in becoming Jewish. I put my rabbi’s business card up on the refrigerator and told the boys that they were welcome to contact Rabbi Chester if they had any complaints about me.

They were charmed. Middle schoolers love to have options, especially for complaining about their parents.

Both guys became knowledgeable about Judaism. They visited Israel with me. Jim picked up a little Hebrew. Aaron asked thoughtful questions about Israeli life.

When I decided to apply for rabbinical school, they were supportive. “Go for it, Mom!” Part of my attraction to the rabbinate was that I loved learning ways to make our home both authentically Jewish and authentically their home, too. The creativity of good rabbinic work appealed to me, still does.

I moved to Jerusalem in 2002, just as the younger son, Jim, started college. The second intifada was at its height. Someone asked Jim what he would do “if your mother gets blown up.” I was horrified by the question. He coolly said, “I’d call our rabbi, of course.”

OUR rabbi. I have to admit, I loved hearing him say that.

Periodically one or the other will call me and say, “Mom, I have a rabbi question.” Usually it’s a question that a Jewish friend has asked them. (Ironies abound.) Occasionally, they are curious about how something looks through a Jewish lens. They keep me on my toes.

They aren’t Jews. They aren’t interested in becoming Jews. That’s fine. They are part of the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that left Egypt with the Jews, traveled with the Jews, has always been part of the Jewish community.

Neither one is particularly comfortable with ritual or formal religion. They don’t come over for Shabbat dinner, and they don’t celebrate Jewish holidays with us. As a family, we celebrate birthdays, and national holidays, and fun things like Pi Day.

When I was ordained they came to the service. When I stepped out from under the chuppah and Rabbi Levy announced me as Rabbi Ruth Adar, Aaron hollered from the back of the sanctuary, “WAY TO GO, MOM!”

When Linda and I were married under the chuppah at Temple Sinai, nine years ago this month, they were both there. They could not witness our ketubah (since they aren’t Jews) but they celebrated with us. When the State of California finally decided to let us get married in a civil ceremony, they were our witnesses.

Next month Jim is getting married to his sweet bride in a civil ceremony. There will be Jews, and Catholics, and Episcopalians, and assorted Christians and agnostics – and that’s just the family.

Our interfaith family.

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

Image: A young man putting on a tallit. Photo by 777jew at pixabay.com.

I have been a big fan of the “Wrestling with God” blog for a long time. I discovered it when Adam left a comment on my website. I always check out other bloggers who leave comments and I’ve found some real treasures that way. (Yes – leave a comment and I’ll check out your blog. But leave a token comment, e.g. “Cool blog!” and I’ll just delete it. SAY something, please.)

What I love about Adam’s blog is the beautiful honesty of it. I always worry about conversion bloggers who abruptly stop writing after they step out of the mikveh. Maybe they got busy with their Jewish lives – or are they feeling bad about failing to be “super Jews”? Adam just keeps posting what’s on his mind – and what’s on his mind is often the sort of thing on the minds of many new Jews.

In this post, Adam talks about what it means to live Jewishly despite illness, or busy stretches at work, or family troubles. The only thing I would add is that with practice, some Jewish practices can become more routine, and can actually support us during the tough times. Other things just have to wait until we are more able. German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would reply “Not yet” when other Jews would quiz him about his performance of mitzvot. The fact that one is not YET doing thus-and-so does not say anything about what might happen tomorrow.

Wrestling With God

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning…

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The Yolk of Heaven

Image: a soft-boiled egg in a cup, the top removed. By TanteTati.

A good editor is worth her weight in pearls.

I regularly write divrei Torah for a quarterly newsletter.  I love working with this particular editor, because (1) she makes my writing better and (2) she keeps me from making a fool of myself.

This week, I sent in a d’var Torah in which I mentioned the concept Ohl HaShamayim. It means “the yoke of Heaven” and refers to the burden of Jewishness. According to Jewish teaching, before I was Jewish, I was only responsible for being a decent human being. In becoming a Jew, I took on additional responsibilities. Things that before had been “good deeds” were now requirements. I had a responsibility to wrestle with those requirements and (as a Reform Jew) to figure out how I was going to observe them.

For instance, there are responsibilities regarding the food I put in my mouth. Some Jews take the traditional approach and keep kosher by the standards that have been in place for hundreds of years. Others meet those requirements by keeping a vegan or vegetarian diet, or by asking a lot of questions about the sources of food, the treatment of animals and people in its production, and the ecological “footprint” of that food. Others observe food restrictions on Yom Kippur and during Passover. But all Jews have a responsibility to engage with the commandments concerning food.

In writing about the Ohl HaShamayim, I made a silly error: I wrote “yolk of Heaven” instead of “yoke of Heaven.” Fortunately, my editor caught the mistake and fixed it, so now I do not have egg on my face (or my shoulders.)

egg-951588_640
… The Yolk of Heaven?

But I can’t get that image out of my head: The Yolk of Heaven.

Did you know that an egg itself is a giant cell, and the yolk is its nucleus?  It’s the part with the potential for life.

The yolk of the egg is the soft, creamy center, the part that is rich with fat and runny with flavor. It’s sticky and decadent and downright yummy. It’s also incredibly nutritious.

Overcooked, the yolk grows rather chalky and gray, less appetizing. A properly cooked egg is a matter of art and individual taste: a runny center within a firm white nimbus.

With a little olive oil, an egg yolk may be whipped into mayonnaise (real mayo, not the bottled stuff.) With butter, lemon juice, cream and heat, it may be teased into hollandaise sauce. With cream, sugar, and vanilla, a yolk becomes créme anglaise.

Now think about Torah, the Yolk of Heaven, Chelmon HaShamayim. It is the nucleus of the Jewish cell, the center of our existence, containing the DNA of our way of life. It is sweet but complex, rich and sticky, incredibly nutritious. Overcook it, pick it to pieces, and it will lose its flavor, but treat it with respect and it will enrich all other aspects of life.

So what do you think? Mistake or metaphor?

Take a bite and see.

 

Meeting a Rabbi About Conversion

A reader wrote to me and asked: “Tomorrow I’m going to meet with a rabbi to ask about conversion. How should I prepare for that meeting?”

First of all, you’re on the right track! Meeting with a rabbi is the first step on a path to conversion. You may have been reading and studying, you may even have been going to services, but until you meet with a rabbi, it’s all academic.

As for “preparing” – Just go and be yourself. If you can speak the words, “I’m interested in conversion to Judaism,” that’s good enough. The rabbi can help you from there.

Some things to know:

  1. There is a very old tradition in which rabbis send a person who inquires about conversion away three times before actually having the conversation. While I don’t know of any Reform rabbis who currently follow that tradition, you may encounter a rabbi who does. On the other hand, if the rabbi says, “I don’t do conversions” then ask for a referral – or just go find another rabbi yourself.
  2. If you get what seems like a lukewarm welcome, understand that this, too, is part of the tradition. Jews don’t proselytize, and we have been on the receiving end of many efforts to convert us. Therefore we tend to hang back and not get too excited when someone says, “Hi! I want to be a Jew!” You aren’t unwanted. We just want to make sure it’s what you really want. Persist.
  3. No rabbi is going to rush to sign you up for conversion. It’s a very serious step. This first meeting is just that – a first meeting. Even if you choose to work with this rabbi, you have at least a year of studying and living Jewishly before an actual conversion.
  4. You do not have to convert with the first rabbi you meet. If you are comfortable with that rabbi, great. If you aren’t comfortable, then maybe this rabbi isn’t the right rabbi. Try another one. We’re all different.
  5. Questions are OK. Questions are encouraged.

I wish you the very best with your first meeting, and with your journey, wherever it takes you!

Who is Legitimate? Who is Authentic? Who is a Jew?

The rabbis taught: When someone nowadays presents himself for conversion, we say to him: Why do you wish to convert? Are you not aware that nowadays Israelites are careworn, stressed, despised, harassed and persecuted? If he responds, “I know, and I [feel] unworthy [to share their troubles]”, we accept him at once. We instruct him in some of the easy mitzvot and some of the hard ones. – Yevamot 47a

Some snapshots from my own experience as a ger tzedek, a convert to Judaism:

– A conversation I had with a non-Jewish relative about a week after my conversion. She said to me, “But you aren’t racially Jewish.”

– A conversation with a leader in my congregation, who said, “You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger,” pointing to our new assistant rabbi.

– A conversation with a fellow congregant at Temple Sinai, who learned that I was applying to rabbinical school: “Are you going to upgrade to an Orthodox conversion?”

– A conversation with a woman who worked for El Al in a security position, right before she allowed me on a flight to Tel Aviv after a 36 hour delay because my story didn’t make sense to secular Israelis: “Why would anyone want to be Jewish if they didn’t have to?”

– A conversation with a supervisor at a chaplaincy internship. After grilling me and finding out that the rabbi who sponsored my conversion was Reform, he said, “I don’t recognize Reform conversions. OK… well, we’ll start with you on the floor with the dementia patients, you can’t do much damage there.”

– A conversation with a woman at a Sisterhood meeting in the San Fernando Valley: “Rabbi, I need to ask you something: [pause for a deep breath] Where did you get your nose done?”

– A conversation with a woman who insisted that she had been Jewish in a previous life, so she didn’t need to convert.

– A letter from an attorney, a week after I got home from my father’s funeral: Seems that a while back Dad had decided I wasn’t his daughter. He disowned me.

– My rabbi, looking me straight in the eye just before my ordination, saying, “This is your destiny, to serve the Jewish people.”

– An email conversation with a guy who told me that he felt Jewish, and that he was the judge of what that meant for him.

– Last year my brother called me and asked me to officiate at his wedding. I did so with pleasure, a simple civil wedding. It meant the world to me that he wanted me to do it, that he still sees me as his sister.

Face it, authenticity and legitimacy are issues when we talk about “becoming Jewish.” Who is really Jewish and what makes them so?

Here’s what I think: Judaism is a family, a big, messy family. There is disagreement about who belongs and who does not, who is “real” and who is not, who is legitimate and who is not. And in my family of origin, as in many families, there is disagreement about who is family and who is not.

A person cannot wish themselves into a family; it’s a relationship that requires participation from both sides. There are many ways that people become part of an extended family: people are born in, or get informally adopted. But there is a point at which membership becomes formal and there is no going back, when one makes a commitment that cannot be easily dissolved. That’s official membership: when there is a commitment on both sides, and any break is a terrible rupture, like divorce. In a regular family, the moment of formality is adoption or marriage. With the Jewish People, it’s conversion: brit milah, tevilah, and a beit din. [Circumcision for men, Immersion in a mikveh, and a rabbinical court.]

When I sit as a member of a beit din, a panel of three rabbis that makes the decision on behalf of the Jewish people to go ahead with the conversion/adoption, questions weigh upon me. Does this person understand what they are getting into? Are they doing it with a whole heart? Are they equipped to participate? Will they be there with us when times are bad, when it’s really hard to be a Jew? Do they mean it, when they say they’ll raise their children as Jews?

There are no guarantees. At some point in the future, this person may disown us. Some other part of the Jewish family will try to disown them, for sure. Whether that works will be up to the individual Jew: some of us learn to say, “I’m sticking around anyway.”

Whatever happens, it will be messy, but it might be destiny, too.

This post first appeared two weeks ago, in a slightly different form.