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.

 

What is the Haftarah?

Image: Ezekiel’s Vision of a Chariot, in St. John the Baptist Church in Kratovo, Macedonia, 1836. Artist unknown, public domain.

“Haftorah?” asked a puzzled student, “So where is the other half?”

Haftarah (pronounced haf-tuh-RAH, or haf-TOH-rah) is a word that puzzles many people who hear it. It is not “half-Torah” as the Ashkenazi pronunciation seems to hint. Haftarah is a reading from the books of the prophets, the Nevi’im.

Nevi’im (neh-vee-EEM), the second part of the Jewish Bible, includes:

Former Prophets (sometimes called “Histories”):

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Samuel I & II
  • Kings I & II

Major Prophets (“major” for length, not for pre-eminence)

  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel

The 12 Minor Prophets (“minor” for length, not importance)

  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zebediah
  • Malachi

Unlike the Torah readings, which include, over the course of the year, every word from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Haftarah readings are only from selected portions of the prophetic books. The readings always have some link to the Torah reading, although sometimes it takes study to perceive the link.

We do not know for sure when or why the Haftarah readings became part of the Shabbat Torah service. For some interesting speculation on that subject, read What is the Haftarah and Why Do We Read It? by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.

Haftarah is usually read or chanted in Hebrew from a book or printed page, not from a scroll.

The Haftarah reading have its own set of blessings, before and after, like the Torah reading. It is chanted to a distinctive trope [melody] used only for Haftarah. For an example of Haftarah trope, watch this video of (now Rabbi) Michael Harvey chanting the Haftarah to Parashat Noach:

 

Why Call It The Shoah?

Image: Barbed wire fence at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. Photo by Barak Broitman via pixabay.com. Public domain.

The murder of six million Jews and many others (Roma, homosexuals, disabled persons, and others) in the 1930’s and 40’s in Europe are often referred to in English as “the Holocaust.” Some Jews, myself included, prefer the Hebrew word “Shoah.” Here’s why:

The word “holocaust” is the Anglicization of a Greek word, ολοκαύτωμα [complete combustion.] It appears in some English Bibles (for instance, the Douai – Rheims Catholic translation) as the translation for עֹלָה [oh-LAH, meaning offering that will be completely burnt.] An example:

Isaac said to his father: My father. And he answered: What wilt thou, son? Behold, saith he, fire and wood: where is the victim for the holocaust? – Genesis 22:7, Douay-Rheims translation)

Here is the same verse, in the Jewish Publication Society translation:

Isaac then said to Abraham his father, “Father!” He answered: “Here I am, my son.” And Isaac said, “Here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?” – Genesis 22:7, JPS translation

Later, the word “holocaust” was adopted by English writers to mean “complete destruction by fire.” It first appeared in reference to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis in a British newspaper, the News Chronicle of December 5, 1942. From there the use spread until today, when that has become the primary definition of the word.

So why use “Shoah” instead?

“Holocaust” entered the English language as a term for a sacrifice, specifically for the sacrifices asked of the Jews by God. For anyone who grew up using a Douai-Rheims Bible, that still is a primary meaning of the word. It therefore implies a particular understanding of the events in Europe: that the murder of the Jews was a sacrifice acceptable to God. For many of us, this is a blasphemous implication.

That’s why I always use “Shoah” unless I am talking or writing to someone who is likely not to know the word. Even though “Holocaust” is generally in use as a term for the Nazi “Final Solution,” it still has the power to suggest that there was something acceptable to God in those events.

My own understanding of the Shoah is that it was the culmination of centuries of antisemitism in Europe, purely the actions and intentions of human beings, not anything wanted by the Holy One. That’s why I and many others prefer the term “Shoah.”

Passover Greetings

Image: A fresh spring salad. Photo by Jill111 via Pixabay.com.

Yes, Passover is still going on – the seders may be over, but we’re still scattering matzah crumbs at my house.

Most people know the simplest Passover greetings:

Chag sameach!” (Khahg sah-MAY-akh)  means Happy Holiday. The proper reply is simply “Chag sameach!” right back.

Pesach sameach” (PAY-sahkh sah-MAY-akh) means Happy Passover. The proper reply is simply “Pesach sameach.”

However, in the middle days of Passover are different. They are called the Chol HaMoed, which translates to “Ordinary (days) of the festival.” That means that regular activities like work are permitted (which they aren’t on the chagim, the holy days at the beginning and at the end).

There’s a special greeting for the chol hamoed, the middle days:

Moadim l’simchah!”  (moh-ah-DEEM l-seem-KHAH) – “Festival of Happiness!”

The proper reply to this is, “Chagim U’zmanim L’sasson” – (Khahg-EEM oo-z’mahn-EEM l’sah-SOHN”   “Holiday and Times of Joy!”

Thanks to Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, who reminded me of these special greetings in a facebook conversation.

What’s “Shavua Tov”?

On Saturday evening or Sunday morning, someone may greet you with the phrase “Shavua tov!” (shah-VOO-ah TOHV).

It means “Good Week!” and it’s the greeting for the new week that begins at sundown on Saturday night. Remember, all Jewish days begin and end at sundown.

You’re most likely to hear it Saturday evening or Sunday morning, but it’s still appropriate (if a little belated) until sundown on Wednesday. You’ll rarely hear “Shabbat shalom” until Friday.

So if someone says “Shavua tov!” to you, you can say right back to them, “Shavua tov!” Alternatively you can say, “Gam l’cha!”  if they are male and “Gam lech!” if they are female.  Either way, it means “Also to you!” or “Backatcha!”

Shavua tov!

 

Government of Israel: Vocabulary

Image: The Israeli Flag, by PublicDomainPictures.

Following the news from Israel can be very frustrating if you don’t know some basic facts about government there. Americans are sometimes particularly puzzled by these facts, since there are terms that sound similar but mean quite different things. Here is a list of basic vocabulary that may help; if you want to know more about any item, follow the links within it.

Knesset – (k-NES-set) The Knesset is the legislative branch of the Israeli government. Israel is a parliamentary democracy.  The Knesset is its house of elected representatives. Bills become law via a fixed process through committees of the Knesset and then a vote by the plenary session. Knesset means “Assembly.”

Prime Minister [Rosh Hamemshalah]  – The Prime Minister heads the executive branch, the Government of Israel. Elections for Prime Minister are held at the same time as elections for Knesset. After the elections, the Prime Minister has to form a government, that is, put together a coalition of parties that he will present along with a slate of Ministers to the Knesset. This coalition must contain a majority of the votes in the Knesset. The current Prime Minister is Benjamin Netanyahu.

President [Nasi] – The President is elected by a secret ballot of the Knesset for a term of five years. It is largely a ceremonial position; the President is the public face of Israel. The current President is Reuven Rivlin.

Supreme Court [Beit Mishpat Elyon]- The Supreme Court sits atop the judiciary of Israel. It hears criminal and civil appeals from lower courts, and appeals from individuals who believe they have been wronged by a state authority or office. The lower courts include district courts, military courts, labor courts, and religious courts. There are religious courts for each of the four main religions resident in Israel: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze.

Basic Laws – Israel is a young state that has come into being at a time of continuous turmoil and considerable difference among religious and secular parties. As a result, while its Declaration of Independence forms the basis for much of its law, Israelis have not written and signed a Constitution. Instead, the Knesset enacted a body of laws called the Basic Laws which are intended to form the basis for a Constitution.

Elections – National elections are held at least once every four years, more often if the Prime Minister’s coalition falls apart. Every party running for election offers a slate of candidates for Knesset; how many of those individuals will actually become Members of the Knesset (MK) depends on the percentage of the popular vote the party receives. The Jewish Virtual Library offers a list of the parties in the current government and those who have figured prominently in recent elections. This list is particularly useful because it gives links to specific information about each party.

That’s enough for one post. I’ll follow up with another with more terms in future.

To my readers who are Israeli citizens: If I have done a poor job of explaining something, or offered downright misinformation, please correct me via the Comments!

To my readers who are not Israeli citizens: Your questions in the comments will tell me what the next such post needs to cover!

 

My Joseph Story

The Joseph story has its own place in my heart. I have always felt a strong connection to the powerful novella that closes out the book of Genesis. That connection was strengthened when my rabbi chose it to use as our text for learning Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies had started with “Prayer Book Hebrew,” the prayers in the synagogue service. There’s a giant step from knowing what the prayers say to reading the Torah, and Rabbi Steven Chester chose the Joseph story to carry us across that chasm.

Each week we had a short passage to translate, divided among the members of the class. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verses, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time which verses we, personally, would translate aloud.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were often a mess. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. But he always knew if we’d cheated, so it was better to bring what I had translated, even if it was obviously wrong. He’d use our mistakes to review grammar or review how to break down a verb to find it in the dictionary.

Our glacial pace through the text meant that we studied it deeply, noticing the choices about grammar and the repetition of certain words in the text. It was my first taste of learning a text on that level, word by word in Hebrew.

Sometimes our teacher enriched our study by showing us a midrash on a particular scrap of the text. This was also his sneaky way of introducing us to the glories of midrashic texts and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, since he always gave us those texts in both the original and translation. We’d read the translation, but the original words would wink at me, promising more: more meaning, more depth, more nuance.

That class marked the beginning of my love for text study. It met Wednesday at lunchtime for years, and now as a teacher myself I marvel at his chutzpah and patience in leading us into that tangle of grammar and vocabulary. It was an unusual and bold way to teach Biblical Hebrew. It was also a brilliant choice, because the powerful current of the narrative kept us going. Who could quit, halfway through that story?

By the time we came to the end of Genesis 50, my translations were less ridiculous, and I felt confident enough to tackle other parts of Torah on my own. I learned the most important lesson for Hebrew study: stick with it long enough, and it will begin to sink in.

Foolish, feckless Joseph grew up to be a tzaddik, and I had begun to grow into a rabbi. And every year, when we read this narrative again, it stirs old memories of sitting around a table, munching our lunches and puzzling out the mysteries verse by verse.

Thank you, Rabbi Chester.