From Ruth to the "Global Woman": Social and Legal Aspects

By Brenner, Athalya | Interpretation, April 2010 | Go to article overview

From Ruth to the "Global Woman": Social and Legal Aspects


Brenner, Athalya, Interpretation


In this short study, the Scroll of Ruth, and especially Ruth's undisclosed motives for following her mother-in-law, are read alongside the situation of foreign, female migrant workers in contemporary Israel-and vice versa. This allows a bi-directional reading that supplies a possible context both for the biblical text and for the evaluation of today's issues.

A STORY

If, very early in the morning, on a high summer day, you're going back home after a party and you encounter a fairly young woman wandering. . . . She's on her own, a little dangerous at that hour, and she is wearing an evening gown. She seems to be aimlessly walking about. She is definitely in evening wear, upon examination, a party gown, but her hands and skin seem those of a menial worker. . . . Not a prostitute, doesn't look like one, but who knows? Obviously foreign, can't speak the language properly, you can hardly understand her. Seems disoriented and unstable, drunk perhaps? On drugs? Mumbles something about "the man," "the man," ha-' is. . . she is not bleeding. Neither does she look molested or harmed. Still, it is a problem. What to do?

You are a responsible citizen, so you use your cellphone to alert the police. The police come. They arrest the woman, who has no ID or other documents. Communication is difficult. Eventually they threaten her with deportation if she can't explain her "loitering." Still not much information is forthcoming. Ha- is, ha-1 is, she mumbles. . . . The police must bring in an interpreter. She has a story, she's a farm worker nearby, for a local rich farmer, and supports a local former mother-in-law. She claims her employer is going to marry her. The cops laugh: such Cinderella stories don't happen so easily in our insular society. But now they have to call in a lawyer: no deportation is possible without a court order, even when the facts seem clear.

The lawyer calls the rich farmer named by the woman. He also calls the alleged mother-in-law. He finds out that the woman is indeed a migrant worker and that the farmer did promise to marry her. Alas, alas, she still is an illegal, hence a candidate for deportation. The matter is brought before the judges. The farmer is passionate in his plea to let her stay and marry him; the woman keeps silent. The mother-in-law testifies that the woman has already, and voluntarily, converted to Judaism. The woman and man marry on the spot, with the magistrates officiating. The woman eventually has a son by the rich farmer. So, end of the court case, a happy end. And the woman is, of course, Ruth, Grandmother of King David (Book of Ruth) and foremother of Jesus (Matt 1).

A skit similar to this appeared two years ago in Haaretz, an Israeli secular and leftist newspaper, just before Shavu'ot (Pentecost), when the Ruth megillah is traditionally read in the synagogue. It appeared in the cultural supplement pages. The above narrative, and similar reworkings, is certainly a contemporary midrash. And yet, inasmuch as it and similar half-humorous reworkings expose the society that "updates" its tribal scriptures periodically, according to its current needs, as reflective of its concerns, it is also reflexive of the biblical Ruth Scroll, in the sense that it affords a new look at understanding Ruth as biblical "heroine."'

WHY DID RUTH ACCOMPANY NAOMI TO BETHLEHEM (RUTH 1)?

Commentators are fond of attributing the literary Ruth's behavior to her love for Naomi, or her commitment, or other ideals. But I have read it differently for some time. A non-idealizing possibility of reading can be entertained. Ruth is a widow or, to be more precise after Naomi Steinberg's definition2 and as Boaz says, a "dead man's wife" (Ruth 4:5). The position of a widow, be she penniless or otherwise, is difficult for she has no adult male protector. If she is childless, or to be more precise has no son(s), her position is even more serious (see Gen 38 for Tamar's story). We can assume that her marriageability, within a patriarchal context, is poor - especially since she is not depicted as good looking or attractive in any way. …

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