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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2010
Number 73
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Speaking Otherwise: Form and Meaning in the Book of Ruth

By Janet Madden

The Book of Ruth is a story of law, identity and relationship, survival, desire and redemption; as its title reveals, it is a unified narrative of --- “is about”-- an eponymous character who decides to make a radical life-change and fully embraces who she is destined to be. Studying Ruth reveals that it is much more than simply a “charming and beautifully crafted short story in the finest traditions of Israel’s faith” (Frick 469) or a Biblical blidungsroman. It is also a story that takes us to the heart of who this character is, and why, and, how she shapes an entire book of the Bible, a book read annually at Shavuot and associated by many with Ruth’s acceptance of Torah and her acceptance into Israel – although, as Hayyim Schauss emphatically explains, “In none of the Books of the Bible is there any trace or mention of [Shavuot] in connection to the giving of the Torah” (87). Literally, Shavuot is established in Exodus as the “Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits” (JSB 159) and “The Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest” (JSB 190), and, “since the 2nd or 3rd centuries of the Common Era” (Reinhartz 1579) Shavuot also “became the festival of the giving of Torah, of God revealing Himself on Mount Sinai” (Schauss 89). Revelation, then, is the connection between Shavuout and Ruth, between pilgrimage and harvest. Simply put, Ruth is a book in the sense that is a source of knowledge, a text simultaneously noetic, psychological and spiritual, since its events are ruled both by the laws of Israel and by a deep symbolic underpinning that moves the reader emotionally and explains why this story is so “beloved” (Zornberg).

Ruth herselfhas a special resonance for those who become Jews by choice, symbolizing as she does “the ideal convert to Judaism” (Reinhartz 1579). Choosing A Jewish Life relates stories of converts who chose Ruth as their Hebrew name because, they say, “it is she with whom I most closely identify” and “In every way I feel myself to be a descendant of Ruth” (qtd. in Diamant 93). This expressed emotional and spiritual connectedness goes beyond a logical equation of conversion experience. Yet, the connection between Ruth, her story, and Shavuot is often regarded as simplistically obvious, as in The Jewish Book of Why, which makes the following connections: the story takes place in the Spring, Ruth was the grandmother of King David, and, according to Talmudic tradition, David was born and died on Shavuot, and because Ruth expressed her loyalty to Judaism, it is “proper to read the story of her life on Shavuot” (Kolatch 217). Like Abraham, to whom God speaks, telling him that if he will “Walk in My Ways” (Genesis 17:1), “kings shall come forth” from him (Genesis 17:6), for many readers, the plot of the story is identical to its theme: Ruth adopts the ways of Israel and, in consequence of, or, as a reward for, her choice, becomes the great-grandmother of David. But Ruth’s situation is quite different from Abraham’s. We never hear God speak to Ruth, and we hear no promises that are attendant upon her choice.

Like the connection with Shavuot, the plot of Ruth, which moves geographically, culturally, spiritually, chronologically and thematically, is assumed to be divinely choreographed. Yet, nowhere in Ruth do we see, or hear God, although virtually every character in the story affirms God’s power and presence. The movement of the plot from loss to gain, from fullness to emptiness to fullness, from Bethlehem to Moab to Bethlehem, from status to marginalization to status, certainly seems divinely orchestrated, a story of, as we say when we attempt to describe an epic, Biblical proportions. In terms of the actual narrative, however, Ruth is the story of widows and villages, not warriors and kingdoms. And although elements of this story, such as Ruth’s declaration of allegiance to Naomi and to Naomi’s God, and the genealogical appendix, might seem epic, Ruth is not the grandiose story of a king, as is, for example, its contemporary, the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh.Nor is Ruth conveyed in the language of epic, an elevated poetic form restricted by metrics or rhyme. Unlike many other Biblical books, including some of those subsumed under the general rubric Kethuvim, Ruth is a narrative, a literary form that by its nature eschews the elevated tone and language of poetry and instead relies on communicating its content through prose, a term that generally connotes a direct and unadorned language that is related in an ordinary usage. The words “story” and “narrative” come from the Greek, and might be best understood as enigma, puzzlement, bafflement; thus, incorporated into the acknowledgment that Ruth is a narrative is the acknowledgment that stories are, at some level, mysterious and do not advertise their meanings–narratives are full of twists, turns, false expectations, errors, and meanings must be sought. Successful stories require tension and conflict. But, unlike classical drama or poetry, narratives, even classical narratives, do not require a particular, codified structure. There are no rules as to the number of words, characters or chapters that a narrative must have in order to be a narrative; stories have an elasticity of form and structure. The unrestricted nature of narrative is not inconsequential: Robert Alter perceptively notes that prose narration is an innovation of ancient Israel. It affords writers “a remarkable range and flexibility in the means of presentation” (26), permitting the creation of what Herbert Schneidau characterizes as a “world of linked analogies and correspondences” (qtd in Alter 26), yet expresses those ideas in familiar and realistic form and style.

It is instructive to consider how commentators on Ruth perceive the importance of its form. Kirstin Nielson begins her “Other Writings: Ruth, Song of Songs, Esther, Daniel” by characterizing Ruth as a “folktale?used as a defense of the claims of that [Davidic] family to political power” (173); in “Three Short Stories ? Women As Deliverers: Ruth, Esther, and Judith,” Frank S. Frick asserts that the Hebrew short story typically employs “fairy tale” elements with “an orientation that had the appearance of being historical” and “sociocultural lifelikeness” (16). Marc Zvi Brettler, in “Why Are You So Kind?When I am a Foreigner? Reading Ruth v. Esther” argues that “good storytelling is the goal of the book” and that Ruth is “remarkably well formed from a literary” perspective. Brettler offers a plot synopsis: a “prominent rich man” meets a “worthy woman” and “they live happily ever after” (268), thus reducing Ruth to a familiar – and contextually reductive – formula.

Each of these commentators, then, points to the a-historical nature of Ruth, the quality of familiarity and timelessness in its depiction of situations and relationships that transcends its Biblical Sitz im Leben. Frick observes that applying the theory of structuralism to a text can provide an avenue of textual interpretation that focuses on how that text has meaning for the contemporary reader (170). But a true understanding of the appeal of Ruth requires more than structural analysis. In terms of its literary form, Ruth might most accurately be defined as an allegorical narrative, a mode of expression that is, in fact, fundamentally religious, since allegories are stories that can be said to speak otherwise; that is, they are teaching stories, narratives that employ a-historical timelessness in order to convey deep psychological and spiritual truths to an audience. In the case of The Book of Ruth, Schneidau’s concept of “linked analogies and correspondences” can usefully be considered in the context of the folk tale morphology of formalist Vladimir Propp. Applying Propp’s simplified five-part analysis of function is especially useful for the modern reader of Ruth, since it does not merely provide insights into Ruths structure--it also prompts the reader to carefully examine the narrative’s extensive use of symbolism, thus gaining a deeper understanding of the richness of Ruth’s many-layered meanings. As Mircea Eliade asserts, symbols do not “annul” the “material and specific validity of an object or action”; rather, in Images and Symbols, he maintains that “Symbolism adds a new value to an object or an act without violating its immediate or ‘historical’ validity?..everything is linked by a series of correspondences and assimilations” (qtd in Cirlot xvi). The notes to Ruth in The Jewish Study Bible indicatethat names of the members of Naomi’s family members “may have symbolic significance” and “describe, to some degree, the role or the fate of each character within the story,” suggesting “that Ruth should not be viewed as a historical text” (1580). Viewed through a formalist lens, the nexus of form and function explains how a “beautiful” story of “simplicity” (Reinhartz 1578), is, in truth, something far more profound; it explains a deep undercurrent of meaning so powerful that even Brettler, a premier proponent of historical-critical Biblical reading, concedes that Ruth “should be read symbolically” (268).

The first of Propp’s functions, and in his opinion, the “absolutely necessary function” (Luthi 130) is that there is a lack of something --- and, as Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg proposedin her shiur on Law and Narrative in The Book of Ruth, Ruth can be read as a “narrative in a state of lack.” Lack is, of course, absence, deficiency, to be in need of something. And lack initiates this narrative. Set “in the days when the chieftains ruled” (JSB 1579) – a term that echoes the formulaic “Long ago” or “Once upon a time”– the story of Ruth begins, according to The Babylonian Talmud, Bata Batra 15b “in the days of judging the judges” (Zornberg), an historically “chaotic period” (Reinhartz 1579), an era of corruption and dissent during which competent and coherent governance was lacking. Thus, from its opening phrase, Ruth is also the story of “social disorder and the ensuing restoration of due order” (Warner 349), a restoration achieved through the birth of Obed and the genealogical list that concludes the narrative and reifies its significance to Judaism. Lack, however, is not simply a plot ploy to get the story moving. Lack is pervasive and threatening: the population of Bethlehem, ironically “the place of bread” (JSB 1580), is suffering from a famine.

Biblically, lack is frequently perceived as a divine test, as in Job, or as divine punishment, as in the destruction that prompts Lamentations. In this vein, Ruth opens with a further, even more crucial lack: the symbolically named Elimelech –“my God is king” (JSB 1580) – betrays the meaning of his name, his very self-hood, when he proves that he lacks both faith and integrity, leaving his famine-stricken city. According to Ruth Rabbah 1, 4, Elimelech is punished

Because he struck despair into the hearts of Israel?He was one of the notables of his place and one of the leaders of his generation. But when the famine came he said, ‘Now all Israel will come knocking at my door [for help,] each one with his basket.’ He therefore arose and fled from them.

Elimelech’s aim may also have included saving his own family, but his sons, Mahlon and Chilion --- symbolically named “Illness” and “Cessation”-- (Brettler 268) also are the recipients of the promise of Deuteronomy 8 to those who leave the ways of Israel: “you shall certainly perish … because you did not heed the LORD your God” (385), for Elimelech’s sons are the true sons of their father. They continue the lack of observance of the laws of Israel into the next generation by marrying prohibited Moabite women, a prohibition that does not result from mere exogamy, for the origins of Moab spring from the incest of Lot and his daughter. Further, as laid out in Deuteronomy 23:

No … Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of their descendents, 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, and because they hired Balaam … to curse you (JSB 418-19).

Again symbolically, the lack of spiritual vigor of Naomi’s sons finds physical expression in the lack of children – the symbolic future – in these marriages, both specifically, in their deaths and more generally, for a continued life in Moab, which Naomi no longer perceives as a place of refuge but of exile. For Naomi, too, although her name ironically, means “pleasantness” (JSB 1580) or “sweetness“(Brettler 268), suffers from lack – there is no sweetness in her life or in her character. The narrative provides no evidence that she had opposed the move to Moab, and so, she too is guilty of law-breaking; consequently, she lacks husband, sons, grandchildren, country, and hope for the future. She herself acknowledges that her lack is a punishment as she echoes Job: “the hand of the Lord has struck out against me” (JSB 1580), she tells her daughters-in-law, foreshadowing what she will later tell the women of Bethlehem who come out to greet her. The women’s incredulous “Can this be Naomi?” (JSB 1581) indicates how altered she has become since: “the Lord has dealt harshly with me?Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me” (JSB 1581). The magnitude of Naomi’s lack is best expressed when she symbolically re-names herself, instructing the women to “Call me Mara, for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter” (JSB 1581), recognizing a connection between her family’s actions and God’s response. As Frick says of this part of the narrative, “the story [of Ruth] is as empty”– that is, as lacking –“as it gets” (473).

These lacks, then, form a chain of causation which, as Propp’s second function, initiates the quest, a constellation of complex symbolism. In Ruth, the enantiomorphic journey of Ruth and Naomi is repeatedly expressed as a “return” (JSB 1580-81). Naomi’s journey to Bethlehem may easily be symbolically read as teshuvah. But Ruth herself is a “friend”, a “companion” (JSB 1580) and not a Bethlehemite; she has never been to Bethlehem. Thus, Ruth’s return carries a deeper meaning. It is clear that Ruth’s decision to cling to Naomi is an act both of definition and redefinition: hereafter, Ruth declares in what must be one of the most famous, most often-cited and most beautifully phrased Biblical phrases, replete as it is with the devices of parallel structure and repetition:

… wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 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 (JSB 1580-81).

And to this “moving plea,” which “expresses Ruth’s devotion and loyalty to Naomi” (JSB 1580-81), Naomi says nothing.

As the JSB points out in its notes on Psalm 119, in Hebrew, “cling” is “a very strong term, often with sexual connotations” (1416) such as when the word appears in Genesis 2, describing how a man “leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (JSB 16). Further, the notes point out, the concept of clinging is related to the “later Jewish conception of ‘devekut,’ ‘clinging’ to God” (1416), an idea expressed, much as Psalm 119 does, in the Siddurim: “You who cling to HASHEM your God, you are all alive today” (Scherman 14) and “ It [the Torah] is a tree of life to those who hold it fast, and all who cling to it find happiness” ( Stern 147). Literally and symbolically, then, when Ruth clings to her mother-in-law, she attaches herself not merely to Naomi, not merely to the memory of her dead husband and to the possibility of levirate marriage, but to the refutation of all that Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion – and Naomi – have stood for. Whether one equates her choice of Torah with a choosing of Law or Instruction, Ruth chooses life and happiness. Just as symbolically, Ruth’s “passionate declaration of allegiance” (JSB 1581) signifies the refutation of her Moabite people, including her ancestress, the symbolically unnamed daughter of Lot whose lack of faith in God’s providence led her, with her sister, to plan and commit incest as their response to a perceived lack – their belief that there were no living men left in the world – and thus produce progeny who are troped as the antithetical enemy of Israel.

Naomi’s silence in response to Ruth’s speech suggests that she is cognizant of the pointlessness of opposing Ruth’s “determination” (JSB 1581). But it may be that Naomi perceives her daughter-in-law as other than an embodiment of “unswerving devotion” (JSB 1580), since, as Zornberg suggests, Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law who is neither greeted by nor introduced to the “whole city buzz[ing] with excitement over them” (JSB 1581) and be viewed as the living symbol of Naomi’s shame and punishment.

Propp’s third function is the encounter of a magical helper. On the most symbolically spiritual level, Ruth is prompted – and protected – by, as Boaz puts it, “the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge” (1582). Boaz’s words are not merely a pretty figure of speech, for his use of wing-imagery, symbolically suggestive of spiritual enlightenment, proceeds from the preceding bicolon “May the Lord reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from the Lord … ” (JSB 1582). If having wings is a symbol of spiritual aspiration, to be sheltered by the wings of Adonai, as expressed in the Hashkiveynu, is the symbolic representation of the ultimate spiritual expression of peaceful shelter. Having bound herself to Israel’s covenantal relationship with God, God, in turn, affords Ruth divine protection.

On the human level, Ruth’s magical helper is Boaz, who acts “as a surrogate for God’ (Brettler 268) and whose name means “strength/quickness” (Frick 473). Both quick to make up his mind and firm in his decisions, Boaz is the “redeeming kinsman” (JSB 1582) who quickly takes note of, blesses, advises, and shows favor to Ruth. Naomi shrewdly makes the connection between Boaz’ name and temperament, telling Ruth that “the man will not rest [wait], but will settle the matter today” (JSB 1584).

Propp’s fourth function is the subjection of the heroine to one or more tests. Ruth encompasses three major tests: the testing of Ruth by Naomi, the testing by Ruth of the laws of Israel, and, finally, the mutual testing of Ruth and Boaz. Ruth’s test of intent and purpose begins on the “road back to the land of Judah” (JSB 1580), a symbolic location of transition, for journeys typically indicate a search for “truth” and “peace” and “journeys which are an escape from self always fail” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 555-56). Naomi adjures Ruth to “turn back” (JSB 1580) three times, a familiar artistic device and an element of folktale that calls the audience’s attention to the importance of what is taking place in the text, a testing of both Naomi’s implied and Ruth’s expressed purpose. But, as Alter points out in his discussion of Bruce F. Kawin’s Telling It Again and Again, Biblical repetition “constantly insistson parallels of situations and repetitions of motif that provide moral and psychological commentary” (91).

The timing of Ruth’s and Naomi’s journey is also deeply symbolic, since it takes place during the time between Pesach and Shavuot, the time specified in Deuteronomy 9 as “when the sickle is first put to the standing grain” (JSB 402) and the time that leads to Shavuot, one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals. The harvests of barley and wheat are harvests of primary, but mysterious, foodstuffs. Chevalier and Gheerbrant quote Jean Sevier’s observation that “The origin of wheat is utterly unknown, as is that of?barley” (1099). “Enshrined” as two of “the ‘seven sacred foods of Eretz Israel’” (Kalechofsky and Rasiel 8), so central are these crops to Biblical Israel that Deuteronomy 8 describes Israel in literal and symbolic terms as “a land of wheat and barley” (JSB 385). Wheat is used in Israel as ritual offering, one that symbolizes “the gift of life” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 1099). Thus, Boaz’s grain gifts to Ruth and Naomi of are symbolic not merely of his generosity or his duty but of his promise of new life. And times of harvest, of course, are not merely agricultural. Harvests also symbolize a time of divine verdict, generally understood as reaping what one has sown, as expressed in Proverbs 22.8, but also, and more optimistically, as the promise expressed in Psalm 126: “They who sow in tears/shall weep in joy” (JSB 1428).

Ruth’s tests of the laws of Israel, specifically as articulated in Deuteronomy 16:11, commence when she announces to Naomi her plan to “go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain” (JSB 1581). Fields are symbols of “limitless potentialities” (Cirlot 98); thus, Ruth’s venture is encoded with the possibility of success. As the JSB points out in its notes on this statement, “Ruth’s remark is puzzling in that she apparently plans to work among the ears themselves, that is, in the area that has not yet been harvested” (1581). The notes point out that Ruth’s plan diverges from “what was permitted in biblical law”, although “some laws differed in different times and places in the biblical period.” (JSB 1581). But an examination of symbolic meaning clarifies the apparent legal confusion. In ancient Israel’s iconography, according to the Rueben and Edith Hecht Museum at the University if Haifa, wheat and barley symbolized “agricultural plenty and rebirth?.stalks of grain?expressed hope and national rebirth.” Further, symbolically, the ear of grain is “an emblem of fertility?.It also symbolizes the idea of germination and growth of the development of any feasible potentiality” (Cirlot 89). “As luck would have it” (JSB 1581) is, then, an empty phrase for any reader who is attenuated to the movement of this story---clearly, Ruth’s choice of Boaz’s fields and its result is not a matter of luck but of divine direction.

As the landowner, a “man of substance” (JSB 1581) in both literal and symbolic terms, Boaz, too, is tested. Deuteronomy 18:11 directs that “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave?and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst … ” (JSB 402). And from their first encounter, which clearly establishes that Boaz has prior knowledge of who Ruth is, Boaz fulfills his obligation to her legal standing as a widow and stranger, but one who, paradoxically, is also a relation... Further, in exceeding what is required of him, he demonstrates the chesed that distinguishes him from his kinsman Elimelech, thus making a symbolic connection not only to his status as one who upholds God’s laws by doing what is legally mandated but to the quality of divine chesed itself. For, when Ruth presents herself to him on the threshing-floor, symbolizing not merely the possibility of sexual availability but also her absolute vulnerability, Boaz does not take advantage of his position to use and then dismiss her. Naomi predicts that Boaz “will tell you what you are to do” (1583). Ruth, who has already demonstrated her choice of Israel’s God, begins by doing “just as her mother-in-law had instructed her” (JSB 1583), but she reiterates her own choice when she “echoes” Boaz’s “own words” (JSB 1583) of divine protection that he has spoken to her, directing him to spread his robe over her and reminding him that he is a “redeeming kinsman” (JSB 1583), effectively relying upon his observance of the Law, which he demonstrates first, by protecting her reputation and finally, by becoming her literal redeemer. When Boaz commends Ruth because her “latest deed of loyalty is greater than the first” (JSB 1583), he acknowledges her ability to choose differently. And he clearly understands the symbolism of her actions--- Boaz commends her not because her choice of him is “clearly flattering” ( JSB 1584), but because, on the threshing-floor, the place of separation of grain and chaff, substance and worthlessness, true testing, separation as expressed in the laws of kadosh, has taken place. According to Cirlot, “all sheaves, bunches and sprays [of grain] stand for psychic forces which are integrated and directed to a proper purpose” (89). Congruent with her decision that Naomi’s God will be her God, Ruth has proven that she understands “proper purpose”–that she has been transformed from a Moabite to a Jew, that she is not simply in search of a man but that she knows and wishes to observe the law. And, in observance of the law, Boaz publicly, and with the proper witnesses, clarifies his claim to Ruth and Elimelech’s land as well as his adherence to the law. The sandal, a “sign of liberty amongst the ancients, since slaves walked barefoot” (Cirlot 106) is the medium of exchange that symbolically seals Ruth’s redemption and frees her to marry Boaz and take her publicly and properly acknowledged place in Israel.

The testing of Ruth and Boaz culminates in the fifth of Propp’s functions, the reward, which is an organic resolution of the situation in which Ruth begins: as Luthi acknowledges, the “formula of lack … followed by lack liquidated … designates a basic phenomenon” since all forms of life “live in the rhythm that is encompassed by the formula of lack and lack liquidated” (130). The reward, the liquidation of lack, or, to put it another way, the move from emptiness to fulfillment” (Reinhartz 1578), is the birth of Obed –“servant” – (Sohn 27), who serves many functions. As the first fruit – the harvest – of the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, he is the restoration of plenty and the elimination of lack for Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. As his communal naming and his genealogy affirm, he also serves a purpose for Israel – he is a crucial link in the chain that leads to King David, the restoration of the monarchy and beyond. In a symbolic sense, a child is “futurity … an anticipation of future developments … a symbol that unites the opposites, a mediator, bringer of healing” (Jung and Kerenyi 83), and, indeed, Obed serves all of these functions, as he, too, is characterized a “redeemer” (JSB 1585). Naomi embraces the redemption symbolized by Obed by holding him “to her bosom” (JSB 1585), a symbolic gesture of acceptance and protection. Ruth already has been publicly blessed and accorded the status of matriarch for her part in building up “the House of Israel” upon “coming into the house” of Boaz at the time of her marriage (JSB 185). Now, with the birth of Obed, Ruth is publicly acclaimed not only for her love of Naomi, but because she “is better to you than seven sons” (JSB 1585), a powerfully symbolic statement of Ruth’s true worth.

For the careful reader of Ruth, however, the problem of the taboo Moabite wife set out in Deuteronomy 23 does not end with the conclusion of the narrative. The prohibition against Moab is not revoked; it is not even directly addressed in the text of Ruth. But in Ruth Rabbah 4, 8, a happy resolution is provided into perpetuity. Ruth is freed from the Moabite taboo not merely by the symbolic examples of her modesty, since “her mother-in-law had instructed her well.” In order to be the suitable great-grandmother of David, there needs to be a proof that will do away with any questions as to the David’s disqualification resulting from the unsuitability of having a Moabitess in the family tree. That residual lack is remedied: due to a new law, Ruth Rabbah recounts, the Moabite prohibition applies only to men, not to women.

But Ruth’s reward, according to Ruth Rabbah 2, 2, is greater still:

On the strength of his verse they said that Ruth the Moabitess did not die until she saw her descendent Solomon sitting and judging the case of the harlots. That is the meaning of the verse, And carried a throne to be set for the king’s mother, i.e. Bath Sheba, And she sat at his right hand (1 Kings 11, 19), referring to Ruth the Moabitess.

The symbolic long life accorded to Ruth in Ruth Rabbah is, like being seated on the right hand, the symbol of God’s favor in the Hebrew Bible. The right is the direction of “protection” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 801); it also the direction of the “rational, the conscious, the logical” (Cirlot 131), symbolizing Ruth’s wise torah --“instruction”-- (JSB 1448) of her descendent as he judges his most famous case, the case that will make his name that of “the archetypal wise man” (JSB 1449). But perhaps the most telling comment on Ruth found in Ruth Rabbah is the simplest. According to Rabbi Ze’ira, the Moabite question is irrelevant: issues “either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, either of prohibition or permission” are not found in The Book of Ruth for good reason. The importance of Ruth, he says, is what it symbolizes: its purpose is “To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness” (Zornberg), the quality which is enduringly symbolized by Ruth herself.

Works cited

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Brettler, Mark. Zvi. How to Read the Bible. Philadelphia: JPS, 2005.

Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. London: Penguin, 1996.

J.E. Cirlot. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosphical Library, 1962.

Diamant, Anita. Choosing A Jewish Life. New York: Schocken, 1997.

Frick, Frank. S. A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.
The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford: OUP, 2004.

Jung, C.G. and C. Kerenyi. Essays On A Science of Mythology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Kalechofsky, Roberta and Rosa Rasiel. The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook. Marblehead: Micah, 1997.

Janet Madden is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She received her Ph.D. from the National University of Ireland.

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