WASHINGTON (JTA) — Until recently, I thought of Ruth, the heroine of Shavuot, as a positive role model, a woman who made good choices, was strong and fulfilled. But lately I’ve been rethinking this and focusing on the strange dynamics of what appears to be an unhealthy, possibly abusive, relationship between Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law.
Abuse is about power and control, and abusive relationships are not limited to romantic situations. Any relationship has the potential to be abusive, including relationships among friends and families or between bosses and employees. In this situation, Naomi is the more powerful woman and takes advantage of her daughter-in-law.
A quick recap of the story: The book of Ruth opens as Naomi, accompanied by her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orphah, is beginning her journey back to Bethlehem after living in Moab for 10 years. We don’t know much about their lives in Moab, except that Naomi had followed her husband and their two sons there, escaping from the famine in Israel. Both sons had married Moabite women after their father died, and both sons died without heirs. Now Naomi, the lone Jewess, is traveling back to Israel, having heard that the famine has ended.
Orphah accompanies Naomi for part of the way before turning back. She already has experienced life with this family — the marriage, the unfruitful relationship, the poverty. She chooses to end their family ties, head back home on her own and take her chances that way.
But Ruth instead famously says to Naomi, “Wherever you go, I shall go, where you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). Based on these words and sentiments, the rabbis teach us that Ruth converted to Judaism, accepting all the laws of Israel.
Despite the beauty of the words, I find them troubling. Ruth clearly is choosing not simply to choose Judaism but to merge her entire identity with Naomi. Why? I have never understood the attraction for Naomi; it’s an odd relationship.
“Wherever you go, I will go.” Who is that close to her mother- in-law that she wants to follow her wherever she goes? What was the power dynamic, what was the mystique? And Naomi was quite clear on what this obedience and loyalty would demand — much more than her marriage to a Jewish man did, as it appears that Ruth was able to live as a Moabite, even when married to her Jewish husband.
As part of accepting the laws of Israel, Naomi tells Ruth that Jewish women must be modest and refrain from sexualized conduct (Ruth Rabbah 11:22). The story emphasizes Ruth’s modest behavior, as she gathers grain in the fields of their wealthy relative Boaz once they reach Bethlehem. She bends her knees rather than bending over, making sure her skirt covers her legs rather than hitch it up as the other women do (Ruth Rabbah 4:6).
But when Naomi tells Ruth to prepare herself to meet with Boaz at night, alone, in the place where he sleeps, Ruth does not protest. “Bathe, anoint yourself, put on clean garments, and lie down at his feet, Ruth is instructed” (Ruth 3:3).
So Ruth will approach Boaz at night, alone. Wait, isn’t that exactly what she was told would NOT be permissible if she followed Naomi to Bethlehem? Hadn’t she been told she would have to renounce “immodest” sexualized behavior? And yet, without a word, Ruth does as she is bidden. “I will do everything you tell me,” she says (3:5).
Clearly, Ruth is under the spell of the dominant Naomi. Why does Ruth follow Naomi’s command? To what end? Boaz already had said he would protect her and Naomi. Is Naomi simply toying with Ruth or testing her loyalty? Does she expect Ruth to do whatever she tells her? And once Ruth passes this test, what will be the next demand of subjugation? We find out soon enough.
Boaz marries Ruth soon thereafter, and she conceives and bears a son. (Boaz conveniently dies immediately after their wedding night). And the women of the town said “there is a son born to Naomi” (4:13). Born to Naomi? The Talmud asks, was it Naomi who bore him? Surely it was Ruth! And the women of the town said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who had not left thee this day … and Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it” (4:16).
Wait a minute, why isn’t Ruth doing that? Did she give up her child to Naomi? Yes. Ruth gave birth to him, but Naomi rears him. Ruth gave up custody of her son!
Isolated from her network, having fully given up her identity, Ruth is offered up to bear a child, and then has the child taken away from her to be raised by another. Ruth is the biological mother, Naomi is the adoptive mother. Ironically, the Midrash tells us that both Orphah and Ruth come from royal families, perhaps to give the future King David a royal lineage, something which Naomi could not do.
I wonder when I read the story of Ruth and Naomi about what their relationship was really like. I know that in my work in the field of violence against women, in which potentially abusive relationships are viewed through the lens of power and control, a relationship like this one might be suspect, might raise a red flag or two about power dynamics and questions about the underlying reasons for this behavior.
“Wherever you go, I will go.” I would worry if that were my daughter. Wouldn’t you?
(Deborah Rosenbloom is the director of programs at Jewish Women International and an editor of JWI’s “Rethinking Shavuot: Women, Relationships & Jewish Texts.”)