Though our Sages assert that women have a special affinity for conversation, in the Bible (Tanach), men do most of the talking. Even when the Tanach quotes women, it is more often in conversation with men than with each other. Only twice in the entire Torah, in Genesis and Exodus, do two women converse with each other.
In the first instance, Rachel trades a night with Jacob for Leah’s son’s duda’im (flowers said to enhance fertility):
Rachel: “Please give me some of your son’s duda’im.”
Leah: “Was it not enough that you took my husband, that you should also take the duda’im of my son? [Gen. 30:14-15].
With Leah’s words, what might have passed for a flowery sisterly exchange reveals itself as a tense negotiation, animated by desperation and desire.
In the second instance, Miriam, speaking to Pharaoh’s daughter, suggests her mother as wet nurse for Moses: “Should I go and call for you a wet-nurse from the Hebrew women?” [Ex. 2:7-8].
Here, too, the dialogue tells us what actions perhaps could not. Miriam marshals resourcefulness and resilience to assertively address a monarch’s daughter, in a bid to secure her brother’s survival. Fittingly, Pharaoh’s daughter responds with imperial command: “Go.”
There are times when one woman addresses another or a group of women, as when Lot’s eldest daughter presents her plan for survival to her sister [Gen. 19:31]; when Sisera’s mother asks her maidservants why he tarries [Judges 5:28]; when two mothers vie for one “live” baby before King Solomon [Kings 3:22]; as well as when the “Beloved” [Song of Songs 3:7] makes an oath to the daughters of Jerusalem.
But the only true sustained woman-to-woman conversations in the Bible are between Ruth and Naomi, in the Book of Ruth (that we read on Shavuot). Their intimate tone is set from the first:
Naomi: “Behold your sister-in-law has gone back to her nation and to her gods. Go back after your sister-in-law.”
Ruth: “Don’t beseech me to leave you, to turn away from behind you. For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your nation is my nation and your God is my God… only death will part me and you” [Ruth 1:15-17].
Both the Talmud [Yevamot 47b] and Midrash read Ruth’s insistence on remaining with Naomi as part of her conversion to Judaism, recasting Ruth’s declaration as a response to Naomi’s teachings.
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The Midrash reworks and extends their conversation: “And Ruth said, ‘Don’t beseech me to leave you, to turn away from behind you. … In any case, my intention is to convert, but it is better accomplished by you and not by another [woman].’”
Once Naomi heard this, she began to set out for her the laws of converts: “My daughter: It is not the way of daughters of Israel to go to non-Jews’ theaters and circuses.”
Ruth: “Where you go, I will go.”
Naomi: “My daughter, it’s not the way of Israel to live in a home that has no mezuza.”
Ruth: “Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your nation is my nation,” these are [acceptance of] punishments and prohibitions. “And your God is my God,” her acceptance of the remaining mitzvot [Ruth Rabba 1:16-19, 22].
Ruth wants to be converted specifically by Naomi “and not by another.” The Midrash uses the female form of the Hebrew word for “another.” Ruth is sure that she will need to learn from the example of another woman to become a Jew.
Indeed, the Midrash teaches us that “Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women” [Bereishit Rabba, Lech-Lecha 39]. Only here, however, when Ruth stubbornly chooses Naomi, and clings to her, does the idea emerge that that process of teaching and learning reflects and forges a personal bond between mentor and disciple. To the Midrash, their intimate conversation is also a halachic one, and the personal and halachic combine to empower Ruth and Naomi to journey forward together.
What will shape Ruth’s Jewish identity? Naomi instructs Ruth to follow “the way of the daughters of Israel,” to make considered choices about where she goes, to define her home as a place of faith, and to keep all the mitzvot. Ruth may also long for a new husband and for progeny, like Rachel and Leah, but, fearless like Miriam, she puts her faith first as she moves toward an uncertain fate in the Land of Israel.
As the story progresses, Naomi and Ruth learn from each other in stages, conversation by conversation. Together, they forge a new future for each other and the Jewish people, serving as a unique and inspiring model for what women can accomplish by learning Torah and talking together. n
Laurie Novick a Yoetzet Halacha and teacher at Nishmat, is the director of Deracheha (womenandmitzvot.org), a new online initiative of Yeshivat Har Etzion in partnership with the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women, Migdal Oz.