This year we will once again read the Book of Ruth during our Shavuot festivities, during the all-night study session or on Shavuot day. Many have weighed in on the story of Ruth the Moabite woman and her mother-in-law, with wildly varied interpretations about its merits and faults as a text in support of women. While writing this, however, I am feeling especially optimistic.
I assert that the Book of Ruth is a celebration of the bond that can form between two women and its power to transform lives. In the first chapter of Ruth’s story, we learn that she distances herself from her own Moabite culture by marrying Naomi’s son, an Israelite. When Ruth’s husband and brother-in-law die, Naomi is left widowed and childless. Ruth insists on staying on with Naomi and traveling with her to Bethlehem, declaring, “Wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.”
Ruth adjusts to her new life in Bethlehem securing food for her and her dear mother-in-law by gleaning in the fields of a man named Boaz, coincidentally a relative of Naomi’s. The plot progresses unsurprisingly: Naomi helps Ruth position herself as a candidate for marriage with Boaz. The plan is successful and Ruth has a son (Oved, King David’s grandfather!), the greatest gift a woman of the time could receive.
With Boaz, Ruth was able to continue the male lineage of Naomi’s kinsman, bringing acceptance and prosperity to Ruth and her mother-in-law. But beyond this significant societal accomplishment, Ruth and Naomi had something else that was very precious: each other. When the women of Bethlehem give Ruth’s son Oved over to Naomi for nursing, they introduce the baby as a symbol of Naomi’s blessings because he has been born of Naomi: “He shall be to you a restorer of your life, and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter in law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, she has born him.”
I recognize that this compliment is still framed by the patriarchal society in which they lived, but can we just appreciate this in historical context for a moment? Ruth is better to Naomi than seven sons, the most desirable permutation of children imaginable in that world, because Ruth loves Naomi and would do anything for her. The friendship bond between those two women held them together at a time when the rest of their family died or had abandoned them, and helped them to persevere and see better days.
The Book of Ruth may not read like a Gloria Steinem essay, but it represents the female experience with an element of tenderness and sensitivity. Both Naomi and Ruth experienced great loss and overcame it only with the love and support of each other. This Shavuot, let us celebrate the close female friendships in our lives and challenge ourselves to be more supportive, more giving, and more loving.
Jordana Gilman graduated Cornell University in January and will be attending SUNY Upstate Medical University in the fall.