Ruth and Lovingkindness

Rabbinic tradition sees her as a virtuous woman who is rewarded for her behavior.

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Excerpted from "A Thematic Approach to Ruth in Rabbinic Literature," which appears in A Feminist Companion to Ruth, edited by Athalya Brenner and published by Sheffield Academic Press. Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group.

The book of Ruth presents the sages of the Midrash and Talmud with a unique social and religious problem. In the figure of Ruth, they are faced with a Moabite woman, a descendant of a people that the Pentateuch emphatically proscribes from entering the congregation of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23.1). In the biblical verses, she is depicted from the start as an exemplary woman--a heroine by the merit of her own actions--before she enters the Israelite fold.

The problem of when the story was actually put into written form remains unresolved and bears on our concerns here, but what matters more for this discussion is the fact that the Talmudic sages generally accept the traditional claim that it was written by Samuel (Talmud, Baba Batra14a). Yet they place Ruth not after Judges in the biblical canon, but among the Writings, indicating that they too are unsure of its date. [The classical definition of Ruth is that it is part of the Wisdom literature dating between the fourth and third century BCE.]

Faced with the cognitively dissonant exemplary character of this foreign woman, who will also become the ancestress of the Davidic line, the rabbis of the Talmud feel that they have to halakhically [legally] legitimize Ruth's conversion. Then, having accomplished her acceptance into the fold, they wish to underscore her merit and extraordinary kindness and valor, which make her a suitable figure to stand at the beginning of the Davidic (messianic) line.

They study the book closely and take any good characteristic of Ruth, enlarging and embellishing it to portray her as a very special woman, a paragon of piety and virtue. Ruth is the only convert to have a biblical book named after her--a profound and unparalleled honor. Moreover she is, with Esther, one of only two women to have this distinction. [Judith, another book named after a woman, did not make it into the Jewish canon.]

I shall examine several themes in the Midrash related to the life and character of Ruth, which will reveal a Ruth possessing the feminine virtues the rabbis want to hold up for emulation. In her introduction to the section on Ruth in the Interpreter's Bible, Louise Pettibone Smith remarks that, "Ruth acts always for love and trust of Naomi…doing all that she bade her." [L.P. Smith, The Interpreter's Bible, II (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954).] I would expand that to say that Ruth, in both the original biblical narrative and in the midrashic retellings, is seen to act out of love for Naomi, but also out of a more general love and generosity, embodying the quality known in Hebrew as hesed,a term generally rendered in English as 'loving kindness' and discussed further below.

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Dr. Leila L. Bronner

Dr. Leila Leah Bronner is an author, professor, lecturer, and community activist. She has written and lectured on a wide variety of topics related to the Bible and Jewish studies, with special attention to the role of women in Jewish history and society.