Ruth and Lovingkindness

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

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The Theme of Hesed

The theme of kindness is central to the book of Ruth. Rabbi Ze'ira stresses this characteristic of the narrative. "This scroll [of Ruth] tells nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, neither of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness" (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13).

Hesedis indeed one of the key words controlling the text. The word occurs three times: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the story (Ruth 1.8, 2.20, 3.10). The scroll commences with the hesedRuth does for Naomi--from gleaning in the fields to bringing food--and the hesedshe does in honoring the memory of the dead in Naomi's family (which becomes, by marriage, her own). "And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, 'blessed be he of the Lord, who has not left off his kindness [hesed]from the living and from the dead'" (Ruth 2.20). Boaz says to Ruth, "Your last act of hesedis better than your first that you did not go after the young men whether rich or poor." He promises to look after her needs [Ruth 3:10].

Every character acting in this brief story--from Naomi to Ruth to Boaz to the minor characters--behaves in a manner that demonstrates this heroic concept of some form of hesed.The main actors of the story all act in the spirit of hesed; some perform ordinary hesed, and some--especially Ruth--extraordinary hesed.Their exemplary behavior is somewhat reminiscent of that of the patriarchs and matriarchs.

The Ruth narrative resembles the older narratives in language, content, and style (Ruth 3.3-9; cf. Genesis 24.12-14). Ruth, like Abraham--the founder of the nation, the first of the proselytes--leaves the house of her father and mother and goes to join a people who, as far as she knows, will not accept her because of her foreign origins (Midrash GenesisRabbah 59.9; Talmud, Sukkah  49b). Yet she will not be dissuaded and joins the Israelite nation, with no thought of reward for this act of affiliation, and in this lies her great hesed.The rabbinic sources emphasize the superabundancy of hesed,its "more- than-enoughness." As Maimonides puts it, the concept of hesed:

"Includes two notions, one of them consisting in the exercise of beneficence toward one who deserves it, but in a greater measure than he deserves it. In most cases, the prophetic books use the word hesed in the sense of practicing beneficence toward one who has no right at all to claim this from you" [Guide for the Perplexed].

Ruth's mode is the second, to practice benevolence toward people who have no claim on her for it.

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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.