What If the Biblical Ruth Came to America?

By Arthur Waskow

Published July 01, 2005, issue of July 01, 2005.
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If the biblical Ruth came to America today, what would happen? In the biblical story, Ruth was welcomed onto the fields of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz made sure that even this despised foreigner had a decent job at decent pay. When she went one night to the barn where the barley crop was being threshed, he spent the night with her — and then decided to marry her.

In today’s America, though, would she even make it across the border?

Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion — detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolater?

Would she be deported as merely an “economic refugee,” not a worthy candidate for asylum?

Would she have to show a “green card” before she could get a job cleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital — and if so, how could she get such permission?

Would she be sent to “workfare” with no protections for her dignity, her freedom or her health?

Would she face contempt because she and Naomi, traveling without a man, might be a lesbian couple?

Would she be disallowed from pursuing citizenship on account of “moral turpitude” — for violating “family values” when she boldly “uncovers the feet” of a modern-day Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor?

Would her biography be banned from libraries for affirming that love engages the body as well as the heart, the mind and the spirit, and that sometimes a loving body comes before a wedding? Would the FBI cite the Patriot Act to require librarians to report whoever checked out “The Book of Ruth,” thus showing an affinity with immigrants of dubious morals from dangerous countries?

Indeed, Ruth was probably a subversive book even when it was written — probably deliberately aimed at criticizing the edict of Ezra and Nehemiah that all Jews must divorce their non-Jewish spouses, by pointing to the ancestry of King David himself to this not-quite respectable woman from a despised foreign country.

Today in America, some of us are outcasts like Ruth; some of us are prosperous, like Boaz. He affirmed that in a decent society, everyone was entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone — even, or especially, a despised immigrant from a despised nation. Everyone.

In Ruth and Boaz’s world, everyone had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work, begin to use the means-of-production of that era. Boaz could not order his regular workers to be economically “efficient.” They could not harvest everything: not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first go-round. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.

More to the point, while Boaz was generous-hearted, Ruth’s right to glean did not depend upon his generosity. It was the law. Ruth was entitled not only to a job, but to respect. No name-calling, no sexual harassment.

And Ruth, as well as Boaz, was entitled to Shabbat: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, love. She was entitled to “be” — as well as to “do.”

Ruth’s story is not a tale of class warfare. That is because it is about cross-class empathy and legally enforced compassion. Precisely because Ruth and Boaz — the outcast and the solid citizen — got together they could become the ancestors of King David and, according to Jewish tradition, through David help bring Messiah into the world.

Here we are, still waiting for the wisdom of this couple to teach us how to usher in the messianic age. After many centuries in which most Jews lived more like the pariah Ruth than the well-off Boaz, in America today many of us live more nearly in the place of Boaz than of Ruth. Yet our society — the richest in human history — is acting more like the near-relative in Ruth’s story, the everyday man who refuses to carry out his responsibility toward his impoverished neighbors.

Our government is dismantling many of the legal commitments to the poor that ancient Israelite society affirmed. Somehow, it is pretending that to do so is consonant with “moral values” and “biblical teaching.” What could we do to make the wisdom of Ruth and Boaz central in our federal budget, in our minimum-wage laws, in our tax policy, in American as well as Jewish life — in all our public and private decisions?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center, is author of “Down-To-Earth Judaism” (Morrow, 1995).

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