Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 12/1/2004
The Garden of Eden and the garden of the Song of Songs represent the beginnning and the goal of human history: the given paradise of childhood and the worked for paradise of full adulthood. In both of them the woman of the story is free, confident, and assertive. Should we read about these free women as simply fantasies who stand outside of history? Or should we see them as critiques of the "normal" human history in which women are unfree — intended to call us to reach into that history and transform it?
That this vision of free women reaches into history becomes clearer when we look at a certain line of families in the Bible. Traditionally, the marriage of Ruth and Boaz is regarded as the key linkage that leads toward the birth of David — shepherd, king, and psalmist. Ruth and Boaz lead therefore to that descendant of King David who is yet to come: King Messiah.
Ruth herself is remarkable enough as a free woman who takes the shaping of her life into her own hands. But it is even more remarkable to realize that in the past of her own family and in the family of Boaz stood women who had been caught in situations analogous to Ruth's and who had acted with similar daring and independence to fulfill their visions — God's visions — of themselves.
The Book of Ruth ends with a triumphant genealogy of Boaz, as if it is saying, "Now that you know the story of Ruth and Boaz, guess who they really are!" The genealogy is most unusual in that it not only looks forward, where the climax is David, but also looks backward, to someone named Peretz. Who is this Peretz? He is born out of a strange tale in Genesis-the remarkable story of Tamar and Judah, which the Bible inserts in the midst of the Joseph saga.
Judah, one of Joseph's brothers, leaves the family and marries a Canaanite who bears him three sons. The oldest he marries to a Canaanite woman, Tamar, but the son dies before they have a child. According to the rules of levirate marriage. the brother of a man who dies childless is obligated to give a child to his brother's widow, to be raised in his brother's name with his brother's inheritance of land. So Tamar is married to Judah's second son. But this son also dies. Judah becomes frightened that some kind of doom is emanating from Tamar, and refuses to marry his third son to her.
So she dresses up as a whore, entices Judah himself to sleep with her, and becomes pregnant by him. When he realizes what she has done and why, he exclaims, "She is more righteous than I!" Tamar gives birth to twins, one of whom is Peretz. According to the Book of Ruth, this Peretz becomes the great great great great grandfather of Boaz, who is the great grandfather of David.
And in Ruth's own family there is a similar story of a strange liaison. Ruth is a Moabite — a descendant of Moab. And who is Moab? The son of Lot by one of Lot's own daughters. The Torah tells how Lot and his daughters flee the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Frightened and exhausted, they come to a cave in the mountains and live there. The daughters believe that not only Sodom and Gomorrah but the whole world has been destroyed, and with it all the men whom they might marry. To them it seems there has been a gigantic death of all their-husbands, leaving them childless and entitled to a levirate marriage. But with whom? With, they think, the only man alive — Lot.
So they get Lot drunk, sleep with him, and one of them gives birth to Moab — Ruth's ancestor.
The author of the Book of Ruth knit together these two tales by knitting together the lives of Ruth and Boaz. And this tale itself is one of an assertive woman who seeks through unconventional means to accomplish the levirate marriage that is her due. Ruth's husband dies. Her husband's brother dies. She casts her lot with their people — the people of her beloved mother-in-law Naomi.
With Naomi's help, Ruth seeks out the "redeemer" to which the levirate law would entitle her. Indeed, she goes so far as to decide it is Boaz who should be that redeemer and to spend the night sleeping at his feet on the threshing floor in order to assert her claim or her desire. Indeed, she uncovers his feet — a phrase that the Bible hints is a euphemism for initiating sex. And Boaz responds. We can almost hear the old family story of Lot and his daughter glimmering in Ruth's head, the old family story of Judah and his daughter in law Tamar glimmering in Boaz's.
Why should David be the fruit of such a family tree? Three women who are not Israelites; three women who in seeking the "redeemer" of levirate marriage themselves become redeemers — redeeming into righteousness what would otherwise be the starkest violations of the legal code; three women who act with utter vigor and determination to decide their own futures and their family's destiny. It is as if the Bible is suggesting that the authentic line of descent from the woman of Eden to the woman of the Song runs through these three ancestresses of David. If Messiah is to come from the house of David, Messiah who is to redeem the whole world, then not only Jews but non Jews must enter David's line and contribute to Messiah's inheritance. If (as our reading of the Eden story says) Messiah is to end the subjugation of women, then women who are free and self-determining must contribute to Messiah's inheritance. (Perhaps we should think of Messiah as a daughter, not a son, of David's line?) If Messiah is to redeem what is evil in the world and make it work for good, then the experience of such a redemption must have entered Messiah's inheritance.
If Messiah is to be made possible, then the tradition itself says that what is most frightening to the tradition must be lifted into consciousness, faced-and redeemed. And the redemptive process cannot be left until the end of days: it must be happening along the way. The worst nightmares of the Jewish men who rule and write the tradition seem to be assertive womanhood, idolatry, and unbridled sexuality. But even these nightmares must be faced-so the story of Ruth performs a kind of collective psychoanalysis.
Not that idolatry or incest or whoredom are to be celebrated to make Messiah come, or will be celebrated afterward. They will be transformed, they will be redeemed. So it is not the Ruth who is a Moabite idolator but the Ruth who says "Your God will be my God" who becomes the great-grandmother of David. So it is not prostitution that gives birth to Peretz, but what might have looked like prostitution until the claim of levirate marriage is asserted. When Judah says of Tamar, "She is more righteous than I," he becomes a redeemer not only in the legal sense of the levirate but also in the ethical-mystical sense, the Messianic sense: Judah has redeemed Tamar's action for the good.
But this is no one way street. She has also redeemed his action for the good. Tamar has turned Judah's lust to the good, has made him become righteous through the very agency of his unrighteousness. Indeed, it is Tamar's redeeming act that provides the opportunity, the impulse, and the need for Judah to become a
Just so with Song of Songs: it redeems, and stirs us to redeem. Some modern scholars have said that Shir HaShirim is very like the Canaanite fertility songs; and yet it breathes of holiness. What might have been seen as the Godless carnal poems of a fertility rite-what might have been seen as idolatry and sexuality joined in the unholiest of unions . . . instead is heard by Akiba for the people as the holy songs of loving God. Instead is heard in our own days as a hymn to flow, to spirit inthe-process, to the noblest fusion of the spirit in the flesh. But the fact that we, and Akiba, can hear it this way is stirred up in us by the holiness and wholeness of the Song. The Song redeems the unbound sexuality and the deafness to God's name that are within us; it turns these potential horrors, these seeds of unholiness, to good. And this stirs us to redeem the Song.
A fantasy: I think of Ruth. A Moabite. A woman. I imagine Ruth bringing Shir HaShirim from the hills of Moab. I imagine her singing that song to Boaz that night on the threshing floor. I imagine that song becoming the dowry she brought to the Jewish people. The dowry that we needed to make Messiah possible, brought by the woman we needed to make Messiah possible. The dowry that was brought to be handed down the generations to David's son Solomon: "Shir HaShirim asher li Shlomo," "The Song of Songs which is for Solomon," not by him.
A teaching, a reminder, to Solomon-or, better, to Shlomo, the Shalom one. The first descendant of the House of David. Maybe he might have been Messiah, brought Shalom to the world? Maybe he failed to hear the Song, instead became too entranced of chariots and palanquins and men of war? Maybe when Solomon failed to hear the Song, its teaching was handed still further down the generations, to the Shlomo in all of us?
How do we receive this message? What does it mean to us to hear from extraordinary women like Ruth, Tamar, and Lot's nameless daughter, whose main part in the story was to become the "mothers" of Messiah? What does it mean for their assertiveness and vigor to have been channeled into motherhood? If the tradition seems to be focusing all their hopes and dreams not on what they themselves can do but on their children and their children's children, how does this feel to us? If even their way of overcoming the passivity, the subjugation to men and to history, that has been the reality of history for most women, is to become mothers, how does that feel to us?
It poses the danger of narrowing the rich possibilities of a woman's life into a single role. Indeed, it has been argued that once motherhood is turned into the all encompassing definition of a woman's life, it is the role that structurally, regardless of will or desire and despite the individual vigor of individual women, has most drastically limited the ability of women to shape their own lives.
But the tradition may be recognizing all these dangers and going beyond them when it says that even motherhood can become the arena of struggle and transcendence of roles.