The Book of Ruth – just four chapters long – is a favorite of many Jews and contains one of the most famous verses in all of Tanach: “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
A new book by Dr. Yael Ziegler, “Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy” (Maggid Books), aims to provide new insight on this ancient story. A lecturer at Matan Jerusalem and Herzog Academic College, Dr. Ziegler sees her book as “an attempt to fuse together traditional interpretations with scholarly ones.”
She recently spoke with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: Your book is nearly 500 pages long. Why such a big book for such a small sefer?
Dr. Ziegler: Megillat Rut draws together many Tanach stories and books. It is built on the story of Avraham and Lot in Bereishit and it looks forward to meluchah in the Book of Shmuel. Perhaps most significant of all, it is the corrective for the Book of Shoftim. So that’s why, I think, it turned into such a long book.
What do you mean by Megillat Rut serving as the “corrective for the Book of Shoftim”?
The first pasuk of Megillat Rut is “Vayehi bimei shfot ha’shoftim – It was in the days of the Book of Judges.” The Book of Judges tells the story of a society deteriorating into a state of chaos with the recurring phrase, “Bayamim hahem ein melech b’yisrael, ish hayashar b’einav yaaseh – In those days there was no king of Israel, so everybody did whatever they wanted.”
In Megillat Rut, in contrast, instead of “ein melech b’yisrael – there was noking of Israel,” the final pasuk is “V’Yishai holid es David – And Yishai begot David.” It brings us to monarchy, and it does that by showing us good inter-relationships – people like Boaz and Rut who care about the other and also are properly serving God.
So Megillat Rut really becomes the opposite movement of the Book of Shoftim.
Megillat Rut’s most famous verse is of course, “Whither thou goest, I will go….” What’s your take on it?
The interesting thing about this verse is that although Rut offers this monologue in which she takes an oath of loyalty to Naomi, the Midrash regards it as a dialogue in which Rut’s oath of loyalty is not to Naomi, but actually to God. The Midrash says that each of the points Rut makes is an answer to Naomi’s attempts to dissuade her from converting. So Naomi says, “You can’t leave the techum Shabbos,” and Rut replies, “Wherever you go, I will go.” Naomi says, “You can’t be alone with a man,” and Rut replies, “Wherever you lie, I will lie.” Etc. etc.
What I think is going on here is the Midrash is making a comment about Rut’s love for Naomi being some sort of reflection of how we have to love God. There is something absolute about Rut’s devotion to Naomi – it even seems to undermine her own self-interest –and the Midrash may be suggesting that that’s the way human beings are supposed to devote themselves to God… with unwavering loyalty and commitment.
You write in the introduction to your book that you studied Megilllat Rut using a “literary-theological” method. What’s “literary-theological” method?
It’s when we take literary tools and use them to mine Tanach stories for their religious meaning.
Can you give an example?
One good example is what we call a “type scene” in Tanach. In my book I discuss the marriage type scene – a man leaves his home, journeys to a distant land, meets a girl next to a well, she invites him for a meal, and they become betrothed.