Ruth as Perennial Outsider in Rabbinic Literature

Dr. Stuart Halpern’s class on “New Approaches to the Book of Ruth” welcomed their final guest lecturer for the semester on May 1, 2017. Dr. Malka Z. Simkovich, Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union, delivered a lecture entitled “Ruth as a Perennial Outsider in Rabbinic Literature,” which explored depictions of Ruth in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, as well as in pre-4th century Christian sources.

Simkovich argued that Chazal’s discussion of Ruth - in particular, the perennial emphasis on her Moabite origins and her punctilious acceptance of the Torah’s mitzvoth (commandments) - may have been a response to early Christians, who sought to co-opt the story of Ruth as a metaphor for arguing that Christian believers should sever their connections to Judaism.

Simkovich noted that early Church leaders and theologians actively argued that Christians should cease adhering to Jewish law and ritual observances. For example, Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom (349-407 CE) castigated followers (many of whom were Jewish) for attending both synagogue on Saturdays and church on Sundays, and the women for keeping family purity laws. In “Homilies” 17, he wrote that Ruth’s forsaking of her father’s household should serve as a positive model for the Church cutting itself off from “the customs which men had received from their fathers,” i.e. Judaism.

Additionally, Simkovich explained that a common antisemitic criticism leveled at Jews in the ancient world was that they were “misanthropic,” unwelcoming of outsiders, and uninterested in reaching out beyond their borders. Additionally, there was no assumed distinction between public and private life, so Jews were accused of being “unpatriotic” for not attending pagan festivals. Later, early Christians claimed that Christianity was universalist and welcoming, while Judaism was particularistic and uninviting. Simkovich said she thinks that the Talmud consciously offers a polemic against these anti-Jewish views. “Ruth is presented as the ultimate convert, and representative of the fact that we welcome converts, even from nations we’re not supposed to assimilate into,” said Simkovich. (Ambrose, another early Christian theologian, claimed that Ruth’s marriage proves that she was above Jewish law; traditional Jewish sources maintain that Ruth punctiliously accepted the Torah’s commandments, and that a Moabitess - but not a Moabite - is permitted to marry into Israel.)

However, Simkovich opined that the rabbis’ depiction of Ruth’s story as an example of Judaism’s welcoming absorption of outsiders led, paradoxically, to her being consistently referred to as Ruth ha-Mo’aviyah (Ruth the Moabite) within rabbinic literature. For example, Sifri BaMidbar on Parashat Be’ha’alotcha Piska 78 states that if God drew Ruth near, when she from a nation forbidden to intermarry with Israelites, how much moreso would He draw near a faithful Israelite. Thus, according to the source, Ruth is thus considered a convert, but not an actual Israelite. Additionally, her ancestry is linked to other prominent biblical Moabites like Kings Balak ben Tzippor and Eglon (see Talmud Bavli, Masechet Horayot 10b).

“There’s an interest in linking Ruth with these earlier Moabites,” said Simkovich. “They have to keep her as Ruth ha-Mo’aviyah, because if they let her assimilate they can no longer show how open they are to converts. Chazal portray Ruth as amazingly pious, but still as a convert.”

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