Ruth: Follow the Leader?

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16 May 2018

Every year on Shavuot, we read the story of Rut. Every year, there’s another shiur about Rut. Every year, I was frustrated by my own inability to connect with all the accolades, wondering why everyone else seemed perfectly comfortable with Rut as a heroine and role model and why no one else seemed to notice the holes I saw in these portrayals.

Until last year, when I finally gave Megilat Rut more focused attention, and realized that Rut is indeed a heroine and role model. She’s just not the kind I was expecting – and that is exactly why she’s so important.

In one area that many highlight about Rut, I make no argument: her tremendous chesed, particularly towards Naomi. Both Naomi and Boaz refer to this chesed explicitly in the Megilah, and who better to tell us than those who experienced her kindness firsthand?

But this element of Rut’s relationship with her mother-in-law is also one reason I was never comfortable with another element of her character: her devotion as a convert to Judaism.

We love to highlight Rut’s poignantly unequivocal words to Naomi, insisting that “your nation is my nation; your G-d is my G-d” (Rut 1:16). As Dr. Yael Ziegler points out, “rabbinic sources treat Ruth as the paradigmatic convert, and they derive several laws of conversion from [her]… Ruth’s unselfish decision and unwavering position emanate from a sincere desire to become a member of the Jewish people… a sterling role model.”

The problem I always had with this view of Rut is that it seems abundantly clear to me from the text of the Megilah that Rut’s devotion was not to G-d, but to her mother-in-law, perhaps as a function of her magnificent chesed. She never says a word about G-d Himself, never expresses any feeling about him.  “Your G-d is my G-d” sounds no different from “where you go, I will go”; the entire verse is about devotion to Naomi, with religion as just one piece of the life Rut is willing to embrace for her sake.

Rut never exclaims “Now I know that G-d is greater than all the gods” like Yitro (Shemot 19:11). She never expresses a belief that “Hashem, your G-d, He is G-d in heaven above and over the land below” like Rachav (Yehoshua 2:11). Wouldn’t we expect our paradigmatic convert, our role model for devotion to G-d against all odds, to have exhibited some sort of sentiment about Him?

This lack is also apparent in contrast to others in the Megilah, for whom G-d’s Name peppered everyday speech. In chapter 2, for instance, Boaz calls on G-d to reward Rut for her kindness to Naomi and describes her as having “come to take refuge under His wings” (2:12). Compare this to Rut’s own words in the next chapter, when she suggests that Boaz will “spread your wings over your maidservant” (3:9). The similarity in language highlights the difference in their perspectives: Boaz thinks of her as a ger tzedek, a righteous convert; Rut, however, is interested in attachments to people, saying nothing of G-d or religious commitment.

Rut’s interest in human attachments is also related to the second element of her character that always bothered me: she doesn’t seem to do anything. Again, her chesed to her mother-in-law is undeniable, and she takes the initiative in going out to find food for them (2:2). But this simple initiative to avoid starvation never seemed to measure up to instances of independent, strong-willed initiative-taking and creative problem-solving  I admired in other women in Tanach – especially considering that even to solve that very basic problem, she doesn’t take action without first consulting her mother-in-law.

Miriam didn’t get permission before going to watch over her baby brother or volunteering her services as a wet nurse broker. Avigayil rode off without a word to her husband to solve the problem he’d created, telling the king himself what was what. Even Esther, who needed some time to get used to the idea of what she could and must do, didn’t ask Mordechai; once she was ready, she told him the plan.

Rut never has a turnaround like Esther. From the very beginning, her only independent actions are those which attach herself to someone else: while Orpah kisses Naomi and turns back to make her own life, “Rut clung to her” (1:14). In fact, the Gemara defines her as “the clinger” (Sotah 42b). Clingy people tend to make us uncomfortable; we want to see them live their own lives and make their own decisions, not just latch on to someone else to imitate or obey. Yet, imitation and obedience are Rut’s hallmarks, from the very moment that she proclaims her identification with everything about Naomi. We read in 2:23 that she “clung to Boaz’s maidservants and dwelled with her mother-in-law,” and the implication is that she saw nothing missing from that life and those attachments, no problem that required her initiative or action.

It is Naomi who, immediately following this evidence of Rut’s complacency, expresses her intention to “seek for you a rest [read: settled home life]” and outlines her plan to get Boaz to marry Rut. The Zohar (1, 188) compares Rut to Tamar in terms of their hishtadlut (active effort) to remarry, but what did Rut do that could compare to Tamar, who realized Yehuda wasn’t going to give her his youngest son as promised and took matters into her own hands in the most shockingly decisive way?

Certainly, Rut pursues Boaz in a similarly surprising manner (in the sense that both seemed inappropriate but were actually “kosher,” as the Zohar puts it) – but only because Naomi told her to. She tells Rut exactly what to do, including that Boaz, in turn, “will tell you what to do” (3:4). Rut responds that she will do as Naomi instructed (v. 5), and in case we didn’t get the point, the Megillah goes on to assure us that “she did everything her mother-in-law had commanded her” (v. 6).

As Rut and Boaz go on to marry and have a child, we still find no independent action on Rut’s part. Naomi is the focus, and even raises Rut’s child as her own (3:16-17).

Why do we view Rut as a heroine and role model when she demonstrates none of the religious conviction, or strengths like initiative and leadership, that we value so deeply in other women in Tanach?

Maybe it’s because those are not the only strengths worthy of being valued.

Not long ago, a friend told me about a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. The title alone says a lot, suggesting that society tends to value qualities typically associated with extroverted personalities and forget about the quiet, often less-visible, contributions of an introvert. I think we may fall into a similar trap when thinking about other elements of human personalities as well.

Maybe my hesitations about Rut stemmed from a limited picture of what it means to be a hero(ine), the image of the extroverted, bold, powerful initiative-taker. It’s important to us today to point out those qualities in our biblical heroines, sometimes almost defensively: “See? They’re not passive or oppressed! They’re empowered and bold! They’re leaders!”

But what about people who are simply not like that? What about the introverts, who prefer quieter action in the background? Or those who are simply satisfied with their lives, in their “tents,” and who are content to leave big bold action to others? What about the followers, who have no desire or personality to lead?

Maybe not every woman – not every person – needs to be an outgoing, initiative-taking, leader type.

Last year around this time, when I finally gave my own pre-Shavuot shiur about Rut, I had just seen an exhibit of projects about “leadership” by my daughter’s fifth-grade class. I was struck by how different students portrayed leadership, including some that didn’t even seem to fit the word – like one who described leading herself in her own choices. And I began to wonder whether we are doing a disservice when we encourage everyone to develop leadership qualities, because maybe not everyone needs to be a leader in the typical sense. Maybe some are more inclined to lead themselves towards following others’ breakthroughs than to make those breakthroughs themselves.

Naomi, despite her difficulties, emerges as a bold problem-solver and even a leader – but not Rut.

During the shiur, one woman in the audience argued with my suggestion that Rut was more of a follower than a leader. “But she has such strength of character,” she kept saying. “She left everything she knew to go to a new life she knew nothing about!” That may be true, I answered, but it looks to me like the strength of a follower, not of a leader. The strength of a person who attached herself to a person she loved, not the religious devotion of someone who chose a new life directly because of G-d.

The discussion highlighted what I thought we needed to reconsider: that “strong” is synonymous with “leader.” Being a follower doesn’t make a person weak; it just means they need a different kind of strength.

Rut’s particular type of strength came out when she was “מתאמצת” to go with Naomi and would not be dissuaded (1:18). What does מתאמצת mean? Malbim (here and elsewhere, eg. on Yishayahu 28:2) offers a nuance between the synonyms “חזק” and “אמץ,” suggesting that חזק refers to momentary strength towards an action while אמץ describes an internal, lasting strength. Maybe Rut wasn’t an initiator, but she had the capacity to sense the good in Naomi and her people, and she had the strength to make the choice to join them. To cling to them, with constancy.

And perhaps this is also why she was able to develop as such an impressive baalat chesed.

Rut was able to shape her life in positive ways without being any kind of person other than herself, by forming valuable attachments. By fulfilling the dictum “acquire for yourself a friend” (Avot 1:6). As Rambam explains it, the term “acquire” emphasizes that “one must put effort (להשתדל) into it…until his friendship is strengthened…the desire of both of them and their direction is to one goal, namely, the Good.”

We have lots of role models for “finding G-d,” like Yitro and Rachav (and of course Avraham); we have lots of role models for taking big, bold, decisive action. Rut reminds us that there are other elements to growing as a good, strong person. Chazal praise her devotion as a convert, even if it was inspired by her love for Naomi; they exalt her hishtadlut, even if it was by way of her attachment to Naomi. Rut went to great lengths to attach herself to the right people, whose influence she knew would bring her closer to “the Good.”

If Rut emerges as a role model for how to “cling” to others constructively, we might find that in being a strong follower, she is in fact a true leader.

Chazak v’amatz.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.