Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Roots and Ruth: Division and Dialogue”

An hour-long teleconference with

Alice Laffey

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

1 PM – 2 PM ET

Mary E. Hunt Intro: Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. This discussion is our contribution to the dilemmas of the moment. We hope that our conversation is a small step toward unraveling the moral morass in which we find ourselves.

I am pleased to welcome and introduce Professor Alice Laffey who taught in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross for 35 years. She retired in 2016, but is obviously still active in scholarship. We do not know one another personally, though I sense we have been working on parallel tracks in bible and theology respectively for many years. She did her doctorate in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome focusing on historical criticism. She reports in the book we are focusing on today that studying in Catholic graduate schools can be a radicalizing experience for women who see up close and personal the remarkable extent of the discrimination we face. The book, Wisdom Commentary: Ruth (Liturgical Press, 2017), is part of the Wisdom Commentary Series edited by Barbara Reid published by Liturgical Press. We have mentioned a number of the volumes in our What We Are Reading section of our website, Alice co-wrote this book with Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, a younger colleague with whom she modeled a collaborative arrangement. We congratulate Mahri for her work and hope to hear from her another time.

This hour, we will focus with Dr. Alice Laffey on how the themes of the book of Ruth resound in the unique leadership of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She will show how analogical imagination is essential for contemporary appreciation of Scripture.

I hope you have had a chance to read the introduction and to watch the very engaging video about Eunice Kennedy Shriver, actually about the book Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by longtime Boston-based journalist Ellen McNamara.

Alive Laffey: I have been teaching Introduction to the Old Testament to undergraduates for about thirty-five years. My presumption is that you have read the volume’s Authors’ Introduction. If you haven’t, you may want to go back to read anything that particularly interests you. Why did I recommend the Eunice video? I had just seen the video about Eunice. I could have suggested that you read Michele Obama’s book Becoming. Eunice is important but she is not unique. Here is a woman with privilege and class and she devoted her life to those who are less fortunate. She changed history and is similar to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, etc. With respect to the end of Ruth 4, we read the genealogy of men. Likewise, at the senior Bush’s funeral, the news media noted the five Presidents “and their wives,” not “husbands and their wives,” in a way that echoes Chapter 4 of the book of Ruth.

The introduction to the commentary is important. Most of the books of the Old Testament are not like the book of Ruth where three of the four major characters are women. It lends itself to a feminist read and I am a feminist. The introduction it shows the importance of the history of interpretation: what the text doesn’t explicitly say or explain is open to many readings, many interpretations; over time, because of the contexts in which the book is read, it takes on new meanings. Christians read Ruth differently from Jews; artists “read” the text visually; those who can resonate with Ruth’s experience are less inclined to challenge it. Traditional commentaries usually have fewer pages of introduction. Since the book we are discussing only has four chapters, we were able to provide a larger introduction/context.

For me the titles of David Tracy’s two books have been important. One is the Analogical Imagination, whose title I employ here, and the other is a Blessed Rage for Order. An analogical imagination differs from a literalist reading of the biblical text but allows for the reader to see resonances in history and in our own time with biblical books. Mahri and I are looking at Ruth from our perspective in 2018.

Turning to the text let me begin. The first chapter of Ruth opens with the fact that there is a famine in the land. Survival depends on their not being a famine; famines are often caused by droughts. No water leads to no produce. No food leads to hunger, which threatens survival.

It is important to note how agriculturally based the text is. I was teaching at Boston College and had a student from Kenya in the class from whom I learned about shade-grown coffee in contrast to fair trade coffee. We Americans have caused famine in many countries, including Kenya. In order for people in first world countries to get as much coffee as we want, coffee growers have had to plant coffee in the sun as well as in the shade. To plant it in the sun means it needs a whole lot more watering for the beans to grow. Although my 6oz cup of coffee contains only 6oz of water, there are gallons of water required to produce it. Therefore, famine in the beginning of Ruth resonates significantly with what is taking place in our world today. Coffee is just one example. Therefore, because of the famine in Bethlehem Elimelech and his family have to move to Moab.

How can one possibly think about migrating without thinking about the caravan, the wall, and yesterday’s news about the fight to close down the government? People are desperate around the world because of war, drugs, and violence. It’s not a choice to leave your home for Elimelech, Naomi, and her two sons but they do. They go to Moab. In other biblical texts the Moabites are “the bad guys.” The reality is that the Moabite people actually seem to welcome Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons. The two sons marry Moabite women and the family is able to survive there. We can reflect and compare this to our own history. In addition to our contemporary struggle to build a wall to prevent those fleeing desperate conditions from entering our country, we can identify countries in our own history that were once enemies that are no longer such as Germany and Japan. Moab, once refusing to allow Israelites to pass through their land, now welcomes them.

In Moab Elimelech and his two sons die. The three women become widows. The story is clearly told symbolically in that the number ten signifies completion. We also know, generally speaking, that the widows, the fatherless, and the poor were in dependent situations. In our own day poverty and women are closely associated. These women had lost their husbands and access in a patriarchal culture and yet this is where the women emerge, expressing their agency and courage. The famine eventually is over in Israel. Naomi has lost her family and she wants to return to her home.

Naomi does have daughters-in-law whom she considers daughters, and both of them want to return to Israel with her. Think of what that would cost. Leaving your own family and going to an unknown place would be difficult. One of Naomi’s big concerns is children, a future for her family in children, while Ruth seems less concerned about children, more concerned with the well-being of her mother in law. Orpah accepts Naomi’s suggestion and returns to her home – Naomi wants her to have children. It seems that remaining in Moab provides greater likelihood of another marriage and children. Ruth, devoted to her mother-in-law, insists on accompanying her mother-in-law to Israel. Some contemporary feminists suggest that Ruth’s motives are complex; she is likely loyal to Naomi but she may also seek the adventure of a new land. And so they ask, What kind of devotion is it? Is Ruth’s devotion grounded in generosity and selflessness? Is there also a sense of the self? Is she interested in adventure? There is no indication in the text one-way or another. We can write in the details in a variety of ways.

Ruth’s saying to Naomi “I will go where you go, etc.” is spoken from one woman to another. The importance of that profession of loyalty, solidarity and love being spoken from one woman to another never occurred to me. How many times have I heard that reading at a wedding? It is possible Ruth has a lesbian attraction to Naomi although I had never thought about it nor had I ever read it in traditional commentaries. I don’t know what the author intended. Today, if I were lesbian would I see more into Ruth’s total solidarity with Naomi? Later on in the story is she also attracted to Boaz? That is possibly true also.

When they have arrived in Israel, Ruth goes out gleaning for her mother-in-law to provide for them, what the law allows for her to do. This is where she meets Boaz who has already heard about her. He is impressed by her compassion for her mother-in-law. He asks his workers to make sure she is not bothered. The context resonates with the #MeToo movement, women who can’t be alone with a man or men because it risks their physical safety. Boaz does try to protect Ruth and is good to her. Ruth goes home and tells Naomi all about Boaz and Naomi sees the possibility of an heir. It is good to note that Boaz doesn’t have to take Ruth or get involved with Naomi’s family. Naomi tells Ruth how to put herself in a situation where Boaz is confronted. Ambiguity is important here because we don’t know what actually happens at the threshing floor; there is no secure answer. The ancient Hebrews did not use vowels and without vowels the consonants can mean either genitals or feet. Without vowels what is it? Ruth does what her moth-in-law asks her to do. However closely, Naomi has brought together Boaz and Ruth.

Then there is a retardation of action in the story. There is the scene in the town square and that man rejects the offer of Ruth because the arrangement is not advantageous to him. He is then seen as rejecting Ruth, a ritual is enacted, and Boaz can have Ruth. “Boaz can have her” is said deliberately (like she is an object). Boaz acquires Ruth like a possession – a sign of patriarchy from the time the text was written, but echoes of which continue throughout the world today. Boaz and Ruth have a child and the women of the city who were originally hesitant about Ruth now embrace her for what she has done for Naomi. The Genealogy that leads to David follows.

What is the point of the story? Is it to entertain? What if the story ended before the genealogy? One would simply have the story of a woman who deeply loved her mother-in-law and produced a child for her and that it ended there. Many scholars believe that the genealogy was added on. Is the point of the story to subsume these women to the service of the men and therefore the genealogy is really important? Or is it to give Ruth credit, a woman who was faithful and blessed with being the ancestor of David? What I tried to do was give you not one simple reading or answer. I tried to weave in modern day context. Ruth is the story of women’s agency.

These four chapters bring us three courageous women. Some men believe the hero of the story is Boaz (Fortunately most men today do not read it that way). One of the things that we did in the commentary was found scholars that represented other parts of the world. The first speaker talks about growing up in the slums of India and how he saw women there which is important because I don’t have that experience. What we tried to incorporate voices of people from all over the world who would speak their truth and interpret the text from their perspectives. I can’t even imagine what it is like for the mothers who returned to Latin America without their children; in my mind that is connected to Ruth. It is connected because it requires you to leave everything that you have known and go to a place that has been a traditional enemy of your people. Ruth herself and the story are a moving target in that they allow each person to bring their own connection to the story which is what makes it alive. Mary Ann Tolbert said at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting “The reader makes meaning.” Kathleen O’Connor, another biblical scholar, took the book of Job and made Job into Johanna, a women, creating a very different reading experience. The reader in conjunction with the text creates the meaning.


Q: Ruth is a much-used book by feminists. What do you make of the suggestion that there was an unequal power dynamic between the two women (Ruth and Naomi) as has been suggested by some postcolonial writing?

A: One thing that is very important is a postcolonial read of Ruth. There is always a power dynamic or at least, it is very rare that there isn’t a power dynamic in any relationship. One thing we tried to do was to be aware that if Ruth was produced when the people of Israel had been colonized and dominated by Babylon then they may very well be using this text as an assertion of the legitimacy for exclusion, Israel excluding Babylon. If you are coming from being colonized, from the 6th century or today, you are enormously sensitive to the subtle ways in which power operates.

We need to ask but we can only ask, what was the power relationship between Naomi and Ruth? Also, what choices/power does each of them have? Ruth has youth and physical health on her side while Naomi has the power of age and her husband. Then questions are raised such as how power becomes domination? Is power always bad? Is possible to read from your experience a power dynamic between Naomi and Ruth that may not be positive?

Q: Do you find the argument of Shereka Nelavala convincing that some interpretations actually reinforce stereotypic roles for women? Might one realistically expect something else or are we doomed in these texts to read things that are now sorely outdated?

A: I would go back to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza forty years ago where she talked about “to what extent is scripture helpful?” She was saying that not everything in scripture is helpful to salvation. Should Ruth be taken in the sense that we should follow her path in life? In some aspects, yes; in others, no, and our insights into the text change with time. I think about that with respect to Christine Blasey-Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. Ford is in counseling in 2012 and doesn’t name the abuser and now we have Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court. Based on one interpretation the New Testament texts, we are taught that we shouldn’t say bad things about people, reveal their wrongdoings. I am using that as an example to say today we should be reading the text as a positive voice, for example, for lesbian and bi-gender people because it has that possibility. Many of us never saw that interpretation before. We should not use the text to reinforce patriarchal bias. Any biblical text that reinforces the degradation of people is not helpful.

Q: Elaborate on the aspect of infertility and Ruth?

A: According to the narrative, these men came from Moab and married these women and neither woman produced a child. Culturally producing children was very important in that time. Ruth and Orpah came from different families while the two men came from the same family. Who is it that was sterile? It was the men that were sterile and not the women. There was the hope that Orpah would go back home and have a child. Depending on certain aspects of cultures today, there is still a great pressure to have children. You are almost seen as unnatural if you do not want to have children. Our culture says that adoption is very generous but does not make much effort to support it. Here you have this story that has a lot of patriarchal issues. There is nothing in the text that indicates Ruth is dying to have her own child. Yet the text has Naomi wanting children and being aggrieved because her sons have died.

Q: Can you elaborate more on the comparison between Eunice and Ruth?

A: One of the things Ruth is praised for is agency. She takes action into her own hands in the text. One of the reasons I chose Eunice is because Chris Matthews just wrote a book about the Kennedy’s and there is nothing about Eunice. In fact, Eunice may have more lasting influence than her brothers by changing the laws in our country. What Ruth does is operate in that form of agency. She makes decisions that are lasting decisions and becomes the ancestor of David. Furthermore, there are so many women today such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama who can be compared to Ruth. What I was really moving toward is that we see connection to women today similar to women in the biblical text. What I was encouraging was paying attention to women’s leadership. Eunice gets lost and I don’t want her to get lost.

WATER thanks Alice Laffey for this thoughtful and insightful presentation.

Please join us for our next teleconference, Wednesday, January 9, 2019 from 1PM – 2PM “I Love to Tell the Story” with Nancy Wilson. Register Here!