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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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Intimate strangers: lessons from the Book of Ruth

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How do we treat the “strangers” among us?

As we move from Pesach to Shavuot, our framework shifts from a festival whose narrative arc anchors the collective memory of suffering as foreign dwellers in someone else’s land to a festival whose central narrative recollects a foreign woman coming to live in ours.

Although the two festivals’ stories took place centuries apart, in Jewish time as we live it, they are separated by only seven weeks – short enough to make the association. Our texts caution us repeatedly to treat the stranger fairly, kindly and justly, because we were once strangers. From that experience, we were to learn an ethics born of empathic knowledge. Eventually, our ancestors became the dominant culture in a homeland where other people sojourned as strangers. So how did we do?

If we take the story of Ruth as illustrative, our record is mixed. The Moabite woman bonds with her Israelite mother-in-law and follows her to a place whose language, cultural habits, and religious norms are outside her comfort zone. The two women live in a poverty consigned by patriarchal inheritance laws. Although Ruth adopts Naomi’s ways and labours to support the two of them, she is constantly referred to as Rut hamo’avi’a, Ruth the Moabite, emphasizing her status as outsider.

Some people treat her with exemplary respect. Her mother-in-law values her beyond measure. The man who will eventually become her husband invites her to glean in his fields, to join with his extended household, effectively bringing the stranger inside his inner circle. And yet at the same time, Megillat Ruth hints at other attitudes. That Boaz must warn his men not to touch her, or that the two women languish in poverty with no help from extended family, indicates that life was difficult for the stranger.

The story of Ruth boils down the plight of the outsider, the disempowered, to a family affair. You could say that the family functions in the text as a microcosm for the larger society. You could say, too, that the family – then, as well as now – is the place where we feel most challenged by the incursion of the stranger and her strangeness, but also most motivated to meet that challenge.

In families – as in communities – strangers come to us from without, much like Ruth. They bring different experiences, customs, perspectives and ways of being, that can both unsettle and enrich us. Strangers can also come from within the family or community. We share with them background and memories. But they (or we) make choices and see things in ways that “other” them from within, leave them feeling foreign in the familiar.

People often – and correctly – speak of the Book of Ruth as teaching us, in ways still relevant today, how to treat the foreigner, the stranger and the convert. It also, I believe, bears insightfully on some very modern issues of family.

None of these family units in the megillah look the way they are “supposed to” look: not the two sons’, who marry Moabite women and forget to come home; not the two widows struggling for sustenance without a man around the house, and not the old landowner who marries a much younger distant relative. But families can work, even when they’re unconventional. The glue is a composite of love, commitment, support and also openness – appreciation for who the other is.

Perhaps more than ever before, our families lean toward the unconventional. Like Ruth’s, our families are more than ancestral – and sometimes they’re not ancestral at all. We extend the intimacy of family to biological children, to children of spouses and to children of strangers.

Like Boaz and like Ruth, we choose to be lovingly responsible for those for whom we have no a priori obligation, save the generic responsibilities of all humans for one another. We stretch our tent to encompass children who develop their own values, partners who evolve, parents who branch out on new paths, and neighbours and friends without other family.

We learn from Ruth that the unconventional and unfamiliar – whether familial or societal – has the capacity not only to challenge us, but to sustain us, stretch us, nourish us and renew us.

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