Ruth, the Queen of Agency

How we can use the Biblical Ruth to Educate Young Women for Agency

Prof. Zehavit Gross is Chairholder, UNESCO Chair for Values Education, Tolerance and Peace & The Sal Van Gelder Center for Holocaust Research & Instruction, School of Education, Bar Ilan University, Israel. She is also Co-Chair of Jewish Education for ICJW.

The period of the Covid-19 pandemic is revealing inspiring social phenomena – demonstrations of solidarity, compassion, and fellowship. But that period also zoomed into the grim situation of women in the twenty-first century world that is officially considered to be advanced over previous centuries. Particularly noticeable is the fact that, apart from a handful of countries, women have been generally excluded from the decision-makers circles during this challenging period. They have been allowed to function mostly  as providing services – in practical and ceremonial aspects, but not strategic ones. Apart from this, together with the pandemic that has spread almost across the entire globe, we have seen an appalling wave of femicide, that is no less lethal than the corona virus. The reality illuminates for all of us that it is important to educate young men, but also vital to educate young women, and create role-models of women with agency. Agency is among the crucial elements in shaping of women with initiative, who invest efforts, take action, who assume the task of directing their lives as conscious actions of freedom.

I believe that the Biblical Ruth, whom we read about on Shavuot, can serve as a prototype for female agency. Ruth is the queen of agency. She conducts her life from a position of freedom, deliberately makes her plans, and doesn’t let anyone block her way. Her determination and assertiveness create a new future for herself and the Jewish people. When her world crashes after her family becomes penniless and her husband dies, she decides to join her mother-in-law Naomi. She knows she must choose life in order to go on living. She wastes no time, and follows Naomi. The Megillah also tells us: “she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her” (Ruth, 1:18). With initiative, boldness, and resilience, Ruth chooses to connect and join – to become part of the collective of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel. When she hears that Naomi has a relative: “a kinsman of her husband’s, a mighty man of wealth” (Ruth, 2:1) who owns fields of wheat and barley, she sees this as a window of opportunity. Perhaps it can allow her to put poverty and hunger behind her? Maybe she can fulfil the mission of building the  kingdom?

She goes out to the fields, focused on her target, hoping that “him in whose sight I shall find grace” (Ruth, 2:2). Openly, she declares she wants to find favor in his eyes. When she comes to the fields she looks around and quickly reads the map – looks for those in control, the ones with power. In that chauvinistic, hierarchic world, she decides to follow the gleaners. When Boaz arrives, he notices her immediately and asks: “Whose damsel is this? ” (Ruth, 2:5). A young man replies that she’s a Moabite woman who came with Naomi from the fields in Moab. Boaz is immediately attracted to her, and wants to ensure that he won’t lose her.  He has also identified an opportunity, and tells her not to go to elsewhere, but to stay with his young workers. And then he adds that he’s ordered the young men not to pester her: “have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee?” (Ruth, 2:9).

With her feminine intuition, Ruth knows her mission of getting Boaz to be attracted to her has succeeded. But, to be on the safe side, she finetunes the point and asks him: “Why have I found grace in thine eyes … seeing I am a stranger?” (Ruth, 2:10). As if  she’s saying, “what’s going on, you like the look of me even though I’m a stranger?” Boaz confirms that he likes her, because of her gracious behavior toward her mother-in-law. Boaz’s “politically correct answer” sounds a bit self-righteous and could have made Ruth suspicious. She needs to be sure her task is completed and she can take the next step ahead. She remarks: “Let me find favor in thy sight, my lord; for that thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid, though I be not like unto one of thine handmaidens” (Ruth, 2:13). It’s a critical point in the dynamic and the interaction between them. Ruth needs to be completely sure that after the first romantic days, Boaz won’t treat her as just “one of the servants.” She’s no fool. She’s gently educating Boaz and explicitly saying how she wants him to behave towards her in the future, once romance is established. She is setting out the guidelines upfront, demanding a relationship of respect towards her, even when the first masculine enthusiasm has died down.

To prove  he is totally “serious” – Boaz invites her in a gentlemanly act to have a meal with him, and in a romantic gesture, he serves her himself: “At mealtime come thou hither, and eat of the bread” (2:14). Like a real lady, she is satisfied with just a bite. She does not grab the food, does not eat everything on the plate. As we read in the Scroll:  “she did eat, and was sufficed, and left.” (Ruth 2:14). Boaz, the macho, wants to show the young workers who is the boss here. Given the fact that he is an older man, they could intrude into his romantic territory, and maybe create some sort of competition. He gives the young men clear instructions how to behave toward Ruth: “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her not” (2:15). In other words, she should pick whatever she wants. And he adds:  “…let fall also some of the handfuls on purpose for her, and leave them, that she may glean them, and rebuke her not” (2:16).

Thrilled, Ruth goes home. With her mother-in-law’s female intuition, Naomi knows that something is up, and asks Ruth what happened. Ruth tells her that Boaz said she should stay with the men: “He said unto me also, Thou shalt keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest” (2:21). Naomi thinks that’s basically unreasonable, and that Ruth is fantasizing because of her Moabite cultural mentality. With compassion and respect, Naomi takes her through a spiritual-educational process. She does not humiliate her, just disregards her words. She recommends that Ruth stays with Boaz’s women workers, and Ruth seems to obediently do just that. “So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest” (2:23).

At this stage of the plot, Boaz, Naomi and Ruth are conducting an unspoken discussion of boundaries. They are arranging their reciprocal relationships, setting clear boundaries, and defining their expectations from each other. Naomi grasps the inherent romantic potential in that relationship. She suggest going to the fields, and indeed “she went down unto the floor, and did according to all that her mother in law bade her” (Ruth 3:6). Ruth seems to agree with Naomi’s affectionate words, but in fact she is actually planning her own scenario. She goes to the field, lies in wait for Boaz, and wins his heart. And after that stormy night, they marry, Boaz dies, and Ruth bears his son. After the sacred mission was fulfilled in the fields: “…the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel” (Ruth 4:14). She is pregnant and she gives birth to a son.  

But Ruth – a true feminist – and intent on fulfilling her mission, does not plan to stay home. She lets her female neighbors name the baby: “and the neighbors gave it a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi; and they called his name Obed: he is the father of Jesse, the father of David” (4:17). She then hands over the baby to her mother-in-law who will babysit and raise him: “and Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it” (Ruth 4:16). Ruth sets out to continue her spiritual task of building the dynasty of the People of Israel down to King David: “…Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David” (Ruth 4:22). Throughout the entire story, Ruth has demonstrated resourcefulness, initiative and agency. She has fulfilled her dream, she has become a mother, and performed her mission with amazing spiritual powers. She has no patience or availability to deal with minor matters – what to call the child and so on – and so the neighbors choose his name, she appoints Naomi the infant’s nurse, and leaves to carry on running the world. Ruth is a highly intelligent woman. Although she seems to be obeying her mother-in-law, she plans her steps carefully, structuring them to match the exact way she wants the scenario to develop, always in absolute control of events.

Ruth is known as the founding mother of the kingdom of the Jewish People. And she’s also the founder of Jewish female agency. She’s opinionated, target-focused, and achieves her goals. She shares her achievements with Naomi, allowing her to feel that she’s “in charge” but it is Ruth who chooses and shapes the way she reached the goal. Ruth is a feminist role-model with unusual self-awareness and agency. The foundations of Ruth’s story and the impressive way she functions can help construct an intervention program for young women’s agency.  Generally speaking women are not born with agency but have to learn how to become agentic. Several factors are needed for agency – socialization, defining role-models, and giving practical instructions on how to implement change.

The Ruth we read about during the Shavuot holiday is the ideal model of a woman who takes charge of her life and the world, after setting herself clear defined goals. At this period of surging violence towards women, we have much to learn from how Ruth constructs reality, and her relationship with Boaz. Most of all we need to take note of her definitive demand for respect. And we need to pay attention to Boaz’s response – with the huge respect he shows her because of her strong self-awareness, her concern and loyalty to Naomi and her determination to fight for respect, happiness, and freedom. Ruth’s is more than a historical story from centuries ago; its feminist message is equally relevant for our violent, modern world, where women still have a long way in terms of achieving full equality and overcoming patriarchal attitudes. We need to study and absorb its messages about educating girls and young women about how to build relationships with their male partners, about setting boundaries, so that we can meet these difficult challenges and end violence against women, ensuring full respect and freedom for all women.