Sign In Forgot Password

05/20/2018 01:18:58 PM


Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

On Wednesdays We Wear Pink: The Lasting Lessons of the Women in Tanach
Shavuot, 5778

I wanted to open with a statement that, when I shared it with a group of women a few weeks ago, was met with audible gasps: The Book of Ruth is the only time in all of Tanach that women are in a positive relationship with each other. It is the only time that women are friends, that women get along. That is pretty shocking, and today I wanted to consider the significance of Ruth and Naomi’s relationship in the context of other female relationships in Tanach.

The first time that women interact in the Torah is the story of Sarah and Hagar. Sarah is unable to have children, so she has her maidservant Hagar marry Abraham in the hopes that Hagar will have children, and that Sarah will be built up through her. As we see, once Hagar gets pregnant she starts to act self important, she starts to show off. Sarah gets upset, so much so that she starts to act abusively towards Hagar, and Hagar runs away. This is a terrible relationship. Each woman had something that the other wanted (we can infer from Hagar’s reaction to getting pregnant that she probably had craved Sarah’s higher social status, and now that she is pregnant she thinks of herself as being on the same level as Sarah, and so she starts to act this way towards Sarah). This jealousy made the relationship toxic, and the two women were unable to coexist. It was so bad that the Radak in his commentary on the story says that it is in the Torah to teach us how NOT to treat people! There’s nothing positive here! 

The next women we see interact are Rachel and Leah, sisters married to the same husband. Rachel is unable to have children, but she is loved by her husband. Leah is able to have children, but Yaakov does not love her. We see this tension come to a head when Reuven, Leah’s eldest son, finds mandrakes in the field and brings them to his mother. Mandrakes are very rare, and were believed to have fertility powers. Rachel sees this and asks Leah if she can have some of them - a pretty normal question for a woman who is struggling to conceive. But Leah has an explosive response - it’s not enough that you’ve taken my husband from me?? Now you have to take my mandrakes, too?? It’s clear that her reaction isn’t really about the mandrakes, and that there is so much tension and pain in their relationship. They conclude this interaction by making a trade - Leah will give Rachel some of the mandrakes, and Rachel will forfeit her night with Yaakov so that Leah can have it. This trade doesn’t actually work. It does not fix anything. Leah remains unloved, and Rachel still cannot have children. Once again, two women each have something the other wants, and while it does not destroy their relationship to the degree that Sarah and Hagar’s was affected, it is still fraught with tension, jealousy, and pain. And the problems run much deeper and cannot be fixed by a trade.

The third example is Chana and Peninah, in the beginning of Shmuel I. They are both married to Elkanah. Once again, Chana is unable to have children, but she is loved by Elkanah. Peninah is able to have children, but is not loved by Elkanah. Peninah taunts Chana for not having children, which must have come from a place of pain and Peninah’s own jealousy of Chana for being loved. Now, for a third time, two women each have something that the other wants, and they are unable to be present for each other as a result.

That brings us to Rut and Naomi - a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, whose husbands and sons have died. In the society in which they lived, not having any male support meant that a woman would live a very difficult and impoverished life. Therefore Naomi tells Rut and Orpah to leave her, and go back to their families, who will be able to support them. And what does she say to them to try to convince them? She says “I have nothing to give you! I have no other sons for you to marry, and even if I could have a child now, it would be years before he would be old enough to marry you! I have nothing to give you. Leave me.” Orpah returns home, but Rut stays. And not only that, it is at this moment that she makes her famous pledge to Naomi, that wherever Naomi goes Rut will go, where she sleeps Rut will also sleep, etc. This is a very important interaction when we think about female relationships in Tanach - the only positive female relationship in Tanach is formed right after one of them says to the other “I have nothing to give you.” All of the other relationships are toxic, because they see themselves in competition, and they see the others as having something that they themselves don’t have. Rut and Naomi’s dynamic is the explicit opposite. Their loving relationship is founded on the basis of the transcendence of this dynamic.

This is an incredibly important message for us still today. This material has reminded me of the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Thousands of years later, we still deal with this all the time. 

If you’ll indulge me in a pop culture reference: This material has reminded me of the 2005 movie Mean Girls, which is the best contemporary study of female dynamics that you can find. The movie centers around a high school junior named Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan) who moves to Evanston Illinois from Africa - her parents were anthropologists there. Part of the humor of her personal history is that she enters high school with no sense of competitiveness. She seems perfectly happy with herself. Over the course of the movie she becomes socialized into being one of the popular girls, and essentially learns to see all of her relationships about competition. About what she has that the others don’t, and about what they have that she does not. There’s a particular scene in the beginning of the movie where a few girls are looking in the mirror and all criticizing something wrong with their bodies, and they turn to have expectantly to hear her own criticism of herself, and she’s speechless. She had never thought of herself in that way - of what was wrong with her. But as the story progresses she becomes one of the mean girls, and things get so bad that it eventually ruins every single female relationship in the school, which they then have to rebuild under the assumption of self acceptance and love. 

This movie was so powerful for me and girls and women across the world who have turned it into a serious cult classic because it gets to the core of how our relationships with each other can become damaged. I cannot speak to the men because I have not lived their lives, but I can say to the women in the room that we deal with this all the time! We all went to middle school, and high school. We all know what it feels like not to be enough, and to want what someone else has, and we all know how this pits us against each other.

To return to the four female relationships in Tanach - we must note that across all four, there are only two things that give the women a coveted status - the love of her husband, and her ability to have children. In ancient society, that is how a woman was valued. They’re not jealous of each other’s hair, or their sense of humor. They’re jealous of what gave them value, and a sense of purpose. And even today women still have society dictating to us how we matter - the beauty industry, the fashion industry, all exist and succeed by telling us that we are not good enough, and that someone else has better hair or a smaller waist than we do, and that we need to catch up. Our world is designed to be cruel to us. It begs for competition. It’s pervasive, and as we see in the Tanach, it is toxic to all relationships, whether it’s superior and subordinate, sisters, or sister wives.  One thing I’m thinking a lot about this year from Rut is that her character pushes us, and me, to say I am who I am, I appreciate what I have, and I want to see the world through love for other people, without any undertones of competition. As Rut and Naomi teach us, in order to be able to have a real relationship based on love, we must accept ourselves for what we have and who we are, and others for what they have and what they are.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780