Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: Rising Moon: Unraveling the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Moshe Miller

Shavuot will be here soon, and we all know the deep connections most converts feel for the book of Ruth. (Or Rut, as I like to call her.) There's a new book out that'll put a whole new spin on how you read it! 

I was given a PDF of the book in the hopes I would review it, and boy did I learn never to read a serious book in PDF format again. But I digress. I did decide to review it because I think it's a very good book, and certainly one that will make you think. 

Summary: I highly recommend the book. I argued with it to no end, but in the positive, Jewish way. It made me think, and it made me look at Rut with new eyes. I may not agree with all the interpretations the author presented, but now I know a lot more about how Ruth has been portrayed in the Talmudic and rabbinic literature. And I appreciate the book more now, though I still don't "like" it or think it's a beautiful story. (Unfortunately, I think that's the feeling the author wanted me to have in the end...)

I became very excited about reading the book when the first two recommendations on the inside cover were from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Berel Wein (a very famous Jewish historian). In retrospect, I'm surprised at Rabbi Wein's recommendation since I think this book could have used a healthy dose of actual historical context in addition to the "history" provided by midrashim. In general, I felt a very strange dichotomy between the right-wing and the modern. To me (with some exceptions), it felt like the text-based sections could have been written by Rabbi Avigdor Miller, while the essays sound like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Strange, but mostly in a good way.

But let me distract you with its gorgeous cover...

You can buy it from Ktav or Amazon. Both of those are affiliate links, which means I earn a percentage of the price for convincing you it was a good buy (no extra charge to you). Right now, I'm raising money to move this blog onto its own domain and create a "proper" website for this work. Buying anything after clicking these links (or any other affiliate link on this site, which so far have all been Amazon links) will help support my work, which I have done on a volunteer basis for the last 4.5 years. The domain is bought, and the web designer is hired! If you'd like to buy this book anyway, support this blog while you're at it! If you'd prefer to make a straight donation to the site relocation and redesign, you can click the little Donate button on the right sidebar. Every little bit helps!

Now let's go more in-depth...

You saw the "I got a free sorta-copy" disclaimer above, but here's the real disclaimer: I don't like the book of Rut. I don't remember ever meeting another convert who felt that way, though I've met born Jews with similar reservations. Except for the one scene where Ruth stays and Orpah goes, I cannot agree with apparently-everyone that Ruth is "a beautiful love story... until you get to the midrash that says Boaz died the next day" (so well put by my father-in-law).

To me (with my feminist wiles), Rut shows the powerlessness of women in ancient societies (the same powerlessness we are still vulnerable to today: including domestic abuse, rape, date rape, and the "smaller" discriminations we face in the workplace). Having that be the milieu guiding Ruth's actions makes this a book about accepting the reality you face and making the best of it. Not so romantic and beautiful, even though that may make it one of the most gut-wrenchingly true books of the Bible, especially as a female reader. But that's just how I see it.

I feel a little differently after reading this sefer (it is a sefer, not a "popular" book like I expected it to be). Most importantly, I can now see the universal elements in the story, those that tie it to every man and woman and family... even if I don't always agree with those interpretations. I may have said, "Oh come on, that's really stretching it" a couple of times, but to its credit, the book is consistent in its premise and style.

Speaking of style, I was confused by the book's style at first, but really came to appreciate it as the book continued. It's like a play! You may not know this, but I worked in theatre for almost a decade (set design, costuming, construction, painting, and behind-the-scenes work...not acting). It was going to be my life's work. And I was perplexed to pick up a Jewish sefer with a table of contents that looks like this:

What does that even mean?? I expect many a casual bookstore patron will put the book back based on the TOC alone, which is a shame. It's a really clever way to structure a book about a book, and the author used it well. Really well, in my opinion.

So let me explain. The book of Ruth is divided into Acts, sections of the story that make logical sense. And then he divides them further into "scenes," where he goes through the book line by line with commentary, mostly from Talmudic and later rabbinic sources. Some of Rabbi Miller's own commentary is there, but the majority of his content is the preludes and interludes, which are essays on what we've just read and how it fits into the overarching theme of malchut (kingship) and the other themes he develops throughout. He claims that malchut is "the theme" of the book, but I felt like it was merely one idea among many that he developed. This is a dense book, so the switch-up really helped keep me engaged.

Problem: Yes, this is a really dense book. Worse, you can't read it in one or two sittings, but it self-refers back a lot. And I could never remember what specific thing was said earlier, and I was far too lazy to go look for it since it was only referred by section, not page. For example, "See the prelude to this act." Ain't no one got time for that. 

Second major problem: he creates some very dense, academic ideas, like "emergent identity" and "the poisonous advice of the serpent," and I spent a majority of the book wondering what those terms of art mean. More defining needed to happen, rather that giving a new example in different contexts and hoping you could infer the idea from the examples. However, I appreciated the multiple and detailed examples and did find them helpful. Using only examples without a clear definitional reminder created an analysis problem: too many variables in an individual example to choose which one is the relevant one. You cannot learn these seriously abstract concepts from examples alone. I eventually did find a good definition of "emergent" as applied to identity and other a footnote 2/3 of the way through the book. But despite not having his definitions for his themes, I was able to create my own meaning out of the examples given. Maybe they weren't what he wanted me to get from them, but I certainly pulled a meaning from his words, and I found it interesting and meaningful.

Most of the things I learned included how crazy midrashim can be sometimes. I don't know enough about the availability of midrashim on Ruth to verify this, but I suspect that the author chose only certain midrashim. There is very little conflict between the midrashim presented, and there are conflicting midrashim on almost any event in Torah (in my experience). I know for sure that one very popular midrash was left out: that Boaz died the day after impregnating Ruth. This book prefers to end on a "And they lived happily ever after" feeling. 

Worse, he seems to take the midrashim very seriously as though this is actually a fact that happened. Maybe I'm an apikoros, but I take my midrashim with a grain of salt. Most were written hundreds of years later, many in the middle ages. We are still writing midrashim today! They should not be treated as history. (That's why I believe it is very important to learn what's Torah, what's halacha, what's midrash, what's chumrah, and what's minhag - they're very distinct things with discrete purposes and meanings.) This is where I often groaned, "Seriously? That's really historically/psychologically unlikely." (I told you, I argued with the book a lot. I think of this as the "good" kind of Jewish arguing.) I would have liked to see more influence from a historian like Rabbi Berel Wein. Does it matter whether midrashim happened in real life? No, because that's not the point of a midrash. Perhaps that's the author's perspective, but if so, I would have appreciated that being pointed out. Or perhaps he's of the camp that believes all midrashim are historically true, even though many of them physically cannot exist or have competing midrashim that are in direct conflict. It could be either way, based on the writing of this book.

Let's look at an example that struck me really wrong: The author spends a lot of time citing sources that demonize Orpah. According to various sources, Orpah may have kissed Naomi goodbye, but she immediately develops a strong hatred of Naomi and Yisrael and sets out to destroy all the Jews (though I admire the author's very creative suggestion that this hatred could be caused by what is essentially a de-programming from a self-imposed cult obsession with Naomi).

Ruth Rabbah (a collection of midrashim) has this to say about it: 
"The entire night after Orpah separated from her mother-in- law, she slept with a company of one hundred soldiers. . . . R. Tanhuma said, there was a dog as well."
Wow. Stop right there. Let that sink in for a minute. Orpah acts like any normal woman should have and went back to what was familiar... so we slander the hell out of her for not making the hard choice Ruth made. I was disgusted by this treatment of someone who is presented kindly in the text as a real human being with reasonable limitations. (If I only had a dollar for every time a born Jew told me, "I could never make the choice you made to convert!") We can discuss another time how Rising Moon apparently conflates anal and doggy-style sex as the same thing and prohibits both according to halacha, despite the several Talmudic sources that say any form of consensual sex that respects both partners and is intended to eventually lead to procreation is absolutely fine. And that is how we rule on the issue (unless you're Gerer chassidim). I just had to share that very frustrating section, but here's the real point I want to share about midrashim and why we needed more of Berel Wein's historical influence:

Apparently Orpah is the great-grandmother of Goliath, just as Rut is the great-grandmother of David. Coincidence?? I think not! But let's look at this seriously. Rut and Orpah are from Moab. Goliath is a Philistine. Those countries are in opposite directions from each other with Yehuda in the middle, so what is seriously the likelihood of this happening? The Philistines lived on a thin strip of land along the Mediterranean, approximately from Gaza to Lebanon. Moab is a mountainous region of Jordan. Yisrael live in between. So Orpah "turned back" (in fact, her name means back, which is why we apparently assume she has a lot of back-facing sex) to her home in Moav, and then she later crossed over Yehuda to birth Philistines? Right. 

Likewise, do I agree with the midrashim that "prove" that Boaz and Naomi and Ruth all knew the immense historical import of every single action they took? No. That argument gets me pretty annoyed. Here's the example that sent me over the edge:
"With the giving of this gift [measuring out 6 barleycorns in Ruth 3:15], Ruth and Boaz return to the intense historical awareness that permeated their relationship at their first meeting. Once again Boaz hints to Ruth that she is destined to be the mother of malkhut. The six hours spent together between midnight and dawn are embodied in the six grains of barley, which represent their future: six outstanding descendants who will be described as possessing six exceptional virtues."
Did they really feel or think that? I don't believe so. As a general rule, I don't think it serves us well to put our Biblical forefathers on pedestals (like the common effort to "prove" that none of our forefathers sinned... the honest grappling of fallible humans with Gd's commands is one of the things that attracted me to Judaism over Christianity in the first place!). So that midrash got a good, old-fashioned "puh-lease" from me before moving on.

So I've shown you several of my issues with the text. (Honestly, I could debate this book and its contents with you for days. It was hard to pick which ideas to highlight!) But didn't I say I liked it? Yes, I enjoyed the ideas that emerged from his reading of the text, even the challenging and problematic ones, but especially the ones related to conversion. Overall, I most enjoyed the author's own commentary. Hashkafically (philosophically), I agree with it (can't lie there), but it was also far more in-depth and developed than any line-by-line textual analysis ever could be. It was a complete argument rather than a collection of individual arguments, and that made it more enjoyable to read.

Most importantly, I am in love with his statements that Ruth's past matters and should not be ignored. As a convert, one of her many strengths is that her past experiences are a "unique contribution" to Yisrael and should not be assimilated away. That's been on my mind a lot lately (remember how I said this fit my hashkafa?), as I have been considering writing a post about whether the goal of a convert should be "full assimilation" so that no one would guess the person is a convert. I'm tired of seeing that bandied about in Facebook conversion groups as the goal we should be aiming for. Who says? If that's your goal, fine, but don't say that has to be every convert's (or candidate's) goal too. It sets a nearly-impossible standard, and I'm not sure it's a good standard in the first place, either for converts or for Yisrael, for exactly the reason the author gave: we have something special to contribute.

This was one of my favorite passages from the book (despite my hesitation to believe that Ruth actually knew her actions would have any effect on Yisrael achieving the purpose of Creation): 
[author had just cited Pesachim 87B: "God exiled Yisrael among the nations so that they would ingather converts..."]
"Ruth now understands that if Yisrael is to embody what Creation is meant to achieve, it must include the entirety of humanity. There must be room for the assimilation of converts. She realizes that she can actually offer something that Naomi cannot. The purpose of geirut is to bring the world to Yisrael; the convert is not to leave the world behind. Therefore, it is no longer 'And the two of them went.' Instead, it is Ruth of Moab who has returned from the fields of Moab. And it is as the Moabite who has returned that Ruth makes her enduring contribution. She remains Naomi’s daughter-in-law. She is still 'with her' (imah). But she is now independent of Naomi, having grown fully into her own identity and history." p109 [emphasis mine]

Speaking of preaching.... As a convert and advocate, I took great exception to the fact that all the citations in the endnotes are listed in Hebrew only. As the author says in the introduction, "The endnotes generally provide further sources, many of which are given in Hebrew on the assumption that a reader looking for primary sources would be familiar with that language." I don't think that's a good assumption to make anymore, as English translations are widely available on the internet to anyone willing to search. As someone personally weak in Hebrew texts (but getting a little better every day), this prejudice is a pet peeve of mine. It takes years of dedicated effort to become proficient in Hebrew texts (and women have far less opportunities to become proficient than men do, especially outside Israel). When so much is available in translation (understanding that no translation is perfect), this unfairly and unnecessarily cuts a large percentage of Jews off as too unsophisticated to understand or dig deeper, so they should just rely on this person's interpretation instead. You see this very commonly in halacha books, where the alternatives, leniencies, and other mitigating factors are often only mentioned in Hebrew footnotes or facing text because someone who can't read Hebrew obviously can't be trusted with anything less than the most machmir opinion. (Two books shown to me have said this explicitly in Hebrew, but most aren't that brazen.) This is a serious problem caused by our near-monopoly orthodox publishing industry, and they should feel shame for creating a problem when there doesn't need to be one today. It is disheartening for those of us who didn't benefit from a thorough Jewish education, it makes us feel less-than as Jews, and it's also a great deterrent to trying at all. Because of this kind of talk, many people even don't realize these sources are available in English and other translations. And even when you are developing your proficiency, the pervasiveness of Hebrew-only citations makes it overwhelming. There is a middle ground here, but I have not seen a single orthodox sefer stand on it. I look forward to being proven wrong. 

Rant over, back to the book...
Earlier in the story of Rut, the author focuses on the total lack of religious practice being part of the conversion of Rut (according to the text), and the very little religious practice education required by the Talmud, and comes to the conclusion that "There is no provision for accepting a convert who searches for religion. There is no law that states that it is even permitted to accept an applicant who claims a philosophical belief in Judaism. The only basis for accepting applicants is if they claim that their life will be complete only if they join Yisrael."

Pretty provocative, right?! Should it be? I don't know. The question is how you understand "joining Yisrael" and what that should entail.

There is no shortage of other interesting debates, from the conflict between chesed-dependence and mitzvah-coercion (super interesting!) to jealousy to the meaning of malchut (I found this less interesting, but maybe it's just me) to the role of humanity to yibum as a reconciliation for Cain and Abel (mind blowing, to me). 

I love a book that stretches my mind and my assumptions, and Rising Moon does that. (But could he please explain where the name Rising Moon comes from? I assume it's about the coming of David? Just say so. I hate loose ends; blame the OCD.)

Let me share one area that really challenged me... a question I never thought too much about:
What does Gd's curse to woman, "you will desire your husband, but he will rule over you" (Genesis/Bereishit 3:16) mean

I never really thought about it. As a modern woman cognizant of the struggles women face and have always faced, it made intuitive sense. The author creates/cites (and of course I can't find it now...stupid PDF) the idea that the curse means that woman will want to initiate sex with her husband and be unable to (timidity, fear, social expectations, I forget why), while her husband will rule over her as a baal (master). Very interesting, and something that remains very relevant today. I can buy that, and I've added it to my personal understanding of this pasuk.

But the discussion got me thinking about this idea and what it could mean in the larger sense, and how this curse has grown into the feminist struggles we still have today. I have to admit that I have a weird love of post-apocalyptic fiction. Mostly books, but I also enjoyed the show Revolution and now am catching up on The Walking Dead. It's one thing to think about the physical vulnerabilities of women in ancient (or even near-modern) times, but post-apocalyptic fiction reminds me that there's only a tenuous protection for women in our society. In any war zone, even today, women's constant threat remains rape, gang rape, and murder. Even during small scale riots like we sometimes see in the United States, rape is a real threat for women caught in the crossfire. Savagery smolders right below the surface of our modern lives, and that is why I find post-apocalyptic fiction so frightening: it feels realistic. That is why I can't ever believe Ruth is a "beautiful" story. It's a woman (actually 2 women) doing what she has to do to survive: attach herself to a strong male who can protect her from society and starvation. That is why we are halachically commanded to protect the widow; who else will protect her and care for her? Once I sat down and thought about it, this is what I always assumed the Torah meant when it curses Womankind. And what a curse it is; I think about it every time I walk alone at night.

Rut is smart, strong, loving, loyal, and has an admirable acceptance of grim reality. There's beauty in her... And there's even beauty in Boaz and his efforts to do the right thing with the limited reality they have. But in the circumstances Ruth faces and the decisions she must make? There is no beauty there. No amount of midrashim saying they were madly in love will ever convince me that that love existed, and even if it did, whether it was an important factor in deciding to do yibum. Boaz can do the "right thing" with kindness and compassion and respect, and is that any worse than doing it because he was so turned on by her (yay shocking midrash - really, you can't unsee it)? 

So you've heard my take on Rising Moon. But maybe you'll come to a different conclusion. Go read it and tell me what you think! You can buy it here from Ktav or Amazon


  1. QUESTION FROM Kochava Yocheved HaGiyoret:

    What does Gd's curse to woman, "you will desire your husband, but he will rule over you" (Genesis/Bereishit 3:16) mean?


    Rashi interprets this verse as meaning that: a wife may not explicitly request physical intimacy with her husband, but this interpretation is rejected by Ramban.

    Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra interprets this verse as meaning that: a wife must do anything that her husband commands her to do, but this interpretation is also rejected by Ramban.

    The commentary of Ramban on Bereishit chapter 3 verse 16 interprets this as meaning that: a wife desires physical intimacy her husband very much, even though she knows it results in the pain of childbirth and being compelled to serve her husband.

    PS: When will this blog publish an article about the mitzvah of honoring kohanim?

  2. My thoughts on the Book of Ruth can be found here.