Celebrating Jewish Literature: Exploring biblical personalities

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Is it really possible to analyze a biblical character? The text itself offers limited information, which means that these analytical works often either focus on a specific aspect of the story or use additional, non-biblical material to supplement and expand what is offered. Two new books explore the text in different ways: Ilana Pardes examines differing views of Ruth – Jewish and non-Jewish – that have occurred over the centuries in “Ruth: A Migrant’s Tale” (Yale University Press), while Samuel J. Levine offers a close look at the biblical story of Joseph in “Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources” (Urim Publications) with the help of traditional Jewish texts.

While Pardes notes that the story of Ruth is the most elaborate tale about a woman in the Bible, it still doesn’t offer a great deal of detail about Ruth’s life. The date of the book is under debate: although, according to the Bible, the story takes place in the time of judges, some scholars believe its language suggests it was written down in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Other scholars offer the possibility that earlier variations circulated during the time of King David or before. Pardes notes that the work has been seen as a polemic against those forbidding intermarriage since King David descended from Ruth, who is a Moabite. However, the author doesn’t believe that adequately explains the story: she sees Ruth as an example of chesed, something she defines as meaning “kindness, loving kindness, benevolence, generosity, loyalty, duty [or] justice,” something readers should admire and emulate. 

Although Pardes focuses on Ruth’s life as a migrant, both on what that means in the biblical story and contemporary times, the majority of her book discusses how readers have viewed Ruth over the centuries. These chapters offer information about the ancient rabbis’ attempts to domesticate Ruth, later rabbinical mystical traditions based on her story, French pastoral paintings that focused on her life as a gleaner in the fields, the Zionist pioneer versions of Ruth and more recent Israeli and American adaptations of her tale.

For Jewish readers, the chapters looking at how Ruth is treated in rabbinic texts will be of the greatest interest. Pardes explains that the ancient rabbis declared that Ruth converted to Judaism, something not mentioned in the biblical text. She writes that “within the biblical world, the concept of conversion did not exist. The term ger... refers to strangers, or sojourners who have become part of the Jewish community... For the rabbis, however, the biblical demarcations between Israelites and foreign residents were too fluid. They sought to draw clearer distinctions between Jews and non-Jews and to regulate the entrance of newcomers.” This was particularly true as the popularity of Christianity increased. The rabbis saw Ruth as agreeing to not only follow the Jewish God, but to be part of the Jewish community, something that they considered an essential part of conversion.

For Jewish mystics, Ruth became the embodiment of the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of God in exile. Pardes suggests that during medieval times, when the Christian cult of Mary as the mother of the divine Jesus became popular, “we can imagine that in rethinking Ruth’s roles as the foremother of the Messiah, the Kabbalists were eager to upgrade her position and turn her into a deified messianic mother. But they did it their way. They wanted a messianic heavenly mother who would have compassion for an entire community, mourn their dire condition in exile, and intervene on their behalf in the upper worlds.” Ruth became a redeemer, something that connects her to her great-grandson, King David, one of whose descendants the rabbis believed would be the messiah.

Pardes also writes of how French painters from the 1600-1800s offered versions of Ruth that were either pastoral views of Europe or oriental envisionings of the Middle East. Early Zionists saw Ruth as an immigrant, something relevant to their movement, which was encouraging people to return to Palestine. Later, kibbutzim, with their emphasis on farming, connected her return to the holiday of Shavuot. Modern feminist writers have looked at the story from a variety of angles, include offering the possibility that Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are the true love interests in the story. Some American writers have seen Ruth as a Moabite outcast who didn’t fit into the world of the Israelites of the time.

“Ruth” is an excellent work for anyone looking to see how a biblical character can be recreated over time. Readers should note that this is not a traditional commentary: Pardes does some textural analysis, but her main intent is to show how others have viewed the text.

While Pardes doesn’t offer a detailed analysis of the text, Levine offers a careful and close reading in an attempt to explain what he sees as Joseph’s troubling behavior. He believes “the biblical text paints a portrait of Yosef [Joseph] consistent with an individual on the autism spectrum.” Whether or not one agrees with Levine’s premise, his work offers a thought provoking look at Joseph’s behavior.

Levine notes that Joseph exhibits childish behavior and is unable to read social clues. He insists on the literal truth, unable to see how it might not be best to always correct others. Joseph also seems unaware how his behavior affects his brothers and father. In fact, his actions and words annoy his brothers so much that they begin to hate him. When being sent to look for them, Joseph doesn’t realize they might not want to be found, and his doing so angers them so much they are, at first, ready to kill him.

Joseph is still unable to read social clues after his arrival in Egypt, something that lands him in prison when he is unable to protect himself against Potipher’s wife. When called before Pharaoh, Joseph finally finds someone able to understand him and work around his imperfections. Levine feels that Joseph was willing to speak the truth that Pharaoh’s other dream interpreters refused to present: to give Pharaoh the bad news about the upcoming famine. The author believes that Pharaoh exploited Joseph’s abilities for his own use, something that worked out well for both of them. It also allows Pharaoh to place an Israelite over his servants, something that otherwise might not have been accepted.

Levine believes Joseph expected his brothers to travel to Egypt and planned an elaborate subterfuge as a way of showing that he had become as successful as he once predicted. At times, it seems to Levine as if the brothers have switched places with Joseph more successfully navigating the world, while his brothers are unable to adjust to the changes in their lives. However, the author does not see Joseph as being cured, rather, as having been able to adapt to new circumstances.

“Was Yosef on the Spectrum?” also offers interpretations of the text by numerous classical Jewish commentators, which Levine analyzes and uses to support his contentions. This would be an excellent work for study groups that enjoy focusing on in-depth looks at biblical stories. Whether or not they ultimately agree with Levine, his ideas will stimulate discussion.