Shavuot: A Marginal Holiday (Shavuot) (Book of Ruth)

A drash on the book of Ruth and its teachings about the spiritual nature of Shavuot. Ruth’s pledge of mutuality and shared destiny to Naomi in the face of the unknown enables what is clearly a path of despair and hopelessness to be transformed so powerfully that it produces the seed of the messianic line.

June 2, 2006

By Rabbi Joshua Lesser

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Holiday: Shavuot. Book of Ruth
Shavuot: A Marginal Holiday
by Rabbi Joshua Lesser on Friday June 02, 2006
6 Sivan, 5766
Book of Ruth, Shavuot

Shavuot is one of the least celebrated major Jewish holidays; however, Shavuot should be one of the most popular amongst queer folk. In thinking about the “forgotten step-sister” of Jewish holidays, I think there are several unfortunate reasons that most American Jews would vote it “least likely to succeed” in the Jewish Yearbook. First, its timing tends to ruin Memorial Day plans or take a back seat to the first summer vacation plans of the season. Also, the rituals associated with Shavuot are not nearly as sexy as those of its fairer sisters of the Shalosh Regalim (the 3 Pilgrimage Festivals). There are no huts to build, no family seders with bowls of Bubbe’s matzo ball soup, and no endless glasses of wine. Instead, we get an all night study session, which doesn’t sit well with most Jews past college age, and a dairy meal – not very enticing in this age of lactose intolerance. These alone make it difficult for Shavuot to achieve its potential. But on top of all that, the themes of this sacred day itself seem to be more esoteric and more difficult to grasp then its two more popular sisters: Sukkot and Pesach/Passover.

On Sukkot, we experience the theme of vulnerability in the natural world, something people can actually feel as they sit in the Sukkah and for which we are primed for so quickly after our High Holy Days. Even more powerfully, Passover’s themes of liberation, challenging oppression and freedom are easy for most American Jews to grasp since they are also core American values. Shavuot is far more complex since it celebrates both the gift of Torah to the Jewish people and God’s revelation to us. So many of us have a complex relationship to the Torah and it is not always clear that this relationship is cause for a joyous celebration. We are not alone with this question. We find in Midrash that one of the ways our sages imagined God giving the Jewish people Torah is by holding Mt. Sinai over our heads threatening to drop it if we do not accept the gift. Similarly in Torah herself, revelation is described as a scary scene with lightning that could be heard and thunder that could be seen and finally an urgent request from us to Moses saying, “Enough, we cannot receive anymore, you receive it for us.” On a more concrete note, as Jews of varying beliefs, we do not all view the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai as an actual occurrence, leaving many of us to question what exactly are we celebrating. Some of us believe in God’s continuing revelation today and others believe God’s face is hidden from us, if there is a God at all. For the average Yid on the street, these questions go straight to the heart of one’s faith. All of this is a tall order to process alone, and perhaps more so in a setting of communal observance.

But with all of Shavuot’s complexity and challenges, it has one major plus. And it is this benefit that I believe honors the core of what I would call queer/feminist values. On Shavuot we read my favorite book of the entire Tanakh: the Book of Ruth. When I encounter Ruth and its placement on Shavuot, I ask the question: What does this book have to teach us about the spiritual nature of Shavuot? Traditionally, the reason given for the reading of this book is that it takes places during the barley/wheat harvest, which is one of the agricultural reasons for the observance of Shavuot, along with the gift of the first fruits. Is this all?

There are some interesting contrasts and parallels between the story of Naomi and Ruth and the revelation of Torah to the Jewish people. The two stories begin so differently. In the recounting of the Revelation, the entire community has recently celebrated its freedom and liberation from Egypt and are preparing for the giving of the Torah on the heights of Mt. Sinai. In the book of Ruth, literary devices are employed to imply despair and the absence of community. A famine forces Naomi to flee Canaan, her homeland, with her husband and sons. Ultimately, she finds herself in the valleys of Moab, a widow and the witness to the death of both of her sons. Her status is as low as it possibly could be in her society and time. The text ever so bluntly plays games with her name, whereas Naomi means “pleasant,” she requests to be called Marah, “bitter” because God’s hand is against her. Thus we begin with the inverse of the setting found in God’s grand revelation of Torah.

What queer person cannot relate to Naomi’s fate at one time or another? Feeling lonely, without family, without support and without a clear picture of the future – surely many of us remember a time like that. If we are lucky like Naomi, that reality changes. When she encourages her daughters-in-law to return to a more certain future with security and promise one daughter-in-law, Ruth, stays and pledges an oath of fidelity inextricably binding her life to Naomi’s forever, giving us one of the Torah’s most poignant examples of a family of choice. Her pledge is so complete that some people question if there was more than a mother-daughter bond, but rather that of a life partner. Indeed many people, lesbians and straight folk alike, use Ruth’s pledge as part of their life-long commitment to each other. The text does not answer what their relationship is, but the question itself is important and allows us to wonder. To me, the even more powerful message is that through this pledge, the future changes, a future that will eventually lead to the messianic age.

This transformation is the most queer part of the text. It is this pledge of mutuality and shared destiny in the face of the unknown that enables what is clearly a path of despair and hopelessness to be transformed so powerfully that it produces the seed of the messianic line. Through a series of events, some even say through God’s hand, Ruth meets Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi. He admires her dedication to Naomi and offers them support and comfort. Eventually, Boaz decides to join their family of choice from which an offspring emerges beginning the Davidic messianic line. Here we see that God can be powerfully known and experienced through a relationship. If that is not a revelation as profound as Torah, I do not know what is. It is often through selfless giving that God is known as powerfully as if the earth was shaking and thundering. Even more revealing for queer folks is that this relationship occurred in the margins. The central elements of this story take place in Moab, a questionable place at the time, and in the fields – a place of danger and transition. The central players are likewise marginal: widows, older people and strangers. And yet, here in the margins, godliness manifests. Ruth is a testament to everyone that God’s presence resides in those places society shuns or pities.

This is the challenge. How do we celebrate that? What kinds of rituals recognize the margins and God’s presence within them? And when we cannot always find God in the Book of our Ancestors, Ruth teaches us we can celebrate it in the eyes and gestures of the ones we love. Isn’t that worth celebrating?