Last night we celebrated Shavuot, a much-repurposed harvest festival. Proving, yet again, that I should no longer be allowed anywhere near a synagogue, I found my mind wandering to strange places during the traditional reading of the book of Ruth. Specifically, to the similarities between this ancient family drama and the novels of Jane Austen (waits to be struck by lightning. No? OK then). Like Austen's novels, the book of Ruth is a celebration of the way in which a careful adherence to social conventions and customs, when coupled with wisdom and generosity, safeguards both the happiness and security of individuals and the continuity of society as a whole. As expressed through the device of a romance between two incredibly sexy people.
The book of Ruth is short (barely four chapters) and worth reading. You can find an English translation here. The story in brief, however: having lost her husband and two sons in Moab, the Israelite Naomi returns to her clan with her two widowed Moabite daughters-in-law. The first, Orpah (whose name literally means "She who turns her back") returns to her own people. The second, Ruth, remains with Naomi. While gathering leftover grain in order to feed herself and Naomi, Ruth catches the eye of Boaz, the owner of the field, who is impressed by her devotion to Naomi and, presumably, by the fact that she is incredibly hot, and gives orders to his men to show her special consideration. Like a good Jewish mother--or a Biblical Mrs. Bennet--Naomi responds to the news of Boaz's generosity by making marriage plans. She sends Ruth, all dressed up, to lie at Boaz's feet in the manger at the end of the day's work. The text gracefully elides over whatever it is that happens after Boaz discovers Ruth, but the next thing we know, he's promising to marry her. The book ends with the birth of Boaz and Ruth's son, and with the revelation that he is the ancestor of David, and therefore the Solomonic dynasty.
Like Austen, the Biblical author sees marriage as the most desirable state for his female protagonist--it ensures both her financial and physical security and her dynastic continuity. In order for the marriage to be a good one, however--something beyond the mercenary or the expedient--it has to take place between two moral individuals. Nearly all of Austen's characters act in accordance with societal conventions and within the guidelines that manners and morality lay out for them. Only the best of them, however, act with a full understanding of the importance of manners. Whereas other characters act unthinkingly, accepting the customs of their society because to do so is easier than to buck the trend, and others still believe that the appearance of propriety is all that matters and ignore its substance, Austen's heros and heroines--her Darcys and Elinors--have a deeper understanding of the importance of morality to the preservation of the fabric of society. They therefore go beyond the requirements of convention--Darcy bribing Wickham to marry Lydia, Elinor securing a living for Edward Ferrars from Colonel Brandon--and are rewarded for their generosity by having that quality recognized by others who possess it, and by the privilege of teaching the importance of tradition and goodness to the next generation.
The book of Ruth seems to offer the same moral tale. Ruth and Orpah both discharge their duty towards Naomi by escorting her safely to her own clan's lands. Naomi sends the two women home because, as she says, she has no more sons to marry them to (which would fulfill her responsibility towards these two young women who have tied their fates with that of her family). Orpah's actions in returning to her family, who will find her another husband, are entirely correct. Ruth, however, goes beyond correctness, and remains with Naomi because of her love and concern for the older woman. In doing so she essentially seals her own fate--she has no property to tempt a new husband, no dowry, and no male relatives to protect her. In spite of the fact that they are not related by blood, Naomi takes on the responsibility of finding Ruth a husband. Ruth gathers grain in Boaz's field in accordance with the cutsom of gleaning, which states that stalks of grain dropped by the harvesters should be left on the ground for the poor to gather. Boaz goes further than custom requires when he orders his men to intentionally leave more grain on the ground for Ruth. Boaz promises to marry Ruth because he is related to Naomi's clan, and therefore has the responsibility of 'redeeming' the lands of Naomi's husband--buying them back from an outsider who has bought them and keeping them in the family. There exists, however, another relative with a greater claim to both the lands and Ruth, but he begs off. Boaz, therefore, steps up, and ensures both Ruth and Naomi's security. As the book's coda is careful to inform us, the union between these two excellent people is the source of a line of Israelite kings.
It occurred to me last night that Austen is almost alone in the history of the novel in writing about conformity as the path to happiness. Her contemporaries wrote about characters who defied convention and were heavily punished for it (with the possible exception of Anne Bronte in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which the main character acts shockingly by leaving her husband, and is rewarded with a better one). Modern novels frequently deal with conformity as a burden, crushing and stunting the individual. Their plots are often concerned with an individual's escape from the stifling bonds of tradition, or with a failure to escape which damns the individual to a lifetime of misery. The reason for this, of course, is that conformity does crush the individual--that's practically what it was intended to do. The laws that govern the lives of the Biblical characters in the book of Ruth, or the ones that rule the lives of Austen's characters, were never intended to safeguard the individual's happiness. Their purpose was to protect the community, the clan, and the family--for instance, the tradition of leaving the family's entire property to the eldest son, with the youngest sons forced to go into some sort of profession, which forms the foundation of so many of Austen's and her contemporaries' plots. It sounds cruel, and it is, but there is no other way to ensure that the family's lands aren't split up, and its power increasingly diminished.
The underlying fantasy of Austen's novels--and of the book of Ruth--is that the protagonists' happiness just happens to be secured by laws which, objectively, have no regard for it. Lucy Steele conveniently runs off with Robert Ferrars, thus removing the obstacle to Edward and Elinor's marriage without requiring that Edward act immorally. The relative with a greater claim to Ruth's hand declines to marry her, thus leaving the stage clear for Boaz (who, conveniently enough, is related to Naomi's husband's family) to make his move. Through these romances, Austen and the Biblical author make the strict adherence to tradition palatable even to readers who aren't accustomed to thinking of themselves as members of a group first and individuals second. The same laws, however, which in Biblical times were enacted to ensure, if not the individual's happiness than at least the security of the weaker members of society, have become, in modern times, a crippling burden. The tradition of yibum, for instance, in which a childless widow is married to her husband's brother in order to ensure both her security and her husband's continuity, has become a cruel joke.
Shavuot, as I said, is a much-repurposed holiday. It started out as a harvest festival, probably with pagan origins, in which farmers would make an offering of the first crops of the season. It was later folded into the tradition of ritual sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the second temple, the tradition arose that Shavuot was the date on which Moses brought the Torah to the Israelites, and the holiday was celebrated with a night-long study session. In the years that followed Israel's inception, the holiday came full circle and became a harvest festival again--agricultural settlements and kibbutzim appropriated it and transformed into a socialist- and communist-tinged celebration of their self-sufficiency, a demonstration of their success in rejecting the urban lifestyle of 19th century European Jewry and transforming themselves into tillers of the land. By the time I was growing up, the kibbutzim were mostly bankrupt, and the dream of an agrarian Israel, the home of the Hebrew worker, had given way to capitalism and a flourishing high-tech industry. Nevertheless, we'd grab a couple of cucumbers and a tomato out of the vegetable crisper, plop them in a wicker basket, dress in white and go to school to offer the first of our crops.
Last night I sat with bankers, human resource managers, and computer programmers, and read a tale about farmers living thousands of years ago, punctuated by 50-year-old songs about the joys of working the land and watching this nation bloom. A celebration of tradition embraced by middle-class individualists, because the former is intertwined with a love story and the latter have catchy tunes and evocative lyrics. It's a testament, I think, both to the skill of the Biblical author and to the human desire to belong to something greater than ourselves that this tale of tradition triumphant still resonates even with modern Israelis, who for decades have been forced to watch helpless as a thoughtless adherence to the letter of the law, coupled with venality and foolishness, have all but severed the ties between Israelis and their rich cultural heritage. When greedy, unthinking religious institutions force secular Israelis to jump through hoops in order to be granted to right to marry, divorce, adopt children, or even assert their Jewish identity, is it any wonder that ordinary Israelis recoil from the merest whiff of religion? Is it any wonder that the Jewish holidays dwindle into nothing more than an accumulation of tropes and empty gestures, with nothing to support them? I am gratified, therefore, that there still exist groups like the one I attended last night, whose members are willing to let themselves be conned by a story like the one in the book of Ruth, who are willing to consider the lesson that Jane Austen offers in her novels--that tradition, when tempered by generosity and by the understanding of the inevitability of change, can be a force for good, both for the community and the individual.