In honor of the festival of Shavuot, which begins this evening, I was re-reading “Law and Narrative in the Book of Ruth,” in Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg‘s The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. There’s not much point in trying to synthesize Zornberg’s work, because it’s too rich to survive such condensing. But ideas that I took from this essay are that narrative is complex and messy — despite apparent “happy endings” — and that law, on its own, can’t capture the unknown qualities of individuals and their relationships….
Ruth is constantly called “the Moabite,” for example, but that doesn’t really define her in the end, Zornberg notes; meanwhile both her mother-in-law and her future husband ask more than once, “Who are you?”
And yet, for both [Naomi, Boaz], Ruth retains to the end an unknown quality. Something in her remains strange….both answers [“daughter” “maidservant/redeemer”] only partially eliminate the force of the question. There is a residue of inscrutable chesed [loving-kindness], of sheer unknownness, in the woman whose impact they both know. (p.370)
This morning I happen to be at home with my 18-year-old daughter, who completed her last day of high school yesterday. This year has been a long, strange and often difficult trip. She’s been asked way too many times to answer “Who are you?” — usually in 500 words or less. For many months, the goal — that “happy ending” — seemed high school graduation and college acceptance.
And now, here we are — with high school finished (all but the shouting) and college “pre-orientation” just weeks away — and, of course, it’s no kind of “ending” at all.
Today she’s crashing around in the kitchen, launching her first batch of sourdough bread (she, unlike me, has always baked — something she learned from her dad and has taken in her own directions). Watching that starter bubble up, I know that the whole college-application process did nothing to eliminate the force of the “Who are you?” question. Forget “residue of inscrutable chesed [loving-kindness], of sheer unknownness” — it’s overflowing the dish, this young woman’s impact… a the narrative that, God willing, has many more complications and mess ahead.
To return to Shavuot and Zornberg, a further taste of her Murmuring Deep:
Ruth’s story makes it possible to reimagine Sinai. She becomes the source of a teaching that Solomon acknowledges [long story, about law being informed by narrative, relating to the famous baby of uncertain parentage (1 Kings 3)] and makes his own. She returns us, her grandchildren, across a gap, to that subversive force of narrative that is never lost. This is the Torah that, like its teacher, can never be fully known, that is always discontinuous, of which we ask, Who are you? and rejoice in the silence that animates its response. (p.379)