Our rabbis, clever sages who knew how to read exquisitely slowly and carefully, found something fishy in a word in the Book of Ruth that most people who know the book well, myself surely among them, have passed by a thousand times without thinking to notice, much less thoughtfully to interpret.
The word in question is only nineteen verses into the story. Naomi, a widow old enough to have married off both her sons but also young enough to imagine herself bearing more children, has decided to return from Moab, her current domicile, to her homeland, to Judah. What she was doing in Moab, the country across the Jordan from Judah, is simple enough to explain: there had been a terrible famine at home and so Naomi and her husband Elimelech moved east to wait it out in a place where there was apparently plenty of food. But things in the Bible (or in life) never go quite as planned. Elimelech died in Moab, leaving Naomi with her two sons. Eventually, they married, choosing local girls as their wives. But things in the Bible (or in life) really never do go as planned and, before the famine wound down, the boys—now young husbands—themselves died. And so was Naomi left with two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.
And now the story begins to get interesting. The famine finally ends and the three prepare to remove to Judah. But even though they actually do set out on their journey, they don’t get very far before Naomi comes to her senses and tells her daughters-in-law that they don’t owe this to her, that it would be more than acceptable to her for them to return to their parents’ homes and revert to their original status as Moabites of Moab. There do not appear to have been formal conversion rituals in the time in which the story is set, the era of the Judges that followed the initial conquest of Canaan, so the women’s status is at best ambiguous: they had been married to Israelites and so were deemed Israelite themselves, but now that their husbands are dead and buried, they’re in ethnic limbo—not exactly Moabites any longer but connected to Israel only by ties that were buried with their husbands. Orpah demurs briefly, but eventually she takes Naomi up on her offer and goes home. But Ruth sticks with Naomi and Naomi, because she can clearly see how committed to going along with her Ruth is, eventually relents. And so the two of them, Naomi and Ruth, set forth from Moab on their not-too-long journey to Judah, to a homeland Ruth hasn’t ever known.
And now we get to our word, one among the 2,039 that together constitute the tenth shortest book of the Bible. The phrase in which our word appears is in relatively easy Hebrew: va-teilakhna sh’teihem ad bo·ana beit-lechem. And it’s easy to translate too: “and so the two of them walked together until they reached Bethlehem.” So far, so good…but there’s a tiny issue with the second word: if we’re talking about two women, it should be sh’teihen, not sh’teihem. The latter word would work if the plural subject referenced two men or even a man and a woman. But if it’s two women, then the rules of grammar require a feminine suffix and the word would then be sh’teihen. But it isn’t. And thereby hangs an interesting tale.
The Torah takes a dim view of crossdressing, formally forbidding men to dress up like women and women, like men. (You occasionally hear this verse used to condemn transgendered people presenting themselves other than as their biological bodies would suggest they should, but that seems exaggerated to me: even the ancients understood Scripture here to be speaking specifically about people who dress up like members of the opposite gender to gain entry to places that only women or men are allowed for their own dishonorable reasons.) But the Book of Ruth is set in a time when the laws of the Torah were either not widely known or not widely observed—there are several examples of this in the book—and so our sages imagined the masculine suffix (which is not even a word, just a single letter) there to hint to us that Naomi and Ruth dressed up like men for their journey home to Judah.
It was, apparently, that kind of world. No one was too safe on the nation’s highways. But men were safer than women and so Naomi and Ruth made the choice to be men, or at least to present themselves as men, to go where only men safely could go. And it worked: eventually they arrived safe and sound in Bethlehem and our story commences in earnest.
It’s that image of Ruth and Naomi dressed up like men that stays with me. They could, of course, have demanded to be treated fairly and equitably. They could have asserted their natural right to travel on the nation’s highways unmolested and unbothered by predatory males eager to take advantage of women traveling on their own. They could have done a lot of things, but they chose, if not actually to masquerade as men permanently, then at least to present themselves as manly enough to discourage would-be assailants or harassers.
As I reread the Book of Ruth this last week as part of my lead-up to Shavuot, I was struck by the fact that my study was interrupted by the A.P.’s announcement that Hillary Clinton has become the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, which would make her the first woman nominated by a major political party to run for President. If she wins, of course, she will be the first woman in our nation to serve a President.
Given our nation’s more than slightly conflicted attitude towards gender in general, Mrs. Clinton now finds herself in a strange situation. If she is perceived as behaving “like a man” (a thought further complicated by the fact that it’s hard even to say what that means exactly), then she risks alienating all those who are drawn to the possibility of allowing a woman to crash through the ultimate glass ceiling and serve her nation as our first female president. But if she insists on behaving “like a woman” (whatever that means), then she will clearly lose the votes of a certain slice of the electorate that would only be able to countenance a female president if she appeared somehow to be manly enough to make her actual gender an irrelevancy.
Confusing the soup even further is the fact that the notion of gender-based affect is itself suspect in the minds of most forward-thinking citizens. On the one hand, we want people to behave according to a canon of norms associated with their gender and are unkind to people who appear to want to sit on one side of the aisle and vote on the other: consider the difference between calling a man manly and a woman mannish, or between referring to a woman as possessed of womanly virtue and man being called effeminate. But on the other we also seem eager to tear down irrational gender-based distinctions in life and culture—in a world in which women routinely become doctors and men routinely go into nursing, it seems slightly retro for there even to be separate Oscar categories for “best actor” and “best actress.” (Indeed, in a world that would never countenance referring female dentists or lawyers as dentistesses or lawyeresses, it feels quaint even just to use the word actress these days to refer to female actors.)
All that being the case, Mrs. Clinton’s gender constitutes a complicated riddle for Americans to work through. Nevertheless, even people who are not planning to vote for her can surely take pride that we have set to rest yet another instance of irrational gender-based bias, just as the nomination and election of President Obama can be celebrated by all, including his non-admirers, as the ultimate example of America setting the ultimate race-based barrier to rest. So the simple fact of Mrs. Clinton being a woman should be something Americans should celebrate without reference to her specific policies or chances actually to win the presidency…and surely also not with reference to the degree to which she appears to embody or not to embody a set of stereotypes associated with womanliness or femininity. (Are those words synonyms? The fact that I’m not sure is also a point worth pondering.) It should surely be possible to celebrate Mrs. Clinton’s accomplishment without getting stuck on the ridiculous question of whether she is an appropriately female woman or an excessively mannish one…whatever those terms mean in today’s America. But when I think of poor Naomi and Ruth—two heroic figures whose bravery and cunning led, albeit a bit circuitously, to the birth several generations later of King David, Ruth’s great-grandson, and thus will lead, bi-m’heirah b’yameinu, to the eventual redemption of the world—when I think of them forced to pretend they were men to take their rightful place in their own society lest they come to harm on their way from the margins to the center, I also think of Mrs. Clinton and marvel at how far we’ve come.
No one has been formally nominated by anyone at all, yet the 2016 presidential election has already turned into one of the oddest presidential campaigns our nation has known. But even before anyone wins, the American people itself has won by following its rejection of race-based limitation—informal and surely illegal but wholly real until it suddenly wasn’t—on a citizen’s right to run for the highest office in the land with a rejection of the parallel gender-based limitation, one also un-enshrined in law and rarely mentioned in polite company but also entirely real in terms of the effect it had on women’s aspirations for political office.
I suppose Bernie Sanders deserves mention in this complex of ideas as well. He was, after all, the first Jew (and also the first non-Christian) ever to win a state in a presidential primary. So it feels right to see his campaign—and his twenty-three primary wins—as constituting a kind of third leg in the repudiation of irrational prejudice based of race, gender, or religion.
Maybe our nation really is growing up! Others paved the way, obviously. (Shirley Chisholm, for example, cleared a path both for President Obama and for Hillary Clinton when she, a black person and a woman, ran for president in 1972.) And the issues in play remain complicated. But the days of women having to dress up, either literally or figuratively, like men to be considered worthy candidates for public office are clearly over. And so our nation joins India, Israel, Germany, and the U.K.—as well as many smaller countries like Ireland and Iceland—in setting aside as irrelevant the concept of gender when it comes to choosing an able national leader. My own feelings about all of this year’s crop of candidates are fairly conflicted. (More on that in the months to come.) But I know progress when I see it. And I think therefore that Mrs. Clinton’s designation as the presumptive candidate should be something of which we can all be proud. If her nomination leads to a national discussion of gender-based issues—and particularly to the timely demise of the notion that men or women are supposed to “be” one way or the other, and that failing to behave according to these pre-conceived norms is a sign of mental confusion, emotional distress, or moral turpitude—then that would be a very positive development indeed.