Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Celebration Of The Middle Aged Widow: The Book Of Ruth

Once a woman becomes a widow she loses much more than her husband:
As the hierarchy within the family shifts, her position often weakens. Moreover, the new circumstances could affect the widow's public status, especially if she is left with limited means. The widow’s fall from grace is particularly harsh since it happens through no fault of her own.
In the Bible widows and orphans are regarded as the most vulnerable members of society and it is the duty of the community to take care of them. 
Deuteronomy 27:19  “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen".
In literature, widowhood is usually synonymous with helplessness and desperation, and it serves as a quick, yet effective, characterization device. A typical widow is a dreary middle-aged woman, who is short of money. Yet with no clout, the widow doesn't have much to lose, and in many novels she is the one to say things nobody wants to hear. A good example is Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park,  and there are many similar "difficult" aunts in Victorian novels.
But there are also some young and attractive widows in literature, and when such a woman appears readers should pay close attention: as she could defy the stereotype. Still young widows are  regarded as an easy prey by the men and are often viewed with suspicion by other women. And, as we could see from the case of Dorothea from Middlemarch and Amelia Sedley from Vanity Fair, widows tend to find themselves outside the mainstream of society.
The subject of widowhood is one of the themes of Shavouot, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire nation which was assembled at Mount Sinai. Traditionally on the eve of that holiday many Jewish people engage in Tikkun Shavouot, which in this case means an all-night Torah study. This custom has evolved into communal discussions of philosophical and theological issues related to the Bible in general and to the book of Ruth, which is read on Shavouot, in particular.
The book of Ruth tells the story of a Jewish woman Naomi and her two Moavi daughters-in-law who, after losing their husbands in the diaspora of Moav, have to make a life change.. One of the daughters-in-law, Orpa, decides to accept Naomi's offer and stay behind in Moav. Although Orpa's decision  is told in one short line, I was struck by the clever characterization of the different widows in the text. Orpa makes a brave choice; she is left on her own and has to build a new life for her self. We hear no more of Orpa, and  Naomi and Ruth, return together to the land of Israel.
In contrast to the literary stereotype of the helpless widow, Naomi cannot afford to be weak, she has to take care of another widow-- the young Ruth. Thus, in order to secure their  future, Naomi devises a plan of reclaiming the family estate.. This is to be done by marrying Ruth off to an eligible man, Boaz, from her own clan. Many widows throughout history in literature and in real life have done just that. But, in contrast to literature where such an action is often seen as cold opportunism, at the time of a Bible marrying a young widow was regarded as an obligation of the single man from the same clan.
 It is clear that not only Ruth accepts Naomi's  authority but even Boaz, soon to be her son in law, recognizes the strength of the older woman and respects her as the head of the family.
Reading the book of Ruth is much like reading a play; Naomi is also an actress, but most of her work is done behind the scenses as she is the creator and the director of that play. As we pay close attention to the the young widow Ruth, who is also the lead actress, we realize that she trusts her director to bring about a happy ending (the marriage which would also result, thre generations later,   in a more general happy ending --the birth of king David), and plays her part perfectly.
The book of Ruth is an empowering story of friendship among women, and of great team work. But for me it is mostly a celebration of the wisdom and strength of the middle aged widow.

PS. A link to the book of Ruth:   http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?&search=Ruth+1

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