The Common Good

What if the Bible's Ruth Came to America Today?

Learning from Shavuot and Pentecost: Can we share our harvest? Can we share our talk and tongues? Can we relearn how to share our work and rest?

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This Thursday evening, May 28, there begins the festival of Shavuot. In biblical times, it was seen as the celebration time for the successful spring wheat and barley harvests. In Rabbinic Judaism, it has been seen as the celebration time for the harvesting of Torah at Mount Sinai, 50 days after the liberation from Egypt.

The ancient rabbis assigned a special reading for Shavuot: the book of Ruth, which focuses on harvesting, on tongues of native and "foreign" speech, of wealth and poverty. What does Ruth mean to us today?

For Christians, that day became Pentecost, now counted 50 days after Easter (this year on Sunday, May 31), when the Holy Spirit came like the rush of a strong and driving wind, helping the early community of believers speak and understand all the languages of every nation under heaven.

When do we ourselves experience the Holy Spirit, that rushing wind that intertwines all life? The Holy Breath that the trees breathe out for us to breathe in, that we breathe out for the trees to breathe in? The Holy Breath that now is in a planetary crisis?

Both of these festivals look beyond the narrow boundaries of nation, race, or class.

When and where we live -- in the midst of the Great Recession, when the super-wealthy have robbed the merely wealthy, when the middling classes have lost their savings and the poor their homes, when the issue of immigration is hot and the lives of immigrants are threatened -- the issues of poverty and wealth, of immigration and the home-born, mean a great deal. And that is what Ruth is about.

In the biblical story, Ruth was a foreigner from the nation of Moab, which was despised by all patriotic and God-fearing Israelites. Yet when she came to Israel as a widow, companion to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, she was welcomed onto the fields of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz made sure that even this despised foreigner had a decent job at decent pay. When she went one night to the barn where the barley crop was being threshed, he spent the night with her -- and decided to marry her.

But if Ruth came to America today, what would happen?

Would she be admitted at the border?

Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi's arms while Naomi's protest brought her too under suspicion -- detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolator?

Would she be deported as merely an "economic refugee," not a worthy candidate for asylum?

Would she have to show a "green card" before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?

Would she be sent to "workfare" with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?

Would she face contempt because she and Naomi, traveling without a man, might be a lesbian couple?

Would she be waterboarded -- drowned again and again, revived at the point of death to be drowned yet again -- until she confessed that she had supplied a foreign enemy with mass-destruction weapons to attack America?

When she boldly "uncovers the feet" of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the "family values" that some religious folk now proclaim? Or has she affirmed that love engages the body as well as the heart, the mind, and the spirit, and that sometimes a loving body comes before a wedding?

Today in America, some of us are outcasts like Ruth; some are prosperous, like Boaz. He affirmed that in a decent society, everyone was entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone -- yes, everyone! Even, or especially, a despised immigrant from a despised nation. Everyone -- not just 92 percent of the people. (The U.S. will soon be up to 10 percent unemployment, and that doesn't count our 2 million prisoners, the highest number in the world, most of whom are in prison for nonviolent crimes.)

In ancient Israel, everyone had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work, begin to use the means of production of that era. And then to eat what they had gathered.

And Boaz could not order his regular workers to be economically "efficient." They could not harvest everything -- not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first go-round. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.

Although Boaz was generous-hearted, Ruth's right to glean did not depend upon his generosity. It was the law.

Ruth was entitled not only to a job, but to respect. No name-calling, no sexual harassment. And she, as well as Boaz, was entitled to Shabbat: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, love. She was entitled to "be" -- as well as to "do."

Because Ruth the outcast and Boaz the solid citizen got together, they could become the ancestors of King David. According to both Jewish and Christian legend, they could thus help bring Messiah into the world -- help bring the days of peace and justice.

What do we learn from their story today?

In America today, many of us live in the place of Boaz. Many others -- more than there were just a year ago -- live in the place of Ruth. Our society has dismantled many of the legal commitments to the poor that ancient Israelite society affirmed. What are our own religious obligations?

What are our obligations -- those of us who still have jobs, who have not lost our retirement funds to the machinations of the banks, or even those who have! What are our obligations to those who are living in cardboard boxes on the streets or parks of our cities? What are our obligations to those who have been evicted from their homes, to those who have no jobs?

Are we obligated only to toss a dollar bill or two into the empty hats of the homeless?

Or are we obligated to write new laws for our own country like the ancient laws that protected Ruth? Are we obligated to create new communities -- local credit unions instead of global banks, food coops and neighborhood clinics, groups of caring people who turn an involuntary "furlough" from their jobs into time to learn together, sing together, plan together to make new places of shared work?

Are we obligated to create a society that rubs away the barriers between the rich and poor, between those who speak one language from those who speak another?

What can we do -- what must we do -- to help bring on the days of peace and justice?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, co-author of The Tent of Abraham, and author of Godwrestling: Round 2, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, and U.S. public policy. The Shalom Center voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. Click here to receive the weekly online Shalom Report.

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