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The Virtues of Stubbornness

The important lessons we can learn from a minor figure in the Book of Ruth

by
Stuart Halpern
June 11, 2024

Who was the real heroine of the Book of Ruth? The answer might not be what you think.

For those in need of a quick recap, the biblical tale—which we read on the holiday of Shavuot—begins by recounting how a small Israelite family fled the Jewish homeland for the fields of Moab in a time of famine. Following the death of the matriarch Naomi’s husband and two sons, God eventually ends the hunger, bringing bread back to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah, Naomi’s young, widowed daughters-in-law, both initially offer to accompany Naomi back to her home. In response, Naomi argues that her daughters-in-law will be better off financially and socially if they stay behind in Moab.

Ruth decides that Naomi’s people shall be her people, Naomi’s God her God. She accompanies her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem. Eventually, readers of the Book of Ruth are informed, King David descends from Ruth, the beloved monarch-poet admired by billions over millennia serving as a reward for Ruth’s loving loyalty.

Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, on the other hand, heeds Naomi’s advice and stays back.

Orpah merits only a cursory mention in the tale’s opening verses. Pale in comparison to Ruth, that ravishing and remarkable subject of Leonard Cohen songs and Hollywood blockbusters, Orpah’s brief appearance in the beloved story barely merits a blip.

Yet to Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (1855-1926), the Hasidic sage known by the title of his magnum opus the Shem MiShmuel, it is Orpah’s character that constitutes the very reason we recite this story on Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah. Though Orpah was not herself an Israelite, Bornsztain argues that her behavior bespeaks a rigidity of character that Jews can—and should—review annually, and imitate.

Bornsztain’s shockingly revisionist reading begins with a callback to the Jewish calendar’s previous holiday, Passover. Orpah’s greatness, he writes, lies in her being similar to Pharaoh, that dastardly despot of Egypt: Their sharing an essential nature is reflected in the fact that in Hebrew, their names share the same letters.

Citing the midrash, Bornsztain notes that the etymology of the name Orpah alludes to the neck—oreph in Hebrew. Orpah, in embodying the essence of her name, turned her neck to walk away from Naomi. This act, in the mainstream Jewish tradition, is usually understood to be a betrayal, an act of defiant stubbornness. Similarly, Pharaoh demonstrated unyielding obstinance in his refusal to let the Israelites leave Egypt, despite his being subjected to those blood-frog-and-hail-filled plagues.

In contrast, Ruth’s name, the Hasidic rebbe notes, is an anagram for a tor, a dove, known for, quite literally, sticking its neck out and demonstrating flexible tranquility.

Though, as Bornsztain notes, the dove is undoubtedly biblically associated with peaceful tranquility, as in the lover in the Song of Songs’ praise that “my dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (and, one would add, the dove in the story of Noah having returned after the flood with an olive branch in its mouth), it is Ruth’s stiff-necked foil in whose merit the Jewish people have survived.

“Israel possesses the trait of stiff-neckedness,” Bornsztain writes, noting that the Children of Israel are called “keshei oreph,” meaning “stiff-necked,” by God in in describing their defiance amid their desert wanderings.

As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks put it, this Jewish stubbornness is “not a tragic failing but a noble and defiant loyalty” to their faith. “Mightier religions will urge them to convert,” Sacks continued, “but they will resist. They will suffer humiliation, persecution, even torture and death because of the name they bear and the faith they profess, but they will stay true to the covenant their ancestors made.”

Alluding to this persecution of the Jews by their enemies throughout history, Bornsztain, whose own hometown would be overrun by the Germans in 1915, sees their possessing the pharaonic/Orpah trait of obstinance as a positive. It is, he argues, a part of the “rechush gadol,” “great wealth,” the freed Israelites take with them on their way out of Egypt—implying that the Jews, by osmosis, absorbed the characteristic from their monarchical oppressor, but directed it toward the positive. This “great wealth,” usually understood to refer to clothing borrowed from the Egyptians, was actually metaphorical clothing, “worn for spiritual matters.” Ensconced within their national character by way of the revelation at Sinai which followed the Exodus, this now-Israelite propensity for “strength and fortitude in acceptance of God” became an immovable force that “all the winds in the world” would not be able to budge.

Bornsztain then brings us back to the festival of Shavuot and its commemoration of the revelation at Sinai. The very first commandment given from atop the mountain, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt,” engraved this obstinacy of loyalty “into the heart of Israel,” he writes. Just as God created the world, forging nature by His word, so, too, the Israelites’ collective personality became, by dint of that commandment, “fitting vessels for God’s utterances.” Vessels, that is, that would not crack under the pressures of history.

It was then, as a result of Sinai’s revelation, says Bornsztain, “the character of Orpah in holiness joined the character of Ruth. Therefore, we read this scroll on the holiday of the giving of the Torah.”

Almost a century later, the Catholic professor Maria Poggi Johnson made a strikingly similar argument as Bornsztain, in her book about what she learned about faith from her Jewish neighbors:

I imagine that when God calls his people “stiff-necked,” he feels rather the way I do when I yell at my daughter to get her nose out of that book right now and come down to dinner or else: secretly proud and delighted that she is a hopeless bookworm like her old ma. Stubbornness can be inconvenient and exasperating but it can also be a very useful quality—and it is a quality God knows his people will need. It’s not easy being different, and the stiff necks of the Israelites will, in the long run, be the key to their holiness and their very survival as a people.

So it was, she continues:

Against all logic and reason, and in defiance of all the horrors of history, Jews have survived and remembered who they are, where they came from, and to whom they owed their allegiance. They have remembered and obeyed not just when things went well—when they had cisterns and vineyards and olive groves—but also when they had nothing, when the Temple was destroyed again, when they were driven into exile, when their villages were burnt by laughing Cossacks, when they were locked in ghettos and starved, when they were hoarded into cattle trucks and gas chambers.

And, one might add, when Israel was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7.

“To be unbendingly evil is worse than idolatry,” said the 20th-century theologian Rabbi Norman Lamm. “To be unbendingly Godly is the greatest virtue. What is dogged obstinacy in the service of a bad cause, is valorous constancy in the service of a good one.”

As we reread the Book of Ruth once more then, Bornsztain’s untraditional take on the tale couldn’t be timelier. The main narrative through line of the Book of Ruth is not what is actually most important. Ruth’s selfless dedication to Naomi and the birth of the eventual King David at the end, are, one presumes even Bornsztain would admit, plot points worthy of applause. But the narrative’s real power lies elsewhere, from Orpah to Pharaoh to Sinai. It begins with one who stayed and stood, unyielding.

Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.

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