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What the Book of Ruth Can Teach Us About Stanford and Sexual Ethics

The Bible is full of deeply troubling sexual encounters. The book of Ruth is about their repudiation.

Olivia Friedman
June 10, 2016
The Book of Ruth Shutterstock
The Book of Ruth Shutterstock

You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.

So begins the compelling statement written by the unnamed rape victim of Brock Turner, a former star swimmer at Stanford University. Her first sentence gets to the heart of an issue explored within the book of Ruth, which we read on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot: identity. What does it mean to be known, and specifically, what does it mean to be known within the context of a sexual encounter? As it turns out, the ancient biblical story has much to teach us today on this subject.

According to rabbinic tradition, Ruth is set during the same time period as the book of Judges. These judges were tribal chieftains engaged in defending their land against threats from enemy nations. Due to the lack of a strong centralized government, the judges had limited authority. Eventually, each Israelite did what was “right in his own eyes,” which extended to committing egregious sexual crimes, including rape and kidnapping.

It is within this social context that Boaz, a relative of Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi and Ruth’s eventual redeemer, stands out. Dr. Yael Ziegler, author of Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy, posits that Boaz is meant to contrast with the judge Samson. Samson’s eyes are eventually gouged out by the Philistines; in rabbinic tradition, this is because he followed his baser lusts, taking Philistine brides due to their beauty and eventually causing his own downfall by telling Delilah the secret of his strength. In contrast, Boaz is able to withstand sexual temptation when Ruth appears at his threshing hut in the middle of the night.

Dr. Ziegler explains that a problematic sexual ethic, and the redemption of that sexual ethic, is a main theme within the book of Ruth. Ruth and Boaz are both the product of sexual unions that involve deception and individuals who are not known to one another. Ruth is a Moabite, and Moab is the child of Lot by incest. According to the biblical account, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s daughters believed that the world had ended. In their quest for continuity, they offered their father wine and slept with him while he was inebriated and unaware. Moab was the product of this union.

Boaz is a descendant of Judah and Tamar. Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She had been married to two of Judah’s sons, each in turn, both of whom had died. Judah chose to withhold his third son from her, afraid that child would die as well. Tamar, tired of waiting, veiled her face and dressed up as a harlot, seated beside the main road. Judah, not knowing who she was, slept with her and impregnated her.

Lot’s daughters and Tamar both acted out of a quest for continuity. Their intentions were good. But the men in these stories are responsible for the part they played in the matter, and it’s harder to judge them favorably. According to the Talmud (Nazir 23a), Lot was aware of his eldest daughter leaving his side the morning after, but did not refrain from drinking to excess that night (which is when the younger daughter slept with him). And in the story with Judah, the text is straightforward–he did not ask who the supposed harlot was. These men were complicit in choosing not to know the identities of the women they slept with.

In contrast to this, when Ruth appears at the threshing floor, washed, anointed, wearing beautiful garments, and literally lying at Boaz’s feet, Boaz refuses to take advantage of the opportunity he has been given. Unlike his ancestors, as the male figure in the story, Boaz chooses responsibility over pleasure. He inquires: מי את? Who are you? (Ruth 3:9) Dr. Ziegler views this as a pivotal moment.

In answer to Boaz’s query, Ruth identifies herself by name, “I am Ruth, your maidservant.” Boaz’s query gives Ruth the opportunity to identify herself in a situation in which she has presented herself to him as a sexual object, turning her from object to subject. In prompting Ruth to employ the word anokhi, Boaz allows Ruth to express self-definition, a profound recognition of her I-ness (Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy, page 326).

Boaz is the hero of this story because he refuses the easy route. He does not blame alcohol, as Lot did, or choose pleasure, as Judah did; rather, he seeks a meaningful encounter with the person who has come to offer herself to him. He asks who she is and acts based on her answer.

In the letter Dan Turner, Brock’s father, read to the court, he stated:

Brock was working hard to adapt to the rigors of both school and swimming. When Brock was home during Christmas break, he broke down and told us how much he was struggling to fit in socially and the fact that he did not like being so far from home. Brock was nearly distraught knowing that he had to return early from Christmas break for swimming training camp. We even questioned whether it was the right move to send him back to Stanford for the winter quarter. In hindsight, it’s clear that Brock was desperately trying to fit in at Stanford and fell into the culture of alcohol consumption and partying. This culture was modeled by many of the upperclassmen on the swim team and played a role in the events of Jan 17th and 18th 2015.

This is a sad story. It sounds very similar to Boaz’s story. Boaz lived during a chaotic time, a time without centralized leadership, rife with idolatry, where a leading figure such as Samson could consort with harlots and a woman could be raped all night long and then left to die on the front stoop. Boaz could certainly have claimed that based on his surroundings and the example set by his ancestor Judah, there would be nothing amiss with taking the nameless woman in the night up on her sexual offer. And that, unlike the encounter with Brock, would have been with the woman’s consent.

But Boaz doesn’t do that. Because he cares about the person in front of him, the nameless woman who has come to him in the night. She isn’t merely an object for his pleasure, to be taken on a threshing floor (or behind a dumpster, for that matter). Boaz understands that there is a reason the biblical verb for sexual congress is ידע, to know. The unnamed woman lying at his feet is a person in her own right and she deserves to be known. Identified. Seen.

If there is one lesson we can learn from the book of Ruth this Shavuot, it is this: every individual deserves to be seen.

Olivia Friedman teaches Tanakh, Oral Law and Jewish Thought at Ida Crown Jewish Academy. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.