The relationship and conversations between Ruth and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi are the sole example of named women talking to each other about something other than a man. These exchanges are also among the most poignant in the entire Bible, and present such a compelling model of compassion and care that they are credited with initiating the lineage for King David, and hence the Messiah. There is much to adore about the Ruth-Naomi relationship, and women—especially feminists—have been claiming this story as their own for some time. At all my daughters’ bat mitzvah ceremonies, I invoked these passages as examples of what I see as core Jewish values. When Naomi was left destitute in the foreign land of Moab following the deaths of her husband and sons, Ruth dropped everything to stay with her m-in-l. Ruth’s signature declaration of loyalty—“Wherever you go I go; your people are my people and your God is my God”—continues to inspire a vision of love, care and compassion, as well as a deep abiding friendship between women.
I was very surprised to learn that there is a midrash suggesting that the two women were secretly lesbian lovers. I discovered this recently at a phenomenal play, “God’s Girlfriends,” which presents a dramatic, feminist interpretation of three key women’s stories in the Bible; one of which is the Ruth-Naomi story. The play presents these stories—the other two being Sarah and The Concubine on the Hill—entirely from the point of view of the women. This did not strike me as a radical premise, until I realized that the female perspective is completely absent from the Bible.
Certainly women appear in many riveting biblical stories. The story of Sarah is a shallow aside to the narratives of her husband Abraham and their son Isaac, whom she birthed when she was 90 and whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice on the altar for his God. We never really know what her experience of motherhood was like under those circumstances. Similarly, the little-known story of the concubine on the hill is one in which we are told nothing of the woman’s thoughts or feelings. The unnamed concubine decided to leave her husband/master, only to be dragged back home through a contract between her father and her husband. On the way home, they pass through a village in the tribe of Benjamin, where her husband gives her up to be gang raped in order to save his own skin. She dies from the attack, and her husband chops her corpse into twelve bits. He then sends one piece of her body to each tribe, in order to send some kind of message. Here we have dramatic stories featuring women, in which we know nothing about the women themselves, . Someone else – male – always seems to be at the center. This play, written by the brilliant Inbal Genzer, dares to ask how the women in these stories experienced their own lives. What was Sarah really feeling during the sacrifice of her son? What about the lifel of the Concubine—who has no name and utters not one word in the original text? These are vital questions, which the Bible fails to answer adequately and which this play attempts to address forcefully.
I don’t want to reveal spoilers, because there were many moments in the play that made me stop and rethink everything I thought I knew about these familiar stories. Nonetheless, the depiction of the sexual tension between Ruth and Naomi needs some processing. I found myself taken aback by the sexual interpretation. During the discussion with the cast afterwards, I learned that the source for this reading is in the use of the word “davak” – to cling – a word that the text uses to describe Ruth’s love of Naomi. “Davak” is used elsewhere in the bible to mean sex, starting from the Genesis stories. Al kein ya’azov ish at aviv v’et imo v’davak b’ishto v’hayu l’basar achat – “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and cling [davak] to his wife and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:21) The vivid imagery of “clinging” as sex is clear and powerful. Once you see that in the text, it is hard to go back.
Moreover, in the context of the performance, there was no doubt about what the women’s love meant. The acting was sublime, and combined with the brilliant and minimalistic choreography and direction of Yael Slor, the three-woman performance pulled me all the way in to the characters’ lives. Ruth and Naomi were depicted in a way that clearly showed how the social dynamics that these women encountered are not so different from those that we are still facing. I loved how enlightening and relatable the production was, and I am not the only audience member who cried a few times during the show. Their lives are our lives. It is that simple.
Still, the depiction of Ruth and Naomi as a romantic couple has left me with a sense of loss. And that gets back to the Bechdel test. While we’ve acquired a very compelling view of how lesbian, queer, or gender non-conforming women have been treated throughout history, we lose the only representation of platonic female friendship.
I highly recommend this play to anyone interested in women’s narrative perspectives on tales from the Bible and beyond.
Written by Inbal Genzer; Directed by Yael Slor; Costume and Set Design by Dalit Inbar; Music by Dana Eizen
Cast: Yael Rochkind, Tamar Ratzabi, Ayelet Levison and Inbal Genzer
Jaffa Theater (Hebrew)