Brother against brother. Husband and wife. Father and son. Sometimes, also, mother and son. Occasionally a wise woman and a male leader. Lots of intra-family squabbling between sister wives. Sister and brother, here and there.
What do all these Biblical narratives have in common?
None of them pass the Bechdel test.
First coined in 1985 by Alison Bechdel, the basic criteria to pass this test involves a conversation between two women — ideally, both of whom are named — about someone who is not a man.
Now, I love Torah. I think it’s the best-selling book of all time for a reason, and I’m particularly pumped to be spending this weekend’s festival of Shavuot celebrating its arrival on our planet. In fact, I’ve dedicated my life to studying this text and having a fabulous time rereading these stories for layers of mystical and life-enhancing meaning and bringing them to life today. It’s, quite literally, what I do.
But one area where we grapple with Torah is in the presence of female characters, or the lack thereof. We have our matriarchs, and a few sisters, and some incredible wise women (which, incidentally, was even a title way back when), but rarely do we have a story where we experience the conversations of two women together.
Enter the Book of Ruth.
In the Book of Ruth, we have the story of a family that migrates from the ancient land of Israel to seek better pastures during a time of famine. On their adventures in the land of Moab, the two sons marry local women, Ruth and Orpah. The dad Elimelech dies, the two sons die, and the mother-in-law Naomi is left with these two women who are technically still part of her family (ancient Israelite law had it that if you didn’t have kids and your husband died, the closest living male relative was obligated to marry you so you could keep the man’s name alive through the family, and also keep you sustained because a girl’s gotta eat).
The trio of women start to head back towards the land of Judah, where the famine has let up and they can get food from the standard community methods of charity. But Naomi isn’t sure this is the best scenario for these women. She’s past child-bearing age, has no sons left for them to marry, and instead offers them to head back home and find other ways to attain the gold standard for an ancient Middle Eastern woman: a source of sustenance, and children.
Orpah is convinced, kisses her mother-in-law, and heads back.
But Naomi clings to Ruth and won’t let go.
In a narrative that grabs our hearts, too, Ruth proclaims her love and devotion for her mother-in-law. She famously states, “Where you go, I will go. Where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people are my people, and Your God is my God. And where you die, I will die and be buried.”
No longer simply a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law pair, these women transform into a rock-solid female friendship of struggle, support, strategy, and salvation.
In recent years, modern midrash has focused on this as a queer relationship between two women, and while that’s lovely, I think there is a lot to be mined on the surface-level interpretation of a strong, female friendship that reflects the ancient paradigms of sisterhood that we see only glimpses of in the Torah, but we know was the bedrock of our society.
Some of the greatest damage to women over history has been through a tool of the patriarchy that insists our own worst enemy is other women. We compete with one another. We fight, we bitch, we gossip, we backstab. Women in history have fought over men, over children, over money, over the money that belongs to their men that they want their children to inherit, and everything in between.
Today, as we create a new society of feminine empowerment, we are still susceptible to this simple stumbling block. Personally, I have spoken about friends behind their backs to sabotage their success at work. I’ve gossiped about other women’s dating habits instead of emotionally supporting them when they needed it. And subconsciously, I spent years critiquing women because I was so secretly ashamed of being one. It was easier to (try really hard but never quite) be “one of the boys” than to try and get in on the secret language of sisterhood. Female friendships were hard for me, and I wore that as a badge of pride.
I wonder how my former life in the corporate world could’ve been if we women had supported one another, called out the sexist behavior we experienced as a team, and helped each other grow. We could have advocated for one another in promotions instead of stepping on another woman’s back to get a leg up. I’m not saying we were never there for one another. I made rich, fulfilling female friendships at work that emotionally got me through some super tough times. But I know that our system wasn’t built for it, aside from the usual “can-you-pass-me-a-tampon-under-the-stall,” and I wonder what would be if we leveraged our example of Ruth and Naomi to create something real.
I think about my current life, in spiritual leadership and community building, and how much power we have when women come together. When I work together with other ladies to build them up instead of tearing them down, the sky’s the limit. There is so much that is possible when we recognize the inherent power we have when we are together.
The story of Ruth and Naomi continues a little differently than perhaps today’s friendships might. They continue onto Naomi’s hometown in Bethlehem, and Ruth soon joins the poor “gleaners” who head out to the fields each day to clear out what is left behind from the harvest, an ancient Jewish law that would do us well to have today. Naomi tells her that the landowner Boaz whose harvest they’re enjoying is actually a long-lost relative, and based on the law of marry-the-closest-living-relative, this could be the perfect prospect for Ruth, who socially ticks all the boxes of hopeless in society: a convert, stranger in the land, widowed, and of course, a woman.
The story continues with some strategic input from Naomi and some deep vulnerability from Ruth, and eventually Ruth and Boaz marry and live happily ever after. More than ever after: Ruth and Boaz’s union resulted in the birth of King David, the man we all call “chay v’kayam” in summer camp songs, also known as “living and everlasting.” From vulnerable stranger to mother of the Jewish monarchy, Ruth’s story is read on Shavuot not only as a lovely harvest-time romance, but as a powerful way of reminding us that Torah has room in its story for everyone.
Our laws of marriage and inheritance have moved on a little since then, though if you’ve read about entailed estates in Pride and Prejudice or divorce settlements by the Real Housewives in US Weekly, you’ll realize it’s not that far away. But more importantly, the story of Ruth is not as much about the salvation that comes about when one woman marries well, but the power of what can be created when two women work together in harmony, with love and with serious care and consideration for each other. Ruth could have left the elderly Naomi to return to Judah on her own and live off charity, returning to her former Moabite life without a care in the world. But the bond of wise women, of seeking out friendship, mentorship, and sisterhood, carried them through to build a future that the Jewish people of today still see as significant.
Maybe this is what Alison Bechdel meant when seeking out content that features women discussing more than men, but life itself. What kind of world can we build when we work together, instead of following the paradigm of competition and destruction we were taught?
Every year when we read this story, it reminds me to pay a little more attention to my female friendships. Where can I be more empowering, more supportive, more considerate? How can I help my sisters grow instead of holding them back when it makes me feel insecure? How can I listen fully, without judgement or advice? Can I build a tribe of community where women are fully seen, truly vulnerable, and yet absolutely supported without being undermined by one another? Can this type of connection truly transform our family dynamics, our workplace hierarchies, and our overall industries and societies when women support each other?
Tribal histories say yes, and so does the Book of Ruth.
Header image: Naomi and Ruth Return to Bethlehem. Engraving by the German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Via iStock/GettyImages.