How the "Jewish National Poet" Revitalized an Ancient Literary Form

The great Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s “Scroll of Orpah” retells the story of the book of Ruth from another perspective.

William Blake, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab, 1795. Wikimedia.

William Blake, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab, 1795. Wikimedia.

Atar Hadari
Observation
June 7 2019
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.


By the time he settled in the Palestine of his dreams in 1924, Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik (1873-1934), acclaimed as the “Jewish national poet” from a very young age, had for the most part ceased writing poetry. Instead, he focused his efforts on running the Dvir publishing house with his longtime collaborator Y.H. Ravnitzky, gradually appointing himself custodian of the Hebrew language and its cultural treasures—that is, its stories.

In particular, Bialik devoted himself to a massive enterprise, which he and Ravnitzky had begun around 1904, of accumulating, revising, refining, and clarifying the narrative portions of the Talmud and other ancient rabbinic works. The result, Sefer ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends), is justly considered a masterpiece along with Bialik’s finest poetry.

Nor was that the end of it. In the early 1930s, toward the end of his life, Bialik produced a series of midrashic stories of his own, in which he drew on these materials and honed them in sometimes surprising ways. One of the resulting works was the “Scroll of Orpah,” intended as a counterpart to the “Scroll of Ruth,” as that biblical book—traditionally read in the synagogue on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot—is known in the Jewish liturgy. Bialik’s brief work, which I’ll translate below with a running commentary, bears the name of Ruth’s sister-in-law. It focuses on the differences between these two women, which it heightens to startling effect, and on the difference those differences make in the way their respective lives pan out.

 

At the beginning of the biblical book of Ruth, which is set in the same time period as the book of Judges, a famine drives an Israelite named Elimelekh from his native Judean city of Bethlehem to take his wife Naomi and two sons to settle in the plains of Moab. There the sons marry two local women, Ruth and Orpah; but the menfolk all die, and the two daughters-in-law are left childless.

Naomi, seeing no future for herself in Moab, decides to return to Judea. Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye, electing to stay in her native land. But Ruth follows Naomi to Judea, and most of the biblical book concerns what happens next: Ruth solves the problems of her widowed Jewish mother-in-law by re-marrying into Naomi’s family and producing a grandson to repair the social breach caused by Elimelekh’s initial departure from the land. In so doing, Ruth—thanks to the technicalities of biblical law—also restores Elimelekh’s ancestral property.

Orpah, who opts out early on, is thus the character whose trajectory the story of Ruth does not follow. In typical fashion, however, the midrash fills in various details about her. By picking among those details, and embellishing the pickings with his own embroidery, Bialik crafted his parallel text to Ruth. In looking closely at his choices, we may gain some insight not only into the original book but also, intriguingly, into Jewish life in early-1930s Palestine and, not least, into the psyche of the national poet himself.

 

2.

 

Orpah and Ruth, the Moabite sisters, were daughters of one father, the daughters of Eglon king of Moab, and they were both gorgeous girls and good looking, girls of the valley and plain. But Orpah was wild and rebellious and bold since she was a fleet-footed camel, while Ruth was simple and modest and skittish as a doe in the field.

Thus the opening words of Bialik’s Scroll of Orpah. In the Bible, there is not a word about the character of either Orpah or Ruth (and of course the two aren’t sisters to begin with). If anything, there’s reason to dispute Bialik’s characterization of Ruth as entirely innocent, let alone modest or skittish. But in the corpus of his verse the figure of a doe in the field is a feature as far back as 1905, when she appears as the heroine of his epic prose poem “The Scroll of Fire”—another work that draws heavily on midrash.

In 1905, this heroine was a temptress whose beauty disastrously leads the would-be prophet-hero to renounce his life’s mission for the sake of her love; here, by contrast, the heroine and true protagonist is the innocent Ruth, and Orpah therefore becomes the wild temptress.

And Eglon king of Moab was a hale and hearty fellow with a neck fat as all Jordan, for he sat in the richest land, the grass of his meadows as tall as a man and his flocks of sheep without number. And he served Chemosh his god with joy and a good heart and beheaded for him his choicest rams and goats, but he laid a heavy hand on his neighbors the Israelites and harried them at every gate. Yet in spite of this he feared the God of Israel, too, and honored His name. For he said, “Who knows, maybe the god of the Hebrews is God as well and His hand great and strong.”

In the book of Judges, Eglon is a tyrannical oppressor of Israel. By following the midrash and making Orpah and Ruth his daughters, the poet carefully humanizes and subtly neutralizes this pagan villain. His Eglon is a kind of down-home peasant, not entirely without religious feeling, poised between boorish idol-worship and a calculating appreciation for the possible supremacy of the Lord of Hosts. But the description of Eglon also sets us up for the contrast between his two daughters, one of whom will inherit his physicality and the other his appreciation for the Israelites and their God.

And it was in those days that there was a famine in Judea but in Moab there was bread. And from Bethlehem in Judea came a man of Ephrat called Elimelekh, to stay a while in the field of Moab, he and his gracious wife Naomi and two small sons Mahlon and Kilyon. And Eglon took pity on the Ephratans and didn’t lay a hand on them, and even gave them a place to live at the edge of his estate, and they stayed a while in the fields of Moab.

But Elimelekh, Naomi’s husband, died in the land where he lived and the woman stayed with her two sons in the pall of their mourning and sorrow in a strange land. But Eglon looked over the tender and sweet Ephratan’s sons and at how fine they were and gave them his two daughters for wives, and even did well by their mother for their sake, and rejoiced over his union with the children of Israel.

In doing away with Elimelekh while his sons are yet young, Bialik skillfully exonerates him from the charge of tolerating their intermarriage with Moabite women, while also adding to the positive depiction of Eglon as a compassionate monarch who values his connection to Israel.

But God didn’t call the union good and denied the two sisters the fruit of their wombs. And the two girls sat strange and downhearted in their widowed mother-in-law’s house and ate their days out with unhappiness. And Mahlon and Kilyon too knew no consolation in their wives for their father, and knew no delight, and were all their days like two drooping flowers in the summer swelter, and after ten years both died of quiet desperation, and their mother buried them in the field, beside their father’s grave, one this side, one that side. But Eglon saw that the connection was cut, and he brought his hand down more heavily on Israel and harried them greatly, and the Lord killed him at the hand of Ehud son of Gera, who was governor over Israel in those days.

Here Bialik takes away with one hand and gives with the other. He brings into his text the rabbinic teaching that the deaths of the two sons, and the sterility of their marriages, constituted punishment for their sin in wedding Gentiles. But he also adds something by showing the two girls ill-at ease, and ties the story back into the national narrative by reminding us of Eglon’s death at the hand of one of the Judges, thus foreshadowing the scroll’s end.

 

In any event, all of this has been prelude; now we get to the heart of the matter.

And only Naomi was left of her husband and two children, and she said: “Who is left to me here now, and what have I got here?” And it was when she heard that the Lord visited His people to give them bread that she rose and left the field of Moab to return to her homeland of Judea. But Ruth didn’t want to turn away from following her mother-in-law, for the Lord had touched her heart.

There is nothing in the biblical text about the Lord having moved Ruth to do what she did. True, Ruth’s famous declaration of faith to Naomi—“wherever you go I will go and wherever you sleep I will sleep. Your people is my people and your God my God: Wherever you die I will die and there I’ll be buried. So help me the Lord”—is taken by traditional commentators as an indication of a religious conversion (not least because a Gentile is not expected to swear by the Lord). But outside of these verses and a few passing references to providence, the Lord is notably absent from the book. Not, however, in Bialik’s version; his Ruth has a religious awakening:

So she left her people and her land and her birthplace and her gods and she went with her mother-in-law to the land of Judea.

As for Orpah, the other sister, she walks away without a backward glance:

But Orpah sent her mother-in-law to the edge of the territory and kissed her, and turned back to her mother’s house as in her youth.

An unexceptionable course of action on Orpah’s part, or so it would seem. But to contrast it with what he paints as Ruth’s act of religious piety, Bialik now proceeds to demonize Orpah:

And the day came and a Philistine passed through the field of Moab, and the Philistine was a tall man and a man with cojones, from the descendants of giants, and he was wearing a uniform and bore arms, and weapons of destruction from head to toe, all steel and bronze, for he was a warrior. And the giant turned in to Orpah’s house and he stayed the night there, and she looked over his strength and his height and his glorious uniform and his weapons and she clung to him, and she followed her lover the uncut Philistine to his town of Gat as a dog follows its master.

This is Bialik’s harshest moment for Orpah. Just as Ruth is innocent in every way, Orpah is mindlessly carnal, and her attachment to her new husband is one not of love but of subjugation. Still, even here Bialik is milder than his midrashic sources. Rabbi Yitzḥak in the talmudic tractate of Sotah informs us that the very night she left her mother-in-law, Orpah’s wantonness knew no bounds and she slept with 100 men, as a result of which she bore four giant sons. Bialik is gentle by comparison.

 

3.

 

But Ruth came to shelter under the wing of the God of Israel and she settled with her mother-in-law in Bethlehem, Judea.

And in her destitution she went out to pick stray ears in the field of Boaz of Bethlehem, to revive her soul and the soul of her mother-in-law. Now Boaz was a man of property and wealth, an eligible landowner and prominent citizen from the family of Elimelekh, and known to Naomi. And he looked over the girl as she picked grain and he recognized the simplicity of her ways and the purity of her spirit.

Bialik has returned to the biblical narrative, but selectively. He omits the Bible’s description of how Naomi plots to put Ruth into her kinsman Boaz’s path. He even glosses over Naomi’s bitter complaint as she hobbles into Judea that nobody will recognize her the way she looks now. Moreover, all of the complex social and legal relations that enrich the biblical narrative are shaved away.

What does Bialik gain by this loss? He gains an idealized story in which Ruth’s virtues are so blindingly obvious that Boaz

brought her to his house and he took her for his wife. And in the course of time she bore him a son and she named him Obed. And Ruth cleaved to the children of the sacred and pure people for all time, as is written in the book of Ruth.

Thus does Bialik skip over the erotically-charged nighttime encounter between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor, not to mention the land-acquisition question that lies at the very heart of the biblical story. Why? Presumably to get to this:

And Ruth grew old and was long in the tooth but she was still supple and alert and her hands never tired of handing out charity and kindnesses and compassion all around her. And she saw grandchildren and great-grandchildren for Boaz her husband, all good lads and God-fearing. And in her dotage there was delivered into her lap a late-in-life son for Jesse her grandson, and he named him David. And the boy grew and God blessed him and he was ruddy with fine eyes and good looking, brave in spirit and wise to listen to. And he trained his hands for the harp and became a sweet singer and played well. And he herded his father’s flock and bravely fought the beasts of the field, and struck the lion and bear and saved prey from their maw. And the mountains filled with the cheer of his sweet songs, and the heaven and earth were quenched with his refrains.

The land deal is gone because Bialik has no time for the actual make-up of Israelite society, which is a—or, some say, the—real subject of Ruth. In the early 1930s, remember, Bialik is sitting in Tel Aviv and conjuring up the great national hero David, seen in the best possible light: a hero who sings sweetly and can slay ferocious animals; a hero born of an entirely innocent union that had nothing whatsoever to do with the acquisition of land.

What he’s leading up to is the contrast of David with Goliath, of nation with nation. The romance between Ruth and Boaz, Ruth’s declaration of faith, Boaz’s country estate: all of these details are irrelevant to him. This is not Jane Austen but Leo Tolstoy, not Anna Karenina but War and Peace. And here once again comes Orpah:

But Orpah withered with old age in the land of the Philistines, and she became mournful and fractious, and the crone sat all her days on the crossroad and the highway like a piece of dead meat and wove flax and wound a spindle. But she saw two great-grandsons from her giant husband, both Goliath and Yishbi his brother, and the boys grew up wild, and became tearaways. But they had stature and dignity, and they put on iron and bronze like their fathers, and studied murder and mayhem from their boyhood days and when they went out in the army they were like ravening wolves and they quenched the land with tears and blood.

The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, nor does the fruit’s fruit, and the power of fathers is in their descendants after them for all time.

The divided legacy of Eglon with which we began now results in two radically different great-grandsons and a metaphysical confrontation. And once again bear in mind the circumstances in which Bialik was writing. He had lived through the Arab uprising of 1929 and gunfire in the streets. There are stories of his summoning Ravnitzky to join him in working on the Book of Legends to keep his mind off the surrounding terror. In the wake of 1929, Bialik could no longer see in his mind’s eye the Judean idyll in the reality before him, but he could see war coming.

 

4.

 

And it was in the course of time, when the Philistines gathered their armies together for war against Israel, and they were camped on a mountain this side and Israel were camped on a mountain that side, and the valley ran between.

And a go-between came from the Philistine camp, six feet and a little finger high, with a bronze helmet on his head and all clad in chainmail, and his armor was 5,000 weight of bronze and a bronze frontlet on his legs and a bronze spear across his shoulders, and the haft of his spear like a weaver’s beam and the blade of his bayonet 600 weight of iron, and a squire before him. And the Philistine stood and cursed the soldiers of the living God.

He was Goliath the Philistine of Gat, great-grandson of Orpah.

And from the ranks of Israel came toward him a ruddy youth with fine eyes and good looking, no weapon and no uniform, nothing in his hand but his staff and a sling and five smooth stones in his satchel and the name of the living God on his lips.

He was David the shepherd of Bethlehem, great-grandson of Ruth.

Two offspring of the Moabite sisters, a Philistine giant and a Hebrew youth, took their position in that one valley one opposite the other, and deadly hate, the hate of a nation and its God for a nation and its god, burned in their eyes.

This lends itself all too easily to a political reading: the Jews and their neighbors are destined for conflict, despite their shared histories. The Lord may have liberated Israel from Eglon, but Eglon’s descendants will nonetheless come back to fight. All that is to be seen in the stark contrast between the warlike Philistine giants and the brave but unwarlike David. And no doubt all of that was on Bialik’s mind when he wrote the Scroll of Orpah.

But there may also be another layer of meaning to this work—a very private, intimate meaning—and to that we might now also turn.

 

In 1931 Bialik traveled to London on a frustrating business trip full of public meetings that led nowhere. There he met a young woman, Ḥayah Fikholtz, with whom he spent a few delightful days and to whom he wrote from his next stop in Paris:

If you only knew how much the touch of your fingers healed my heart and how much being near you cheered my flesh. . . . When I think of you I ask myself: what happened to me that I was so drawn to you? For I took on a Nazirite cloak many years ago and hardened my spirit and mind to womankind. And yet in the profile of your face there was revealed to me a phase of the moon that shook my soul to the abyss and filled it with compassion to the point of overflowing. [Emphasis added]

This ornate language, and particularly the reference to the Nazirite, remind one forcefully of the only other work Bialik ever titled a “scroll”: the 1905 “Scroll of Fire” that I alluded to earlier. That curious prose poem uses a legend about the destruction of the Temple as the basis for an autobiographical monologue by one of the protagonists. At one point, this figure declares: “And I shaved my chaste head over the blood of my sacrifice, and I threw my locks before the lion of fire on the Temple altar—and in an instant all of my curls went up in the fire of the altar toward heaven and the glory of my youth was ashes.”

To the reader versed in Torah and Talmud, this scene evokes the ritual performed by a Nazirite who for a fixed period of time takes a vow of abstinence from alcohol and haircuts (albeit not from sex). When the period ends, the Nazirite shaves his head and “places it on the fire” on the altar (Numbers 6:18).

So it is as such a Nazirite that Bialik describes himself to Ḥayah. This alone might not say much were it not for the language in which “The Scroll of Fire” climaxes after the sacrifice of hair, as the protagonist catches sight of the Scroll’s romantic heroine:

There she was herself, pure of grace and loveliness. In her full radiance she appeared with the diadem of splendor on her brow. Her eyelashes turned toward him and she sent a line into the depths of his soul. Silently she pulled him upward, and silently she pulled him down to her to hell. Her arms were spread toward him, open to receive and to give. Her gaze—a deadly love, and for eternal moments he hesitated. And the youth pressed the torch of holy fire to his heart with all his strength and shut his eyes tremblingly and cried: “Heavens—oblivion—you . . . ” and plunged from the summit of the peak into the outspread arms in oblivion’s abyss. [Emphases added]

In 1905, Bialik’s scroll centered on a hero and a heroine, the latter deeply romanticized but entirely threatening in her sexuality. In 1931, the encounter with Ḥayah seems to have stirred Bialik’s memories of a different time in his life—namely, his childhood; in her presence, he wrote a poem about his mother lighting the Sabbath candles that shows an unusual reverence for tradition. It also seems to have stirred into being this new scroll, in which the romantic heroine Ruth is firmly distanced from the sexual temptress Orpah.

In these two scrolls, written 25 years apart, Bialik used midrashic forms as if they were gloves protecting him from the fire of his own desires. If, in the 1905 scroll, giving in to sexual temptation would have meant renouncing the hero’s exalted mission, in the 1931 scroll, a girl who might have given him a child—because Bialik, who wrote so many children’s songs in his later years, was childless—may have been reconfigured as at once the pure, sacred ancestress of the great national hero and a compassionate reminder of a young man’s longings too long sacrificed on the altar of his own national ambitions.

In explaining why Bialik stopped writing poetry in the 1920s, Hillel Halkin argues that he had become “Zionism’s prisoner,” having allowed his private self, from which his artistic genius sprang, to be subsumed in his public persona as the Jewish national poet. Somehow, his encounter with Ḥayah may have unchained him, allowing him to produce a work that is at once personal and liturgical, while also reflecting the immediate dangers faced by the Jewish people at the time of its writing. So Ruth became an innocent and the land became irrelevant, only the backdrop to a national poet who could still sing.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Hebrew literature, Religion & Holidays