Much Modern Fiction Explores the Dissolution of Families. The Book of Ruth Explores a Family’s Restoration

June 7, 2019 | Sarah Rindner
About the author: Sarah Rindner is a writer and educator. She lives in Israel.

Both the American novelist Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and the Israeli novelist Meir Shalev’s Two She-Bears feature main characters named Ruth, and employ parallels—in the former case, explicit—to the biblical book of that name, read in many synagogues on the holiday of Shavuot. Examining both novels’ use of biblical motifs, Sarah Rindner contrasts them to a short story by the great Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon, “In the Prime of Her Life,” which is replete with echoes of the book of Ruth. Rindner writes:

The book of Ruth, a midrash states, was written only “to teach how much reward comes to those who perform deeds of lovingkindness.” In the hardscrabble world in which Marilynne Robinson’s Ruth resides, Christian neighbors can at best offer a bland and conventional kind of assistance. . . . In Two She-Bears, the patriarch of the [protagonist’s] family, Zev Tavori, does not possess the humility of the biblical Boaz. Whereas Boaz essentially effaces himself by enabling a variation of the biblical idea of yibum [Levirate marriage]—the continuation of the family line by the deceased husband’s brother [or, in Boaz’s case, relative]—Tavori turns to murder.

Modern novels often explore the dissolution of families and relationships. The book of Ruth, too, presents an account of familial dissolution, but it is followed by restoration. Agnon’s invocation of the book, notwithstanding his [frequent use of] irony, is a rare example of a modern work that mines the biblical story in its full depth. Ruth’s travails alongside Naomi, their exile, and their exclusion from civilized society are a natural fit for modern novelists like Robinson and Shalev. . . . The inexplicable acts of goodness that drive men and women like Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth are harder to find, in literature and in life.

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