Ruth through the Eyes of Poets, Painters, and Photographers

The harvest festival of Shavuot begins tomorrow night, and ends Friday night in the Land of Israel and Saturday night in the Diaspora. In many communities, the book of Ruth is traditionally read on this holiday. Stuart Halpern reviews Ilana Pardes’s recent monograph on this unusual biblical book, and discusses how its story has been interpreted by medieval kabbalists, modern painters, and 20th-century filmmakers and novelists:

Nicolas Poussin’s Summer: Ruth and Boaz was commissioned by the great-nephew of Cardinal Richelieu and today hangs in the Louvre. It is part of a series in which Adam and Eve in Eden represent spring, autumn depicts the Israelite spies returning from their mission with a cluster of grapes, and winter is Noah’s flood, but Poussin was the first to depict Ruth as representative of the joy of summer. Amid the sun’s bright rays, the soft, warm colors of the sheaves shine, matching the hues of the harvesters’ attire. This, Pardes writes, is the painter’s attempt to capture “nature and humanity at their best,” a romantic idyll.

Two hundred years later, Jean-François Millet’s Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) portrayed an altogether bleaker scene. After all, those who glean, as Ruth did before her marriage to Boaz, are the poor and malnourished, exhausted from laboring under the hot sun. Pardes notes that the Bible’s lack of physical description of Ruth gave artists the freedom to imagine her in line with their cultural and even political purposes. “Perhaps,” she writes, “the lack of specific information gave them the freedom to imagine her in whatever way they deemed appropriate.” For some, Ruth represents optimism, an outsider whose kindness redeemed her new nation. For others, her struggle amid the alien corn is that of all who toil in a post-Edenic world by the sweat of their brow.

To the early sweat-drenched kibbutzniks, Ruth was the paradigmatic olah [pioneer immigrant]. The 1918 photo Woman in Biblical Scene, by the Bezalel school’s Ya’acov Ben-Dov, shows a student dressed like Ruth gleaning in a field, with the blurred school building visible in the background. By contrast, in his 1923 novella, In the Prime of Her Life, S.Y. Agnon offered a retelling of Ruth’s story that questioned whether the modern Zionists’ biblically focused return was really possible. Agnon invited his reader to consider why, in a homecoming, a deep sense of estrangement often still remains.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Art, Book of Ruth, Hebrew Bible, S. Y. Agnon

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus