Ruth through the Eyes of Poets, Painters, and Photographers

May 24, 2023 | Stuart Halpern
About the author:

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 on Jewish Review of Books: