On Shavuot, an annual two day holiday which just ended this last Monday, Jews across the world study the Book of Ruth. A prominent theme of the story is chesed or loving-kindness. Ruth’s devotion to Naomi is an act of chesed; Boaz’s aid and eventual marriage to Ruth is likewise an example of chesed. Using a hermeneutic of chesed is traditional in interpreting this story, with much grounding in rabbinic criticism. However while it is a story of acts of kindness, it also a story of an emotional, psychical conflict in the character of Naomi.
Mental health is one of the main lenses through which I engage Bible and especially the Book of Ruth. As long as Judaism has been in my family, so has depression. This genetic inheritance has interwoven with experiences of gender dysphoria, guilt and confusion around my sexuality, and encounters with death and grieving in my teenage years. I, like many, have known sadness that seems inescapable. I have seen those I have lost become forgotten. And I have learned what it is to force my memories deep into my body, to staticize the effects of a loved one so they might not influence me anymore, to bury them in my subconscious. The struggle of grieving, forgetting, wandering, and reopening oneself to life likes occurs in Naomi/Mara.
Naomi’s transformation is represented in the text by her own name shifting from naomi (“pleasantness”) to mara (“bitterness”). Her name relates to the physical journey of leaving Judea with her husband and sons, living in Moab, returning from Moab with only a daughter-in-law, and re-entering Judea as someone other than she was when she left. The dynamism of Naomi is further emphasized in the push and pull between her and Ruth. Ruth and her sister in law, Orpah, travel with Naomi. At one point, the older woman tells them to leave. Orpah leave; Ruth refuses. Naomi then accepts Ruth as a companion, and then immediately does not acknowledge Ruth when the two reenter Judea.
Naomi negotiates closeness between herself and Ruth. She measures how much to rely on the Moabite woman, how much to trust her, how much hope for the future to put in her, how much to let her in after having experienced so much pain. And, as she wrestles with a relationship to Ruth, Naomi wrestles with God. When she tells her daughters-in-law, “May the Lord keep faith with you, as you have kept faith with me and the dead” (Ruth 1:8), she asks God to be different: not only different, but to be as a human, Ruth. Sometimes, in our interactions with pain and trauma, we are more open to finding goodness in individuals than in universals, than in the ultimate, than in the builder of our world, than in God. If God has seemed something frightening to us, we might ask God to be less like God.
In "Seeing the Older Woman: Naomi in High Definition," Jacqueline Lapsley points out the conflicted relationship Naomi/Mara has with God by linking Naomi/Mara with Job. Lapsley suggests that, under patriarchy, Job’s suffering is considered noble while Naomi’s is not. Job suffers, and is the hero of his book. Naomi/Mara's suffering is not the crux of her own story, but the impetus for Ruth to act. Her willingness to put herself in danger, her submission to her new unstable and unruly life, and her selflessness make Ruth a hero. Naomi/Mara's complaint is not the wisdom of Job but a state of being that the text sees needing correction.
Ruth is a hero. But in thinking about the hero as a primary figure with which we might identify, then I look to Naomi/Mara. I was assigned male at birth and thus have not been conditioned to handle pain the same way a cisgender woman is. However, media and culture has instilled in me the idea that in coming out as a queer person, I have chosen a life of suffering. To complain about the life I supposedly chose, then, is indulgent. Queer people are supposed to take their suffering in stride. Women are supposed to take their suffering in stride. Again and again, whoever is not represented by the dominant societal players is supposed to take their suffering in stride. If we do not speak our pain–whether by choice or compulsion–and let it enter the public sphere, then we are making our own liberation and the liberation of others more difficult to realize. We allow ourselves to be normalized and made complacent. Job's pain is not the only pain that matters.
In calling herself Mara, Naomi invites us all to speak our pain, our trauma, and our truths. She challenges a norm that says salvation is contingent solely on the selflessness of Ruth. Naomi/Mara and Ruth live outside what their society said a family should be. Yet in the story, Naomi/Mara's joy, stability, and future for Naomi/Mara is conditional to the reintegration of her family back into the heteronormative scheme of marriage and reproduction. The Book of Ruth then--beautiful, multiplicitous, and complex--is just as much a story of loving kindness as a story of pacification and normalization. But if we center Naomi/Mara as a hero, we are charged with a question more complex than one of kindness: How do our communities make space for the afflicted, the traumatized, the mourning, the outsider, and the queer without forcing them into the rigid model of "social acceptability"?