Reading Between the Lines

Earlier this week, I posted about my friend Joe’s sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent on St. John the Baptist, which highlighted the value of reading beneath the lines in scripture, to push below a literal meaning to a deeper theological meaning.

My conversation with Rabbi Norman Cohen the other day raised a slightly different angle on that theme – the need to read between the lines to fully grasp the meaning of scripture. I’ve come back to reflect on what he said several times since we talked.

Our conversation turned at one point to the Book of Ruth, a book Rabbi Cohen has been engaged in studying. Whatever else we do or don’t remember of the Book of Ruth, most of us are familiar with Ruth’s beautiful response to Naomi when Naomi tells her to go back to her own people as Naomi leaves to return to the land of Judah. Ruth replies, “Do not ask me to abandon you or forsake you! for wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

We typically read that passage as though it were a monologue, presented in a single breath in response to Naomi’s instruction that Ruth leave her to go back to her own people. Instead, Rabbi Cohen explained to me, this passage is regarded by the midrash (rabbinic interpretation) as a dialogue between Ruth and Naomi, with the Biblical text recording only Ruth’s side of the dialogue.

The dialogue is understood as a discussion of the laws of conversion. Ruth wants to convert. But it is not enough to simply announce one’s intent to convert; more than that is required for full conversion. Thus, as Rabbi Cohen explained, the midrash supplements the words contained in the Book of Ruth so that we understand Ruth’s statements as responses to Naomi’s description to her daughter-in-law of what Jewish law requires. (In itself, this is interesting, as normally one would go to a rabbi for this process; Ruth goes to Naomi.)

Thus, when Ruth says, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you,” Naomi responds, “My daughter, it is not the way of Israel to go to theaters or to circuses, but only to synagogues and study halls.” Ruth’s reply is: “Wherever you go, I will go.” Naomi further instructs, “it is not seemly for a woman to be alone with a man who is not her husband,” prompting Ruth to respond, “wherever you lodge I will lodge.” Naomi declares, “Incestuous relations are forbidden to us,” prompting Ruth’s response, “Your people shall be my people.” Naomi further explains, “Idolotry is forbidden to us,” to which Ruth replies, “And your God will be my God.” Ruth’s joining with Naomi on her journey is thus seen as the process of full conversion that Ruth underwent.

Although I’ve always loved these lines of the Book of Ruth, they seem to me so much richer and more powerful understood as Ruth’s responses to Naomi’s teaching.

In our further discussion, Rabbi Cohen gave as another example of midrash supplementing words of the Biblical text, God’s instruction to Abraham in Chapter 22 of Genesis. Often people ask why Abraham didn’t argue with God when God asked him to sacrifice his son. The suggestion, however, is that he did. The line that suggests that is “Take now your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah.” Framed as a single command, God seems a bit repetitive. However, Rabbi Cohen suggested the dialogue went something like (I can’t find this one to get the exact language as I could with Ruth and Naomi, so I’m recalling his language as best I can): God says, “take your son” and Abraham responds, “I have two sons.” God says “your only son,” and Abraham responds, “I have two only sons – one each from a different mother.” God says, “the son whom you love,” and Abraham says, “I love them both,” to which God finally says, “your favored one, Isaac.”

Both examples help us understand we need to pay attention to both the words that actually appear in the scripture and those that are left unsaid. It also reminds us how much we can benefit from deeper study of scripture.