Within ancient Hebrew manuscripts, scattered among libraries throughout the world, one can find some surprising treasures, like previously unknown and unpublished pieces of writing. The unusual midrash we will examine here is one of these. It appears in a manuscript that is part of the Firkovich collection, which resides in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.
Several years ago, while participating in a research group headed by Dr. Moshe Lavi of Haifa University on Midrash in the Geniza Communities, I came across this unknown midrash:
Rabbi Meir Said: Two women were joined to the holy people, and became widows. They wish to send them back to their gods and to the house of their fathers, but they [=the two women] did not want to depart from the Shekhinah, and thus they had the merit and both priesthood and kinship came from them. And who are they? Tamar and Ruth. Naomi said to her: “Look, your sister-in-law is going back, etc.” (Ruth 1:15), and she responded: “Don’t urge me to leave” (Ruth 1:16), “Your people is my people” (ibid), He put me amongst my people and you remove me from under the wings of the Shekhinah? I shall bring you someone who will spread his wings upon you, as it is said “Spread the wing of your [cloth] on your handmaiden,” etc. (Ruth 3, 9). Even more so, I shall perfect your wings, as it is said “The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully” (Job 39:13), and from you the kingship will come, as it is said “Oved the father of Yishay, the father of David” (Ruth 4, 17). And why all these? Since she did not want to separate herself from the Shekhinah, [here a few words are probably missing – G.W.]
…And she was crying day and night since Shella grew up and she was not given to him as a wife. She said: how can I depart from the house of this righteous man [=Judah]? The Holy, Blessed be He, heard her thought and gave her a purpose, as it is said “great are your purposes and mighty are your deeds” (Jeremiah 32:19). When Tamar turned to search for her witnesses the Satan hid them, and they brought her to Judah, who intended to burn her. At that moment she prayed to the Holy, Blessed be He, and she said: remember that I unified Your name in the house of my father and save me from this death, and the Holy, Blessed be He, heard her prayer, and sent Michael, and he took the signs from the Satan and brought them to her in the place in which she was taken [to be burned[.
The midrash compares two Biblical women: Ruth and Tamar, both non-Israelites who married Israelite men and became widows. Both were enjoined to return to their families and former homes, and both refused. The comparison itself is not new – in fact, it is alluded to already in the Book of Ruth itself, when the elders of Bethlehem bless Boaz, saying: “May your house be as the house of Peretz, whom Tamar bore unto Judah” (Ruth 4:12). The innovation lies in their description; both are presented as actively and consciously choosing to joining the Jewish people early in their lives.
Ruth pleads with Naomi, saying, “Do not remove me from the Shechinah; I am already part of the Jewish people.” Thus our midrash interprets the words “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” as follows: Your people are already my people, and your God is already my God! Conventional midrashic tradition understands these words as expressing Ruth’s agreement (or request) to become Jewish; henceforth Naomi “instructed her in the laws of converts” (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2:22).
However, our midrash portrays Ruth as having already converted while still in Moab, now resisting Naomi’s attempts to return her to her former faith. Ruth makes her case saying, “He put me amongst my people” – in other words, her joining Israel is part of a Divine plan, and attempts to dissuade her are in opposition to God’s Will. Moreover, she promises Naomi: “I shall bring you someone who will spread his wings upon you.” This is a unique interpretation of the continuation of the Biblical story, in which Ruth marries Boaz and gives birth to Oved, whereupon Naomi’s neighbors declare, “A son is born unto Naomi” (Ruth 4:17). Ruth is portrayed here as bringing redemption to Naomi and giving her a family in place of the one she lost in Moab. This can be seen as a double role reversal – Ruth replaces Naomi as the moving force in the story, and she also is a female alternative to the male redeemer.
Tamar prays to God: “Remember that I unified Your name in the house of my father.” She, too, is presented in our midrash as one who chose the Jewish faith while still in her father’s house. Her bold actions, not spelled out in the midrashic text (i.e., pretending to be a prostitute and demanding the pledge from Yehuda), are portrayed here as being inspired by God when He saw her devotion to the people of Israel. As opposed to Ruth, whose Moabite origins are clearly spelled out in the Biblical text, Tamar’s ethnic identity is not mentioned. The Rabbinic Sages identify her as a descendant of Shem: “Tamar was the daughter of Shem” (Genesis Rabbah 85), but our midrash here casts her as a Canaanite pagan. Philo, the Jewish Hellenist philosopher of the first century, presents a similar tradition in his work “On the Virtues:” for Tamar was a woman from Syria Palestina [Canaan – G.W.], who had been bred up in her own native city, which was devoted to the worship of many gods, being full of statues, and images, and, in short, of idols of every kind and description. But when she, emerging, as it were, out of profound darkness, was able to see a slight beam of truth, she then, at the risk of her life, exerted all her energies to arrive at piety.” Thus we see that the perception of Tamar as having joined the Jewish faith based on her discernment of its veracity rests on an earlier tradition.
Our midrash notes that the determination of these two women to adhere to the Jewish faith merited them to “beget priesthood and kingship.” Ruth’s connection to kingship is clear, but in Tamar’s case, this is unusual – midrash generally links Judah to kingship: “How did Judah come to merit kingship? By his confession about Tamar” (Tosefta Brachot 4:17). Here, however, it is Tamar who is the one who merits the creation of a line of kings.
What is the source of this midrash, which focuses on two foreign women who joined the Jewish people?
The Firkovich collection is of unknown origin. All agree that Abraham Firkovich, a Russian Karaite scholar, visited Cairo in 1864 and collected most of the manuscripts in the collection named for him; but there is debate concerning the question of whether he gained access to the treasures of the Ben Ezra Synagogue Geniza in Cairo thirty years before Solomon Schechter, or if he collected his manuscripts from the Karaite Synagogue Geniza.
Either way, the midrashic material in this collection was set aside and hardly touched by researchers. Even today, almost thirty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and with technologically advanced research methods, most of the material has yet to be correctly catalogued.
Our midrash here is brought in the name of Rabbi Meir, but, as noted above, is not known from any other source. In cases such as this, questions naturally arise: When, where, and by whom was this midrash composed, and for what audience?
It is difficult, if not impossible, to answer these questions, especially when dealing with an anonymous, untitled midrash. Unfortunately, this is common in Geniza material, which often consists of isolated pages or fragments torn from volumes.
What can be said, though, is that here we have an unusual midrashic approach that empowers and raises the characters of Ruth and Tamar to levels not common in the world of midrash. The writer, whether R. Meir or someone else, attires these women in superlatives usually reserved for male heroes (such as Judah and Boaz), and thus gives them a voice and a presence unparalleled in Rabbinic literature.
(This article is part of a larger article not yet published.)
Dr. Gila Vachman is a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She is the editor of Midrash Hadash Al Hatorah (Schechter, 2013). The complete article upon which this piece is based was written as part of her book, The Book of Ruth – A New Israeli Interpretation, due to appear at the end of 2016 as part of a series produced by Yediyot Sefarim and the Avichai Foundation.
English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.