05/25/2012 08:13 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

Shavuot and Ruth: Beyond the Letter of the Law

On Saturday night the Jewish holiday of Shavuot begins. It is the anniversary of the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. Strange, isn't it, that on the holy day we celebrate the Giving of the Law, we traditionally study a book about breaking the law! We read the Book of Ruth, the most transgressive of the Bible, the book that explicitly defies a Divine command.

Deuteronomy 23:4-4 says explicitly: "No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants even into the 10th generation shall ever be admitted into the congregation of Lord because they did not meet you with food and water after you left Egypt..."

Yet the book of Ruth is a story about a Moabite woman who was the great-grandmother of King David, from whose family will come the Messiah. Ruth leaves her birth-family in Moav to accompany Naomi, her elderly, bitter, poverty-stricken mother-in-law, back to Bethlehem. No law requires her to do this; she does it out of kindness.

The two women, both widows, are dependent on the charity of strangers, so Ruth, following biblical law, goes to glean from the wheat fields of Boaz, a wealthy landowner. It turns out that Boaz is a distant relative who hears how loving Ruth has been to Naomi, so he orders his workers to protect her and keep her safe. He didn't have to do that. He, too, does it out of kindness.

When the harvest season ends, Naomi worries about how she and Ruth will support themselves in a patriarchal world where women literally cannot survive without the protection of a man. In desperation, she asks Ruth to put herself in the dangerous and vulnerable position of sneaking into the place where Boaz is sleeping, alone in the middle of the field in the middle of the night. It is a set up for sexual abuse. Ruth does as her mother-in-law asks, though she is under no obligation to do so.

Instead of passively waiting for Boaz's response, Ruth tells him what to do: "Spread your wings over me," a not so subtle instruction for Boaz to act as God does in protecting the vulnerable. Boaz doesn't have to -- no law requires it. But it seems that Ruth's acts of kindness, of what our tradition calls chesed, evoke from him additional acts of chesed.

The story has not only a happy, but actually an astonishing ending. "So Boaz married Ruth ... and she bore a son ... Naomi took the child and held it to her bosom. She became its foster mother (nurse) and the women neighbors gave him a name saying: 'A son is born to Naomi.' They named him Oved; he was the father of Jesse, father of David." (Ruth 4:13-16) David -- King David -- the ancestor of the Messiah.

The Messiah is a descendant of a Moabite woman! This ought to be impossible according to the Torah! We are not supposed to let them come into "the congregation of our Lord." Our ancient rabbis struggle with this, claiming the prohibition isn't about Moabite women, just against the men. But that explanation rings hollow to me; after all, King David is a man with Moabite blood in him. Instead what we have here is a clear challenge to the law, a claim that sometimes you have to go beyond law to do what is right. Our rabbis argue that Ruth "officially" converted, but there is no real evidence for that in the biblical story. Instead we see a community enriched by being inclusive, of welcoming strangers, foreigners, undocumented workers.

It is intriguing to think about what would happen if Ruth came to America today, undocumented, poor, willing to become a farm worker in order to support her family. It also makes me think about those courageous Catholic nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious who have advocated for access to health care against the authority of their Bishops. They model what the Book of Ruth teaches, something that gatekeepers of the law often miss: God wants us to act out of kindness and empathy; God wants us to challenge convention because we see divinity in the faces of other people.

Why do we read this transgressive book on Shavuot, the time of the Giving of the Law? One midrash (rabbinic commentary) explains: "The Scroll of Ruth tells us nothing of the laws of cleanness or uncleanness, of what is prohibited or what is permitted. Why then was it written? To teach you how great is the reward of those who do deeds of loving kindness."

How great indeed. These acts of loving kindness bring the possibility of redemption into our broken world.