Book Review: A novel approach to the Bible

Yael Ziegler employs the literary-theological approach in her study of the Book of Ruth.

‘Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab’ by William Blake, 1795. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab’ by William Blake, 1795.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Over the last 25 years, we have a witnessed a revolution in the study of Bible centered at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion, and its affiliated Herzog College.
Not only has there been a renewed interest in the serious study of Bible, but a new methodology – which Rabbi Shalom Carmy has called the literary-theological approach – has been developed.
Master teachers such as rabbis Yoel Bin-Nun, Elchanan Samet and Yaakov Madan have taught a generation of eager students how to approach the study of Bible with a sensitivity to the text and the theological implications of these close readings. These teachers followed in the footsteps of the pioneering efforts of Nechama Leibowitz, whose gilyonot (worksheets) on the weekly Torah portion were utilized by thousands of Israelis from all walks of life; and Mordechai Breuer, who introduced the serious study of Bible into Israeli yeshivot.
The approach has an intellectual home at Har Etzion, which has developed a journal (Megadim) where many of its original insights are first published; and Herzog College, which hosts an annual summer retreat where thousands of teachers and the lay public are exposed to its approach.
Yael Ziegler, whose insightful and original book on The Book of Ruth – Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy – was recently published, is a second-generation practitioner of this new methodology, and like many of her contemporaries has added a new dimension to the serious study of Bible.
The development of the literary-theological approach coincided with the academic world’s interest in literary approaches to Bible; many scholars such as Robert Alter, James Kugel, Michael Fishbane and Adele Berlin began studying it using the tools of literary theory and criticism. Perhaps the first proponent of this methodology was Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, future rosh yeshiva of Har Etzion, who in an address at Stern College in 1962 advocated for Bible study using the techniques of literary criticism (for whatever reason the lecture was not published until 2012).
As opposed to earlier teachers of this new methodology, Dr. Ziegler has significant exposure to both the traditional and academic worlds – having graduated from Yeshiva University and earned a PhD in Bible from Bar-Ilan University.
She states in the introduction to her book, “The fusion of these two seemingly distinct approaches [the academic and the literary-theological] to the biblical text is more seamless than one might suppose.
Many of the poetic techniques employed by academic literary scholars were intuitively used by early rabbinic interpreters, and the overlap of approaches is very often observable.”
Nonetheless, she continues, “Despite my attempt to balance these approaches, I have eschewed a pretense of academic detachment, preferring to approach Ruth as a sacred book that contains profound insights into religious experience.”
Ziegler is also representative of a new generation of women Torah scholars who regularly teach both men and women in academic centers, as well as in more traditional settings. She is the product of another revolution centered in the national- religious world – the availability and encouragement of high level Torah study for women; the current volume is a direct result of that development. It is interesting to note that both the new methodology for Bible study and the attainment of higher education for women have opposition in the more haredi segment of the national-religious world.
The book opens with a wonderful chapter in which the author describes the methodology she used in her study of Ruth; it is one of the best descriptions I have seen of the literary-theological approach.
She employs such techniques as key words, plot development, thematic patterning, wordplays, chiastic structures and character analysis to expertly glean the subtle messages of the text.
In particular, she draws parallels between the Book of Ruth and other books of the Bible. This last point has important theological implications, as she attempts to demonstrate that “no book of Bible should be read as an independent entity; rather, all books should be understood within the broader context of the entire corpus of Bible.”
For example, Ziegler argues that the Book of Ruth is a direct response to the lawlessness of the Israelite nation, as expressed in the concluding chapters of the Book of Judges. The constant refrain of these chapters – “In those days there was no king of Israel, each man did what was right in his eyes” – sets the stage for the birth of the Davidic monarch in the Book of Ruth.
The Book of Judges concludes with a horrifying story of injustice and lack of concern for the other, as manifested in the rape and dismemberment of the concubine in Gibeah. This is contrasted with Boaz’s acts of generosity towards the foreign peasant in his field, Ruth, taking her under his wing and providing her with food and shelter. This followed Ruth’s acts of kindness towards her impoverished, widowed mother-in-law, in refusing to abandon her in the desert.
The contrast between the two books is further manifested by linguistic and thematic parallels, along with common characters and motifs. Ziegler concludes, “The story of Ruth is a story of loyalty, generosity, union, serenity, marriage and life. The narrative of Judges is one of division, selfishness, war, destruction, curses and death.”
The author also puts much effort into showing how attuned the ancient rabbis were to the nuances of the text through the use of Midrash. For example, she writes, “Elimelekh’s name literally means, ‘My God is king.’ This midrash alters the vowels, explaining that Elimelekh’s name reflects his [erroneous] supposition that the kingship will come to him, ‘To me will come kingship.’ While at first glance the etymology seems to wreak havoc with the simple meaning of the name, a closer examination suggests that our Sages were consciously contrasting Elimelekh, who is entirely focused on himself, with Ruth, who often ignores her own needs in favor of others. This contrast explains the very reason that Elimelekh cannot produce kingship, while Ruth must and does.”
This subtle point is, in fact, the main point of the book according to Dr.
Ziegler. Besides aesthetic literary value, sacred books of the Bible must contain enduring theological statements. The message of Ruth is that a prerequisite for kingship is selflessness.
Ziegler’s study of Ruth is a tour de force of traditional biblical scholarship, original insights and academic scholarship.
As she writes in the introduction, she made the conscious decision to relegate most of the previous academic scholarship on Ruth to footnotes. This reader would have liked these insights seamlessly added to the text, along with the more traditional biblical commentators; a book of this stature would have benefited from a comprehensive index as well.
Slight criticisms aside, even though many of The Jerusalem Post’s readers are intimately familiar with the story of Ruth, I am confident that even the most erudite scholar will benefit from Ziegler’s exciting and intellectually challenging new reading of this beautiful book.