June 18, 2006 | The Jewish holiday, Shavuos, is approaching (tonight) and I have been studying the Book of Ruth, which is read and discussed each year on this holiday. The text and the rabbinic commentary suggest that Ruth was a vulnerable figure: a widow, she was not young, not particularly pretty, she had lost her husband, she has no children, and she clings to her mother-in-law and has decided to join the Jewish people. So she is among new people in an unfamiliar land. She does not know what will happen to her; all she knows is that she loves her mother-in-law and Judaism.

When Naomi, her mother-in-law, tries to help her by instructing her to seduce Boaz, a kind and generous man from Naomi's own family, into marriage, Ruth modestly turns the seduction plan on its head. Without defying her mother-in-law, she speaks directly and poetically to the man (in the Hebrew, the language is soft, rhythmic, and musical), asking him to "spread his wings" over her, to protect her. He is moved by her modesty (he comments on how he had noticed that she never followed young men around, and the commentators describe Ruth's modest dress-- careful to cover her legs as she gleaned barley in the fields). Boaz is also struck by Ruth's sweet metaphoric directness and her famous generosity towards her mother-in-law.

Not only does nothing sexual happen between the couple that night after their conversation (and they are all alone at night in the fields), but Boaz and Ruth responsibly go through a few official steps over the following days to make sure that their marriage will be appropriate. They go on to formally marry, and their child is conceived on their wedding night, a boy from whom King David is descended.

A note: Naomi's seduction plan is more well-meaning than it sounds. There was a time when a man who slept with a woman was obligated to marry her. It would have been unheard of for a man like Boaz to take Ruth sexually and then deny responsibility for her. Knowing Boaz's goodness and kindness, Naomi probably thought that her plan was a natural way to help her daughter-in-law. But Ruth's innate modesty did not allow her to follow Naomi's advice completely. And Boaz's modesty did not allow him to take Ruth before he was ready to give to her.

I asked my Hebrew teacher how Naomi expected that her plan could work; clearly, Naomi would not have suggested the plan if she had feared any major risk, (although, as I suggest above, we learned that the plan was not wholesome enough for Ruth who, with Boaz's help, transformed and deepened the strategy both spiritually and ethically). My teacher replied to my question regarding Naomi's strategy: "a man must take care of a woman if he sleeps with her. Even today that is a morally binding idea." We were startled. Didn't he know what it was like out there?! "It's not like that anymore," we exclaimed. He didn't believe us. We tried to describe the mainstream dating culture to him. He still didn't believe us.

Our teacher couldn't imagine that any decent man would deny responsibility for a vulnerable woman who loved him and with whom he had become so intimate. He must think that only cads (the Wickhams--see Pride and Prejudice) would behave this way. What he doesn't realize is that casual sexual intimacy between two well-meaning people is now standard behavior, not only reserved for the "cads." A "normal" man, admired and well-liked, is expected to, occasionally, with a woman who hopes for more and then walk away from her. It's just NORMAL.

Modernity has stripped us of a forgotten mind-set, of a whole way of understanding men, women, and dating. At one time, the definition of manhood was "giver" or "protector." A non-giving man was not considered to be a real man (or a "mentsch").

Can the old definitions of a man only be found in religious communities today? Secular girls and women with traditional sensibilities can't seem to depend anymore on the old-fashioned assumptions about men and relationships.

It seems that a woman's modesty and a man's giving nature go hand in hand; in fact, they might depend on each other as the story of Ruth suggests. Now that these values have eroded, dating has become especially confusing and painful for many non-religious men and women.

Modesty (and the qualities that go along with it when relationships are involved, such as obligation, responsibility, giving) has become quaint. One day, modesty may be studied the way Greek mythology is analyzed: as a fascinating ancient ideology that does not apply to current times.

Read the discussion on the blog

Eve Grubin is the author of a book of poems, Morning Prayer (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2005), and she lives in New York.

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