As temperatures rise and flowers bloom, we can feel the holiday of Shavuot approaching – perhaps our sweetest holiday – when the Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue. For a unique and even paradigm-shifting reading of Ruth, I highly recommend Rising Moon, by Rabbi Moshe Miller of Jerusalem. It is one of the most fascinating books of modern biblical interpretation I have come across. Rising Moon is structured like a drama in four acts, reflecting Ruth’s four chapters. It weaves together Biblical, midrashic and Kabbalistic sources, along with a wide range of insights from outside Jewish tradition – Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and the novel Dune all make key appearances. This eclectic mix of sources is employed to make a provocative claim about about the Book of Ruth in particular and about the history and destiny of the Jewish nation more broadly.
The crux of Miller’s argument lies in the conception of malkhut, or kingship, as an “emergent” phenomenon. In the chronology of the Bible’s historical narrative, the Book of Ruth sits at a point in between the Book of Judges and the Book of Samuel. Recall that the period of Judges is marked by the leadership of local tribal chieftains who occasionally unite the nation in the face of a common foe. These moments of unity are fleeting and the book repeatedly emphasizes the lack of central authority in Israel as a cause for internecine strife between the tribes and even the moral decay of Israelite society. The Book of Samuel chronicles the period that follows, which lays the foundations for Biblical kingship in general and the Davidic dynasty in particular. For Miller, the difference between the period of the Judges, and even the first Biblical king Saul, and King David, comes down to something like grace. True kingship, or malkhut, cannot be imposed on a nation – it cannot even be requested by that nation. The Hebrew name for Saul is “Sha’ul,” which literally means “asked for,” and Saul’s coronation is rooted in the people “asking” for a king (1 Samuel 8:10). Malkhut, on the other hand, must emerge organically as a kind of “center around which the nation could coalesce” – as as exemplified by the more enduring kingship of David and his progeny:
Malkhut in its essence is an emergent property. It must never be asked for. It must be a natural outgrowth of a development that has reached a stage that demands integration. It must grow out of a vast complex of interrelationships that insists upon it. Asking for malkhut guarantees its failure. You cannot arbitrarily organize a complex system successfully or effectively impose an idea over society.
Paradoxically, Miller suggests that the individualism and anarchy of the Book of Judges is the perfect antecedent for this model of kingship “because it encourages the rugged individualism out of which societal complexity can emerge.” Miller cites Adam Smith’s famous discussion of the economic principle of the “invisible hand” in order to buttress his point: “By pursuing his own interest he [man] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
Malkhut, in Miller’s view, does not derive its authority from any single imperial presence “crowned and resplendent.” Such a top-down conception of leadership might better be connected with the word “memshalah,” or “dominion,” which is also linguistically connected to the roots of Sha’ul or “asked for.” Rather, malkhut emerges from a complex web of connections and relationships. The name of the king is synonymous with the society itself, as the Talmud writes in regard to the Queen/Kingdom of Sheba: “Whoever says Malkhat Sheva refers to a woman is mistaken. Rather it means the Kingdom of Sheba” (Bava Batra 15b).
According to Miller, malkhut emerges from a web of personal relationships between members of the nation. It is therefore fitting that some of the greatest love stories of the Bible all emerge alongside the first major instantiation of malkhut – eg, the stories of Ruth and Noami, Ruth and Boaz, Saul and David, Jonathan and David, David and Batsheva. Even the named David, or “Dawid,” essentially means love, as we see in the famous statement from the Song of Songs “ani l’dodi v’dodi lee,” or “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Love, of course, cannot be forced, but emerges naturally and organically to ultimately produce a union that is greater than the sum of its parts. Love, argues, Miller, is the foundation for authentic Jewish kingship, more so than expressions of dominance and power.
I had this in mind this past Jerusalem Day, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification during the War of 1967. Jerusalem Day, as with any civic expression of Jewish and Israeli pride, is not without its political detractors, even within the Israeli public and broader Jewish community. The name Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim, connotes “sheleimut,” or “wholeness.” When we consider what a fractious and complex place modern Jerusalem is, this wholeness may not always be immediately apparent. Still, “reunification” is a misnomer for the events of 1967. Jerusalem is an “emergent” entity, interrelated with the heart of the Jewish nation and greater than the sum of its pulsing and moving parts, and thus can never be divided by political means. The power of Jerusalem Day derives not solely from the 1967 conquest, but from the inherent significance of Jerusalem, as the City of David and the center of malkhut as it emerged and developed throughout history. This is not the sort of thing that is subject to the whims of outside monarchs or even internal political maneuverings, though these historical developments are the backdrop against with our love affair with Jerusalem plays out.
Miller’s thesis about Ruth can have all sorts of applications. At its essence is the question of whether law and politics can really unify people in a meaningful way, or whether that unity has to somehow exist as an a priori matter. For instance, we may ask whether state sanctification of marriage really creates marriage or whether it must exist prior in a deeper form? Can the vote of the United Nations or other international diplomatic processes call a nation into being? Or must the nation already exist in a more rooted and organic sense in order for it to last? Realizing the importance of this kind of organic unity does not need to stultify or freeze change and development. The book of Ruth is also rabbinic Judaism’s paradigm for conversion – for the actualization of the idea that someone can choose to become part of the Jewish people even if they are not born into it. Yet Ruth’s conversion itself is embedded in love and emerges from relationships marked by that deep primal sentiment. Even before accepting upon herself the intellectual precept of becoming a Jew, even before her acceptance of monotheism itself, she sought to convey her interrelatedness with Naomi: “your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Perhaps the truest form of malkhut as imagined in the book of Ruth and in Miller’s enchanting book remains as a Messianic ideal. There’s a place for “memshallah,” or “dominion,” in our current day and age – it is preferable to the lawless individualism of the Book of Judges. Indeed, part of Eve’s curse in Eden is “v’hu yimshal bach,” “and he will rule over you.” This “will to power” is in some deep sense an inextricable part of the world in which we live. Yet identifying and appreciating the nature of Biblical malkhut offers an antidote to contemporary efforts to sacralize the state as some kind of benevolent or meaningful entity. Readying ourselves for malkhut means looking within, strengthening our foundations, as well as our relationships and connections with others. It’s through the fortifying of these bonds that our tradition suggests the Messiah will eventually arrive.