Soon the festival of Shavuot will be upon us. The Harvest Festival, in which we read the Book of Ruth. On Shavuot we gather that which we have sown, and reap that which we have labored on throughout the year. And so I chose this moment to think with you about the Book of Ruth and poverty through the photography of Adi Nes.
Israeli artist Adi Nes created a series of staged photographs that make the connection between Biblical characters and modern-day society, two of which involve Naomi and Ruth. In this photo, called “(Untitled) Ruth and Naomi Gleaning”, Nes refers to the period of poverty facing Ruth and her mother-in-law in Yehuda, when they are forced to glean the left-overs of food from the field. These leftovers are deliberately put there by Boaz, owner of the field. This is in accordance with the socialistic law of gleaning, the forgotten and the edges, which asserts that the owner of a field must leave behind the sheaves that have been missed in the harvest, for the needy.
In the photograph there are two women, one young and one older (judging by their arms), picking up discarded onions from the ground of what might have been earlier on in the day a bustling vegetable market. Apart from a plastic bag that can be seen – this is a scene that could have taken place at any time in any place. I would suggest that in this way Nes hints that poverty exists in every society, in every period, everywhere.
According to the Book of Ruth, two things save these two women: socialistic mitzvoth made law, and Boaz taking personal responsibility. Although according to Levirate marriage customs Boaz should not be with Ruth, marries her out of a sense of obligation as a close relative of her deceased husband. Ruth’s marriage, and the birth of heirs to his more respected family, saves Naomi and Ruth from a life of poverty and itinerancy.
In contrast to the easier image from the Book of Ruth, of young Ruth gleaning in the pastoral fields, the photograph of Adi Nes presents us with two poor women, young and old, gleaning amongst the discarded refuse of a market. The contrast between these two images emphasizes the attitude to poverty today. Nes calls us to look at the differences, and to take responsibility for the poor among us – both publically and personally.
I wish for us all that this year we may plant good seeds of social change, that we might reap at next Shavuot. (Though of course that won’t be possible as next year is a Shmitta year, but we’ll talk about that next time… :-))
Some eighty years ago this discourse arose about whether an artist’s creation stands on its own without reference to the beliefs of the artist – with the refusal of the Israeli Philharmonic to play the compositions of Richard Wagner.
On 12th November 1938 the Philharmonic Orchestra had planned to perform “Lohengrin”. Since Kristallnacht had taken place only three days previously, the conductor Eugene Shenkar decided not to play Wagner. This was not an official or institutional decision: Just the gut feeling of the conductor and the fellow members of the orchestra about the connection between Wagner and the Nazi Party. There were no anti-Semitic lyrics, or anti-Jewish names of the works. The Philharmonic decided not to play the works because of their human connection. Since then the Israeli Philharmonic has never played Wagner in a publicized event. To Full Post
A few years ago I was the counselor for a group of immigrant students in Israel. The first activity that I was asked to run out was on Chanukah. My initial reaction was to use every means to try and avoid the task, because as far as I’m concerned the educational function of Chanukah as a festival ended after elementary school. Dreidels, Chanukah menorahs, jelly doughnuts, Chanukah gelt … you grow out of it after you lose your milk teeth, in my opinion. Add to that, from the perspective of my twenty-three years, I was convinced that if I had not experienced any miracles personally, there were no such things. To Full Post
This year it will be the 16th Memorial Day of the Assassination of Rabin. Every event that repeats itself year on year presents an educational challenge, but unlike traditional Jewish holy days, the shape of this Memorial Day is being formed in the here and now. And I ask myself what will make this Memorial Day into something different from other value-laden days like May Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Columbus Day? Is there anything to be learned from a political assassination? Did the world learn anything from Kennedy’s assassination? Martin Luther King’s? To Full Post