Knowledge Problems

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Moral Lessons from Haibane Renmei and the Book of Ruth

Oy. This blog is getting really off-topic (it was intended to be about epistemology), but now I decided I want to write a post about Megillat Ruth in the light of the anime Haibane Renmei that I watched recently. I previously wrote about the existential aspects of Haibane Renmei which got my brain going, but I was equally moved by the emotional and humanistic aspect of this series. (The characters in Haibane Renmei are not technically human but it is still a tale of humanism.) And because I saw this anime just shortly before Shavuoth, certain similarities between the humanistic aspects of Haibane Renmei and the Book of Ruth became very apparent. Both feature an interaction between two female characters, where the older character has lovingly nurtured the younger character, and the younger character is then forced to decide what sacrifice they must make in order to repay this kindness when the older character falls into distress. On reflection, while Haibane Renmei is in no sense a "modernization" of the Book of Ruth, I would not be surprised if the Japanese director had been exposed to Ruth, and had seen a glimmer of something in that story which he indirectly re-expressed in Haibane Renmei.

One caveat on what follows: I use the term "salvation" a lot below. I do not mean big-S "Salvation" in the Christian sense that a person is (or needs to be) saved from the damnation they incur simply in virtue of being flesh-and-blood. Rather I mean small-s "salvation" in the psychological sense that many people experience an inner turmoil and strife — often resulting in a pattern of self-destructive behavior — from which they find themselves unable to escape, and from which they therefore require salvation. Like struggling swimmers being swept out to sea on a powerful current, there are many people in this world (and in our communities) who for whatever reason are in a psychological state that interferes with their ability to direct their lives, to effect positive changes, and ultimately to grow. The kind of salvation that I refer to below is the small-s salvation which is needed by such individuals, and which is provided through the concerned intervention of their fellow human beings. Likewise, if I mention something about "sin" here and there, it should be obvious that I am not referring to the commission of crimes nor the transgression of religious observances. Rather, what I am referring to are the sins that one commits against themselves by embracing despair, conceding defeat, and ultimately forfeiting hope for themselves. Thus, the sin and salvation which I talk about below are psychological concepts.

Ah well, I'm afraid this post will end up sounding very Christian anyway, but read to the bottom, and you'll see that it's ultimately all about psychology! (I may be turning Japanese, but I'm not turning Christian. After this post, I will return you to your regularly-scheduled epistemology.)

For one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the consequence of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the consequence of a sin is a sin. (Avos)

Sometimes a sin is its own punishment. (Wise Rabbi)

"One who recognizes their own sin, has no sin." That is a riddle called the Circle of Sin... Perhaps that is what it means to be bound by sin: To keep going around in the same circle looking to find where the sin lies, and at some point losing sight of the way out. (Haibane Renmei)

You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it. (Avos)

When I read the Book of Ruth this year after having recently watched Haibane Renmei, Ruth really came across to me in a different light than it ever has previously. Certainly, there are many ways to read Ruth. One might read it as kind of a historical record, perhaps as a "back-story" for the epic of the Davidic dynasty. One might read it as an polemic in favor of sweeping acts of kindness, or as a lofty vision of how devotion and commitment may be manifested in their purest and most unselfish forms.

I had previously read Ruth in all these ways, and I can't say that any of them are right or wrong. But when I started reading it this year, it occurred to me that the Book of Ruth is perhaps most profoundly a tale of humanistic salvation. That is, Ruth is not just a story of people helping each other. Rather the Book of Ruth offers a vision of how one human being is delivered from utter annihilation — not by God — but by the selfless intervention of a fellow human being. This is humanistic salvation, and I believe that this is the theme of the Book of Ruth. The essential salvation story is densely compressed within the first chapter, while the rest of the book unfolds the consequences.

The Book of Ruth begins, of course, not with Ruth but with Naomi. And indeed, the story is as much about Naomi as it is about Ruth, perhaps even more so. Such a duality, such a collaboration, is required in any example of humanistic salvation. As in Haibane Renmei, salvation does not ultimately come from the "self-actualization" of a suffering individual, nor does it come from their heartfelt pleadings to an unknowable God. Instead, salvation ultimately comes from the willingness of a suffering human being to accept the helping hand that is offered to them, and the willingness of another human being to offer it. This is the necessary human partnership that is so eloquently captured in Ruth.

In a story of humanistic salvation, it is not necessarily the case that God is absent, callous, or indifferent. There is certainly a Providential component in both the Book of Ruth and in Haibane Renmei. However, in these stories God appears to only bestow his blessing for salvation on parties who have demonstrated their readiness to receive it. Crucially, this readiness cannot be demonstrated by anything that the suffering individual can do in isolation, whether by prayer or by deed. Likewise, this readiness cannot be demonstrated by anything the benevolent individual can do in isolation, whether by prayer or by deed. The requisite demonstration occurs only when the two human beings connect with each other, the one to offer assistance and the other to accept it. It is as though God stands back and says, "I want to see what you are willing to do for yourselves and for each other."

Within the first few verses of Ruth, we learn of a woman named Naomi who loses her husband and two sons in rapid succession. The text, while a model of brevity, here does us a disservice by introducing this tragedy so early and so quickly. We don't know who Naomi is, and we don't know anything about her husband or sons, so it's difficult to identify with any of these characters. In a sense, it feels like we're missing the first half of the book, which would have provided the essential character development. Because of this odd structure, I think it's easy for the modern reader to overlook what is the essential fact presented in the beginning of this first chapter.

The essential fact is that Naomi regards herself as having been annihilated. Within a short period of time, the entire meaning of her existence has been utterly erased. She says to her daughters-in-law, "My lot is far more bitter than yours, for the hand of the Lord has struck out against me," and when arriving in Bethlehem, she tells the townsfolk, "Do not call me Naomi. Call me Mara, for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter. I went away full, and the lord has brought me back empty." It's not just that Naomi is a sad individual, but that Naomi has utterly given up hope for herself.

As in Haibane Renmei, in the Book of Ruth a person's name symbolizes the meaning of their existence, their true identity, their unique narrative, the essential characteristics that makes them an irreplaceable individual. By changing her name from "Pleasantness" to "Bitterness," Naomi indicates that she has fundamentally altered her personal narrative, her essential meaning. She has changed her personal epic from the "story of Naomi, the woman who showed pleasantness to everyone" to the "story of Naomi, an unfortunate woman who was consumed by bitterness."

Naomi believes that her life is now irredeemable, that her doom has been assured. She will go on living, but without direction, purpose, or meaning. She has come to deeply believe that the "Story of Naomi" has reached its bitter conclusion, and she has already composed in her mind the final chapter: Naomi died and was forgotten, and it was as though she had never lived. Naomi prepares to utterly abandon herself.

But something happens on the way to oblivion. As Naomi falls ever further away from life, another human being unexpectedly reaches out to grab her. Wait, says Ruth, I will not let you go.

Naomi is surprised by Ruth's attitude: What could Ruth possibly see worth saving in an old, empty, defeated woman? Naomi's story is finished, and so she pushes Ruth away. She urges Ruth to leave her, to pursue a marriage amongst her own people, to secure her own future, to start rebuilding the Story of Ruth. In all her words to Ruth, Naomi is in essence saying, Build your own life, for my life is ended. Craft your own story, for my story has concluded. Forget about me, as I have forgotten about myself. I am not deserving of any kindness. I will quietly disappear. Moreover, by saying "the Lord has struck out against me," Naomi is arguing, as many despairing individuals do, that external events — indeed, God himself — have certified her worthlessness. She sees the tragedies that have befallen her as proof that she is indeed an intrinsically tragic figure, the kind of person who is — and always was — simply destined for tragedy. She is telling Ruth, "Can't you see that I am a doomed figure? Can't you see that there is no possible hope for me?"

It is easy to recognize — as everyone does — that what follows in verses 16-17 is a key moment in the story. Ruth determinedly deflects Naomi's attempts to distance herself, resists Naomi's efforts to convince Ruth that the failure of the woman Naomi is absolute and irreversible. Ruth refuses to participate in Naomi's exercise of self-condemnation, and will not be persuaded either that Naomi's cause is lost, or that Naomi is an intrinsically doomed person. Ruth dedicates herself to saving Naomi:

Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried..."

Thus Ruth extends her hand for Naomi to grab. But, as eloquent as it is, Ruth's decision to offer her support regardless of external circumstances and Naomi's protestations is not the pivotal moment of the story, because Naomi's salvation is not something over which Ruth has control. Rather, at this point Naomi's salvation hangs on Naomi's own response to Ruth's intervention. Naomi faces a decision, a decision which is as crucial as Ruth's own decision to persist in attempting to aid Naomi. Naomi must decide whether she will amplify her efforts to resist Ruth's aid and thus persist in attempting to sabotage Ruth's devotion, or whether she will acquiesce to accept the help that Ruth is offering.

While Naomi's choice may seem an obvious one to the reader, such matters are not necessarily clear to an individual in distress. Naomi has already rewritten her own narrative as the story of a failed human being, and by doing so has spared herself from any further pain or uncertainty. Future misfortunes may come to her, but since she has already conceded that she is the kind of person who deserves such misfortune, much of the sting will have been diminished. She has resigned herself to accept things as they come, greeting them with the attitude of "I am the kind of person who experiences misfortune." In accepting Ruth's offer, there is therefore the threat that Naomi may have to let go this new narrative, and once again face the possibility of pain and uncertainty.

Moreover, because Naomi considers herself worthless in the aftermath of her tragedies, she must overcome a tremendous guilt barrier in accepting Ruth's help. In effect, she sees Ruth throwing away Ruth's own prospects of future happiness out of a misguided dedication to a worthless, unsalvageable corpse. The fear that — in addition to everything else — she might now also become guilty of dragging Ruth down into her own miserable world must have weighed very heavily on Naomi's mind. How can she justify keeping Ruth with her, when she, Naomi, is a figure destined for tragedy? In addition to the arguments she makes in the text, it seems Naomi must have had a hundred other reasons with which to push Ruth away. It is easy to push people away.

Therefore, it is verse 18, in which Naomi finally accepts the support that Ruth is offering, which may be the pivotal moment in the Book of Ruth:

When Naomi saw how determined she was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her.

In accepting Ruth's aid and companionship, Naomi is forced — perhaps unknowingly — to once again revisit the "Story of Naomi," and to begin to reconsider that last chapter. However, unlike the instant salvation achieved in Haibane Renmei, the Book of Ruth conveys the impression that Naomi's rehabilitation is far from rapid. In real life, a person's narrative cannot be rewritten in just a moment. However, the story does suggest that the ultimate resurrection of Naomi is the inevitable consequence of that first connection between herself and Ruth, the moment where Ruth selflessly offered her devotion and assistance to Naomi, and the moment where Naomi overcame her barriers to accept it.

Therefore, let me summarize what I see as the moral lessons contained in the Book of Ruth and Haibane Renmei:

Question: When is it permissible to finally give up hope on a struggling individual?

Answer: It is NEVER permissible to give up hope on a struggling individual. One must continuously seek to provide aid to a struggling person, even when that person vigorously resists assistance. It is difficult for us to see what barriers that person may be facing. Thus, even when a person seems completely intent on abandoning themselves, it is required that we continue to attempt to intervene. Although it may very well be beyond our control to pull that person back through our own efforts, the concern that we show for them in the process might very well be the one thing that keeps them hanging on. Perhaps when they see that someone else believes in them, that someone else thinks their existence has value, they might begin to see something of that value in themselves. When at some point the suffering individual comes to a place where they can attempt to look for a helping hand and a way out, someone must always be there to offer it to them. Never give up hope.

Question: When is it permissible to finally give up hope on yourself?

Answer: It is NEVER permissible to give up hope on yourself. There are many reasons that we may come to a point of despair, but we must always keep looking for a way to improve our situation. This is our obligation. Past failures are massively incriminating and continuously play on our mind, but dwelling on the past feeds the "cycle of sin" mentioned in the quotes above. People in despair are drawn to asking impossible metaphysical questions that have no answers:

Where did I go wrong?
Why was I chosen to suffer?
Why is the universe set against me?
Why didn't I ever get a chance?
Why am I the broken one?

Don't ask these questions. They only lead in circles. Instead, just look for the way forward. Look for the helping hands that are extended to you. Try something you haven't tried before. Tell a friend about your trouble. Tell your doctor, rabbi, priest. Don't give up. It is not your fate to suffer forever. You've paid your dues, and now it's time to find your way out.

When we have been suffering for a long period of time, it is easy to begin thinking that "it's just too late to fix matters at this point." One feels the weight of lost time pressing down upon one's shoulders, time that we know can never be recovered. And there is the sense that, as in a video game or sporting event, if we didn't play our best game from the start, then it is impossible for us to catch-up and get a good score in the end. There's a tendency to want to quit the game and give up trying. But life is not a video game, and no one knows how it is ultimately scored. Moreover, we often tend to inflate our own failures, and from an objective standpoint our life is not nearly the disaster that we perceive it to be.

And finally, as Victor Frankl points out, there is meaning in suffering. The suffering that we experienced was not wasted or empty. It was not for nothing. It deepened and enriched us. But nevertheless, we should not seek to suffer further. We should accept those experiences as part of ourselves, and then move forward. Never give up hope.


  • Erm, all I see is a title.

    By Blogger Jewish Atheist, at Jun 4, 2006, 10:55:00 AM  

  • Great and inspirational post !!

    As it is likely that I am the only other person on the J blogosphere who has seen the Haibene Renmei I can echo your statements about the similarities.

    Actualy this was a better musar shmooze than I ever recieved in yeshiva, most of which were focused on minor behavior traits, nivel peh, proper yeshiva dress, etc...

    It makes me wonder if powerful humanistic works would not be better placed at the center of our religion rather than as addendum's.

    What if instead of a bible all we had was a book of Ruth ?

    I still feel there is some inescapable christian philosophy in the mix of HR. I am no expert on christianity but I believe the idea that jesus was willing to sacrifice everything for us/them/believers is a large part of the gemilas chasadim that makes up a large part of christian ideology. I think they just inherently have a more humanistic faith than ours.

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at Jun 8, 2006, 9:08:00 AM  

  • Thanks so much for reading the whole thing!

    It makes me wonder if powerful humanistic works would not be better placed at the center of our religion rather than as addendum's.

    I agree with you there. What's the best part of Bereshis? It's where Avraham pleads with God to spare the lives of the people of Sodom. Humanism! I always find humanistic stories dramatically more inspiring than stories of Providence or divine intervention. Stories whose goal is to show "how great is God" just bore me, because we know that there are just as many stories to be told in which God does not come out looking so great. Moreover, for God to do something great is no "chiddush" -- if God is some kind of all powerful being, then isn't that just his job or something? Why should that impress me in any way?

    But stories of human beneficence are different. We understand humans, and we understand how difficult it can be for one person to sacrifice their needs and interests for the benefit of another. And we understand that we have at some time all been the recipients of such sacrifices (e.g., from parents), and
    we know that our existence in the world is somehow incomplete if we do not connect with other people in this way. So stories of humanism are powerful.

    The notion of salvation certainly plays a larger role in Christianity than Judaism, but I'm afraid that Christians tend to confuse psychological salvation with religious salvation. That is, there is a large focus on helping people through their troubles, but there is the sense that salvation has been accomplished only when Jesus is accepted as a Savior, rather than when a person has reached a healthy psychological state or lifestyle. I think you can see this problem in some of the missionary activities in third-world countries, where the focus seems to be on making people say "I believe in Jesus" rather than offering them birth control or other tools through which they could actually improve their lives. But alas, I digress.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jun 8, 2006, 10:58:00 AM  

  • Very Nice post!!
    Ruth has long been one of my favorite books of tanach for some of the reasons you mentioned.
    Your analysis has helped me see it in a new (and even better) light!

    Keep on writing!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Jun 11, 2006, 12:14:00 AM  

  • Great post. It shows a very optimistic attitude, which I certainly try to subscribe to.

    From my own experience, I have a scenario to add. What if you do lend the helping hand, always try to be there for her but not only do she not accept it but turn on you? Instead of solving her own issues, she finds you to blame. You still say to yourself “It will get better just hang in there for her. Do your best.” But she starts to bring you down into her darkness. (Therapy and meds are no help for her). There is a point were you have to save yourself before both of you are lost.

    So I don’t know if the use of ‘ALWAYS’ and ‘NEVER’ are 100% appropriate. Mostly so, but every circumstance is unique.

    By Blogger smoo, at Jun 12, 2006, 2:16:00 PM  

  • I agree, smoo. You shouldn't let yourself get lost in the other person's darkness, but don't forsake them either.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jun 12, 2006, 11:36:00 PM  

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