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The other and real name of the father

Faithfulness and redemption/15 – The other and real name of the father

by Luigino Bruni

Published in the Avvenire il 11/07/2021

"There are those who do not want simple people to read sacred texts. As if Christ taught things so abstruse that they could barely be understood by three or four theologians. My aspiration is for all women to read the Gospels, for all of them to read the letters of St. Paul. I would like the farmer to intone a few verses while pushing his plow, for the weaver to modulate a few moves when maneuvering his spoils."

Erasmus of Rotterdam, The New Testament Scholarship of Erasmus, Prefaces

The economy, a home, are different when viewed by women and men. So far, women's economy has not really been seen or even acknowledged. The Book of Ruth helps us to do so.

When I a boy, I was very impressed by my grandmother Maria's skill around her house. After a life spent working indoors and in the fields around her home, she had gained a unique knowledge of every single space, every utility room, of the contents of every closet and every single drawer. Anyone looking for something in the house asked grandma, and she immediately proceeded to identify and find it using the perfect map in her mind. She did, not grandpa Domenico, who instead had considerable knowledge and skills regarding the travertine quarry where he worked, regarding the vineyard, or the animals in the woods, regarding the roads and paths, and the stories from the war; but the expertise regarding the rooms in the house, the farmyard and the pets belonged to grandma.

In addition to this very specific and often tacit competence regarding the various spaces and parts of the house, she also had considerable knowledge regarding food, children, clothes, prayers, poems, the body and its diseases and treatments, as well as its death. All skills that the women in my family still have and cherish. The division of labour between men and women arose from a division of their knowledge. Typical female skills also generated a specific kind of economy, of housekeeping (oikos-nomos). The economy of men would not have been enough to survive, let alone to live. Without the specific skills regarding the space and areas, the farmyard, the drawers, the primary relationships, and the children, the money brought home by the men would have become capital, food, or well-being. Human civilization has never given the same weight to these two different oikonomies. For a long time, however, there was a real reciprocity between these two sphered and, not infrequently, respect as well.

With the birth of the market economy, things began to change. The real economy became the one that began when you crossed the threshold of the house, far from any domestic skills. Moreover, if women wanted to "count for something" in the eyes of this serious economy they had to go and work in a factory or in an office, where their savoir-faire, however, was not valued. Even expertise in food and its preparation had to leave the realm of the home and hands of women and enter the business of the great star chefs (almost always male) in order to count for something, because the stars at home were too low and normal to be seen by economists and politicians. Thus, since all that economy that took place in and around the house did not really pass through the market, it remained submerged, not recorded by any economic measures and ultimately not considered an economy at all. Furthermore, when economic sectors predominantly featuring female work – such as education and care - were born, they were (and still are) largely ignored and poorly paid by the serious economy, due to an erroneous and serious confusion regarding the difference between what is gratuitous and what is free.

In the Bible, a home or house is also generally associated with men: the house of Jacob, the house of David. The house is the image of a lineage, of a clan, of an entire people (the house of Israel). However, in the all-female environment of the Book of Ruth, the house becomes a matter of mothers. The people welcome Ruth as Boaz's wife, and to welcome her they feel they have to call the house with female names: «The Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel» (The Book of Ruth 4,11). Rachel and Leah who built the house: two women, two foreigners like Ruth, builders of the same house. In the female atmosphere of this book, it became clear that Jacob's house had also been built by his wives. Beloved mothers: beloved Rachel, by the people and by Jacob; but Leah was also loved, the mother of Judah, Boaz’s ancestor who, with the exception of the Book of Genesis, is only mentioned in the Book of Ruth, in the Bible. In fact, Judas is also featured in the second part of the people's blessing: «May you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the Lord will give you from this young woman!» (The Book of Ruth 4,11-12).

Judah and Tamar. We are transported to chapter 38 in the Book of Genesis, which tells us their story intersecting it in several places with the story of Ruth. Tamar, a Canaanite, is also a young widow, and her story includes the denial of the law of levirate by her father-in-law Judah. «Live as a widow in your father’s household» (Genesis 38,11), her father-in-law orders her. Tamar is left alone and childless. One day Tamar learns that Judas is passing through her area. She takes off her widow’s robes, disguising herself, and waits for him at a crossroad. Judas sees her and mistakes her for a prostitute (Genesis 38,15). Tamar asks for a pledge as her reward: «Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand» (Genesis 38,18), his "identity card". Tamar gets pregnant with twins - Perez and Zerah. For this, Judah condemns her to death, but while they lead her to the stake, Tamar carries out her plan: «I am pregnant by the man who owns these» (Genesis 38, 25). Judah recognized his possessions, and Tamar saves herself and her children.

Ruth and Naomi have many traits in common with Tamar, smart and enterprising women, who do everything to enable life to go on. Guest residents in a world not made to their measure, they strive not to die, they strive to live. Before the God of the law, the biblical God is the God of life. Sometimes life and the law go together and are on the same side, but when these two paths diverge, women, certainly these women, chose the path of life, and they do so without any hesitation or delay. Tamar did it, so did Rachel who, in exchange for her fertility (through the mandrakes of Reuben, Genesis 30), lent her husband Jacob to her sister Leah for one night. The Bible - and us along with it - praises this typical initiative of its women, this splendid freedom of theirs. In many respects, the freedom of women has been and continues to be limited, but in others, it has been superior to that of men, because it is radical and capable of vital transgressions unknown to us males, so much so that we do not fully understand them. The Bible, written by males, at the very least sensed this, thereby becoming greater than its writers.

Hence, in this nuptial blessing for Boaz and Ruth, we find a profound tension that runs through the whole Bible: the one found between the law of life and the law of men. In the Book of Ruth, this tension also becomes the tension between masculine and feminine logic. Ruth and even more so her mother-in-law Naomi, have their own oikonomy of salvation, they have their own way of helping God to save the world and their family. They do not turn God against life, but if this conflict should sometimes arise, or appear to do so, they choose life.

Sarah would never have taken Isaac to Mount Moriah, she would not even have left home, and even if God appeared to her and spoke to her, she would have believed he was a demon, because she would have preferred to be visited by a demon than by a god who asks to kill children. Or take Hagar, who fled into the desert with her son Ishmael to die with him. The angel who appeared to Hagar saving her son from death is not the same angel who stopped Abraham's knife, because women do not know these angels, they do not recognize them, they do not need them, they do not love them, and they do not pray to them, because they do not take their children to those altars, they stop just a bit before that. They say that angels have no gender, but those who appear to women are most certainly different from those who appear to men. Women pray and listen only to the angels of life, those who resemble storks to the point of being confused with them.

What if, Maacah, Absalom’s mother, had been there in place of King David, she would have run into the woods and she would have supported the body of her son hanging from the tree with her shoulders, she would have saved him, or she would have died with him. And if his sister Mary would have been there in place of Moses, she would have protested to God regarding the death of the firstborns of the Egyptians, because she would have known that the children of each single woman are the children of all women. And if one of his wives would have been there in place of King Solomon, in front of the two mothers who claimed the same child, she would never have proposed the solution of the sword, not even in her dreams, because women already protest when they see children playing with plastic swords pretending to be musketeers. What would human history have been like if women had been in place in each of its decisive crossroads?

This is the law that women know. Leaving the other law to us males, to our acts of power and war, to our different oikonomia that they never really came to understand. Perhaps only in heaven all the tears that women have shed and continue to shed for the pain generated by the acts of their men will be collected into an ocean.

Finally, the elders wish Boaz to find wealth, but they also wish him to "make a name for himself". May you prosper and become famous. Boaz already had a name, a reputation as a righteous man. Now, however, with the possible arrival of a child, the name becomes something different. Men play a secondary role in the Book of Ruth, because we humans have a secondary and subsidiary role in the transmission of life. No matter how much equality we can and should create in the care of children, in bringing children to life and in what happens in their early years, there will always be an asymmetry in favour of women, which we must meekly accept, without turning it into competition or envy. However, we can contribute by leaving a good "name" for our children. In fact, this name of the father, which is much more important than the surname, is the first inheritance we leave for our children, our first and perhaps only true heritage (patres-munus, the gift / obligation of fathers).

The name is our justice; it is our honesty, and our truth that we leave behind. The name is not having sold one's soul to power and wealth; it is having done everything to save the innocence of childhood. Having saved our faith, trust, a marriage, a vocation, having fought with both demons and angels. Until the end, when the last angel will arrive calling us by that good name.

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