Resonant response to maiden speech by Yesh Atid’s secular, female Talmud scholar

Resonant response to maiden speech by Yesh Atid’s secular, female Talmud scholar

Tens of thousands watch clip of Dr. Ruth Calderon in Knesset debut quoting traditional sources, urging ultra-Orthodox and Zionist communities to better understand each other

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Ruth Calderon speaks to the Knesset, Tuesday (photo credit: screen capture Knesset Channel)
Ruth Calderon speaks to the Knesset, Tuesday (photo credit: screen capture Knesset Channel)

A highly unusual maiden Knesset speech delivered by Yesh Atid legislator Dr. Ruth Calderon on Tuesday has become something of a YouTube sensation, garnering over 80,000 views as of Friday afternoon — compared, for instance, to fewer than 4,000 views for the maiden speech delivered by her party leader, political sensation Yair Lapid, the day before.

An educator, Talmud scholar, and founder of Israel’s first secular, male and female study center, Calderon (No.13 in the new, 19-strong Yesh Atid Knesset faction) used the platform to deliver an impassioned, gracious plea — complete with Talmudic quotations, anecdotes, passages in Aramaic, and constructive interaction with the acting Knesset speaker for the session, ultra-Orthodox Shas MK Yitzhak Vaknin — for the widespread study of Jewish and Hebrew texts as the basis for a new Hebrew culture.

She called for all young Israelis to participate in Torah study and military and civil service, and for the equal allocation of government resources for Torah study based on the quality of their scholarship rather than their religious affiliation — in what amounted to an eloquent but nonetheless unmistakable challenge to the ultra-Orthodox near-monopoly on Judaism’s Torah heritage in the state of Israel.

That challenge, in turn, prompted a withering response from the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabbat, which asserted in an editorial the following day that Calderon seeks to render the ultra-Orthodox community “extinct.”

Calderon, in her 14-minute speech, described her personal journey toward Jewish texts — clutching a volume of the Talmud given to her by Lapid’s mother many years ago that “changed my life.”

“I grew up in a very Jewish home, a very Zionist home,” she said. “Like others in the mainstream of my generation in the 1960s and 1970s, I was brought up on ideas from the bible to the Palmach [the elite Jewish fighters who fought the British for independence],” she said, adding that she was not exposed, however, to other traditional texts or ideas.

“But I felt, I knew something was missing. Something undefined in the common new Israeli identity — which was very nice — was missing,” Calderon said. “I was missing a depth, a vocabulary, stories, heroes, places and drama.”

Seeking to fill that “void,” she recounted her educational progress through Jewish study frameworks to her Hebrew University doctorate in Talmud, daily Gemara study, and her founding of Tel Aviv’s Alma and Elul Jewish education institutions, through which she said hundreds of thousands of Israelis had created a flourishing Jewish renaissance with a non-dogmatic approach to making Torah integral to their lives.

Calderon proceeded to read a story from the Talmud — from Ketubot 62b — and discuss its implications for modern Israeli society, torn as it is over issues relating to the complex relationships between different streams of Judaism, and notably the question of how to fairly share the national burden, including through military service. True to her teacher’s educational attitude, she had photocopied the text and it was available for MKs who wished to read along with her.

During the reading of the story, the tale of a prominent rabbi, Rabbi Rechumei, and his relationships with Torah and his wife, the acting Speaker, Shas’s Vaknin, contributed a short, constructive observation. When another MK shouted at him not to interrupt, Calderon replied that she was happy to “exchange ideas on Torah” with anyone, at any time.

Among the messages presented by Calderon — after she translated the Aramaic into Hebrew — were the imperatives for all parts of Israeli society to be patient and try to understand each other, and for those elected by the public to be worthy of their posts.

“I learn that whoever forgets he’s sitting on the shoulders of others will fall. I learn that being a tzadik [good, virtuous Jew] doesn’t mean following the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to mankind,” Calderon elaborated. “I learn that in a dispute there are often two sides that are right…

“Sometimes we feel like the wife who’s waiting, working and going to the army while the others are on the roof studying Torah,” she said moving from the classic tale to modern Israel, and the incapacity of ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis to comprehend each other sufficiently. “And sometimes the other people feel like they are shouldering all the burden of Jewish tradition and Torah while we go to the beach and party.”

“Both I and the other side feel like all the responsibility is on our shoulders. Until I understand that, I won’t see the problem for what it is and won’t be able to find a solution,” Calderon said.

Toward the end of her speech Calderon recited a prayer a friend had written for the occasion, entreating God to grant her the strength to do her job properly, asking that He help her to “leave this house as I entered it – at peace with myself and with others” and that she “always remember that I am an emissary of the public.” The prayer urged that God help all MKs succeed in their work. When she finished the blessing, Vaknin answered “Amen.”

A former fellow at the Hartman Institute, she also mentioned Rabbi David Hartman, who passed away earlier in the week, saying he “brought her into his Beit Midrash.” Hartman “constructed a language of Judaism which was brave and inclusive,” she said.

In its editorial the next day, Kikar Hashabbat wrote that, while listening to Calderon “the understanding hit us. We were watching on live TV the new enlightenment, the new forces that have arisen and want to make extinct the Haredi community as we know it.”

The editors wrote that Yesh Atid and Calderon don’t hate Jewish values, and are as a consequence actually more dangerous to Orthodox Judaism than the enlightenment movement of the 19th century. “They don’t want to make us a nation like all other nations. To the contrary, they want to magnify and enhance Torah,” by teaching the writings of Maimonides and the text of the Talmud to everyone, the piece said. “This is where the great danger lies,” because these new voices were using “our” scripts and culture “against us.”

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