In New Knesset, a True Maverick
Why Ruth Calderon, a Talmud scholar and rookie politician, has a shot at breaking the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism
Every new member of Israel’s Knesset gives a debut speech, and this year, with 48 rookies, the docket was full, with parliamentarians introducing their résumés, their proposed policies, and their hopes for the coming four-year term. One decided to ignore convention altogether. This member of Knesset used the allotted time to teach Talmud.
A full third of the 19th Knesset are observant Jews, but it wasn’t any of them. It was a woman named Ruth Calderon, a Talmud scholar and the founder of two Jewish houses of study. She was elected to Knesset as No. 13 on the list of Yesh Atid, a new party headed by former journalist Yair Lapid that swept the recent elections, earning 19 seats on a promise to bring about a more equal Israel, including by drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the army.
Standing in front of her colleagues with a volume of the Talmud given to her by Lapid’s grandfather David Giladi, Calderon offered photocopies of the section she was explicating—a story about Rabbi Rechumei who studied so hard before one Yom Kippur that he did not make it home to his wife before the fast began. As his wife cried at home, Rechumei studied on the roof of his school, and the roof caved in, and he died.
The room was quiet as Calderon told this story, except for when the session’s ultra-Orthodox moderator, Shas MK Yizhak Vaknin, interceded to strengthen her point. Calderon said Rechumei’s name included the root of the Hebrew word rechem, meaning womb, as well as rachamim, mercy. Vaknin said if one would rearrange the letters, to read ramah, its numerological value would total 248, the number of organs in the human body.
Vaknin: Rechem also [has a numerologically significant] value of 248.
Calderon: Thank you. Yasher Koach. Thank you for participating.
Vaknin: I think the idea she is saying is wonderful …
Calderon: I am happy about this participation in the words of Torah.
Calderon ended her talk with a prayer, calling out to the “God of her fathers and mothers” to help her and her party do good work in government. The speech went viral, gaining almost 200,000 eyeballs within a week—and it was certainly the only time when a female member of Knesset taught about the Talmud.
Calderon’s fundamental message—that all Israelis should have access to and knowledge of Judaic sources—was steeped in Jewish tradition, but nevertheless, it was explosive. That’s because Calderon, along with her colleagues in Yesh Atid, wants to renegotiate the relationship between religious and secular in Israel. She wants an end to the rabbinate’s monopoly on the control of weddings, conversions, and the other touchstones of Jewish life in Israel. She wants to include the ultra-Orthodox in mandatory military or national service, and ensure equal funding for secular and Orthodox institutions of Jewish study. In the meantime, she is bolstering the Jewish character of the Knesset with a weekly Torah study group that she initiated with fellow Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Shai Piron.
“The Torah is not the property of any stream,” Calderon said in her debut speech. “We gave it away, when we thought there was a more important task, to build the army and the state and farming and industry. Now we must take back what is ours.”
Her message was received with delight among non-Orthodox but religiously committed Jewish Israelis. “Ruth’s debut speech in the Knesset was the moment that broke the Orthodox monopoly in official Israel,” Yossi Klein Halevi, a writer and a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, told me. He added that he sent the YouTube video of Calderon’s talk to his friends because “I couldn’t restrain myself.”
In some Haredi circles, though, it raised a panic. The Kikar Hashabbat online Haredi news portal posted the video of Calderon’s speech, in rare exception to its ban on images of women. The editorial that day read: “We realized that we are watching on live broadcast the new Enlightenment, the new powers that have risen and want to destroy the Haredi society as it is today.”
I met Ruth Calderon on her second day at her new job. Her Knesset office was bare, save for an album by rock musician Shem Tov Levi and cups of identical pens and pencils. “I don’t know where I’m going to put the Talmud. It’s too tall for the shelves here,” she said. Calderon’s brown hair was tied back in a bun, and she wore a long gray cardigan over a black dress, tights, and boots. Red rose earrings broke the monochrome. “I’m the third child after two big brothers and a Sephardic father, and the same need to be free as a woman is same need to be free as a secular Jew,” Calderon said.
Calderon, 51, grew up in Tel Aviv to a Bulgarian father and German mother, the youngest of three siblings. Judaism was not absent in the Calderon home—they kept kosher and celebrated Jewish holidays. But it was not fully present either. Life was a mix of traditions and the modern secular Israeli existence. Her father taught her it was an honor to be a Jew.
Calderon told me she was raised on a history of “from Tanach to Palmach”—that is, from the Torah stories to modern Israeli history. “The education in the beginning of this country made a point of trying to create a new Jew,” she said. “And the cultural diet they gave to new Jews was the Bible. That was the basis of this revival of the Jewish people in their land and then straight to modern thought. I think they were intentionally keeping us away from rabbinic literature because they felt it was the Diaspora and it was weak.”
Then one day in high school, Calderon’s principal substituted for a teacher on maternity leave. “He taught Talmud, and I was like, ‘Wow, where did they hide this all my life?’ ” Calderon said. She got another taste when a guest lecturer, Bible scholar Ari Elon, visited her base when she served as a cultural guide, leading hikes and organizing holiday celebrations in the Armored Corps. After the lesson, she asked Elon where she could learn Talmud. He suggested the Oranim College in northern Israel, and after her service Calderon hitched a ride to the campus. She earned her bachelor’s degree and teacher’s certificate there. In 1985, after graduating from Oranim, Calderon enrolled in the prestigious Talmud Department of Hebrew University, made famous as the setting for the celebrated Israeli film Footnote.
“I was the only one without a beard,” she said. “There was even a man who told me, ‘Don’t be offended, but I won’t sit next to you.’ I was a peculiar bird, but I enjoyed it.” Calderon said she felt at home in a man’s world because of her upbringing among her brothers. It helped that she had good mentors. One professor took her aside in the beginning of her studies, she said. “He said, ‘Miss Calderon, don’t be afraid of them. It seems they have many years in yeshiva and you have not but I must tell you they played a lot of basketball in yeshiva, and if you will be serious then within two years you will know everything that they know.’ ”
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