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
While she studied Talmud, Calderon also enrolled in courses at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, known for its pluralistic, open-minded approach toward Judaism. Eventually, she said, she wanted to start her own institution rather than being a guest in another school. That is how she and a colleague created Elul, a secular beit midrash, or house of learning, in the Greek Colony of southern Jerusalem in 1989. The goal was to teach Talmud to secular Israelis in a house of study they’d feel comfortable in, and where Calderon, as a woman, could teach.
Last week, more than a dozen middle-aged Israelis pored over Talmud pages in an old Jerusalem stone building. The topic was the pilgrimage to Jerusalem ancient Jews used to make three times a year when the Holy Temple was still standing. One read in Aramaic about a story told by Rabbi Pinchas of two brothers who left their home in Ashkelon to go to Jerusalem. While they were gone, thieves eyed their house. God placed angels in the home to deter the thieves, showing that when a man goes to Jerusalem, God will make sure he returns to a full house.
“Is this supposed to convince me to go to Jerusalem?” asked Yehuda Taubman, a graying man wearing a black sweater. “This story is really infantile.” Taubman is both an instructor and a student at Elul, where he has come for the last 12 years. Taubman told me he was educated in Orthodox religious schools, where Talmud study was focused on debates concerning relevant Jewish law. He studied with Calderon for a year, and said she often looked for the stories and dramas in the Talmud, in what he found a refreshing approach. “Just as there are beautiful things I learn from the Talmud, I also like being honest about the things I don’t agree with,” Taubman told me. “The sages did the same thing with the Talmud.”
After seven years running Elul full time, in 1996 Calderon founded Alma: Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv. It has since become an institution in the city, drawing celebrated Israeli musicians, artists, and thinkers to its courses on the Bible, Talmud, Middle Ages, and modern Jewish literature. Then-journalist Yair Lapid was on the board of Alma. He and Calderon studied together for a year while Lapid wrote a book about biblical heroes. Calderon said Lapid mentioned politics to her, but she wasn’t interested at the time.
Calderon remained chairwoman of the board of Alma until she was elected to Knesset, and in the last year, she also worked as head of culture and education at the National Library in Jerusalem. She said she changed her mind about politics by the time Lapid started drafting his list of candidates for the 2013 elections. “My frustration as head of Alma was in seeing how for so many years no governmental funding is coming to us or to any other pluralistic institution,” she said. “So, I told myself, somebody of our pluralistic world needs to break the glass wall to where decisions are made. We keep knocking on the door here for so many years and nobody opens.”
The knocking may not have paid off yet in terms of government policy, but Calderon’s deep involvement in the world of what she calls “Jewish renewal” has helped grow a real movement in which she is an undisputed leader. In Jerusalem alone, Elul is now one of 22 other pluralistic-minded Jewish organizations that have sprung up over the past 20 years. And academics, activists, and think tanks are not the only so-called secular Israelis going back to the sources. “Army radio is playing Ibn Gvirol and Yehuda Halevi and 19th-century Moroccan prayers along with the usual pop songs,” Halevi said. “Israelis are in a spiritual search. The question is what kind of Jewish spiritual lives will those of us who don’t define ourselves as Orthodox create?”
Calderon in the Knesset will be a concrete manifestation of the demand for secular Jews to have the same legitimacy as the Orthodox to make decisions about the shape of Jewish public life in Israel. “There are many people in the Knesset who share this ideology, but Ruth is different because she has taught,” said Donniel Hartman, current president of the Hartman Institute. “She’s the real article.” MK Shai Piron, the rabbi who is leading the study group with Calderon, told me she is “full of grace and has a great heart.” He added: “It’s a very new voice that is waking up in the Israeli society. I think what she is doing is taking the Gemara, something that was language of a very limited community, and making it the language of all of Israel.”
Calderon’s debut speech came only days after 10 women were detained at the Western Wall for wearing prayer shawls. The women, including Rabbi Susan Silverman, the sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, have been reading Torah, praying out loud, and wearing prayer shawls at the Kotel since 1988 in an attempt to break the Orthodox monopoly of the holy site. The women are sometimes arrested by police and have been attacked by ultra-Orthodox men and women who say they are breaking the law and desecrating the site.
“If you compare Ruth’s performance in the Knesset to the Women of the Wall, you have to ask yourself which is the most effective way to defeat the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in Israel,” said Halevi. “Is it by literally breaking one’s head against the wall, or is it by entering the mainstream, with love and good will, and being yourself?”
While some Orthodox leaders are worried by Calderon’s message, others were less ruffled. Shas MK Vaknin, the moderator during Calderon’s speech, told me, “When she started telling the story I felt connected right away.” Vaknin also offered his amen to Calderon’s egalitarian blessing. “I don’t know why you are surprised,” he said. “Israel has a wide mosaic of people and opinions, and we must accept every person for who he is.”
All the same, Vaknin hinted that it would not be easy to get Haredi scholars out of yeshiva and into the army. Vaknin, who himself completed army service, recalled a passage in Numbers 32:6, when Moses asks the tribes of Gad and Reuven, “Will your brothers go to war while you sit here?”
“Those who say that forget one thing,” he said. “In the time of Moshe there was an entire tribe that did nothing but holy work: Levy.”
Calderon, for her part, hopes her approach can bridge over these gaps. She said Yesh Atid is drafting a new status quo for secular-religious relations, including yeshiva study, army service, and the rules of holy places. “I respect [Women of the Wall] greatly, and I feel pain when they are hurt, but it’s not my way,” she said. “I want to try to build a coalition with the different communities of Jews that will enable us to live our lives the way we want to, but then to also feel respected, and to live together.”
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