Readers may remember Dr. Ruth Calderon as the new member of Knesset who turned her first parliamentary address into a Talmud lecture, the video of which quickly went viral. “The Torah is not the property of any stream,” said Calderon, a secular Talmud teacher who has founded pluralistic Jewish study houses across Israel, during the 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.”
Since then, as a result of her activism in Israeli society and now her role in the Knesset as a member of Yesh Atid, Calderon has emerged as the standard bearer for a new generation of non-Orthodox and non-religious Israelis seeking to reclaim their heritage, and to break the country’s Orthodox monopoly on Judaism.
So when Calderon decided to attend a controversial right-wing religious Zionist conference earlier this month, it raised more than a few eyebrows—and protest. “Among the leaders of Komemiut [the religious Zionist group] are Rabbis Dov Lior, Zalman Melamed, and Elyakim Levanon, known for their support of Baruch Goldstein and Rabbi Meir Kahane, as well as for calling on Jews to avoid renting apartments to Arabs,” noted Ha’aretz. “Their movement has called on Jews to stop employing Arabs altogether, and conducted an anti-gay demonstration during Jerusalem’s gay pride parade.” Lior, in particular, is infamous for promoting Torat ha-Melekh, a Jewish legal tract that argued it is permissible to kill Arab children who will presumably grow up to be terrorists.
Despite public outcry from several left-wing groups, Calderon held firm on her participation. “I also believe in speaking to Palestinians. Even with those who fight us, discussion is meant to bring understanding and peace, and as such, I believe in speaking to Jews who disagree with me,” she wrote on her Facebook page. She went ahead and attended the conference—where she then proceeded to call out its sponsors for bigotry.
“If one says that it is permissible to kill a [non-Jewish] baby because he will likely grow up to be an aggressor, I think this is racism,” she stated pointedly, over the repeated interruptions of other panelists. “Likewise, if one says that gays and lesbians and transgendered individuals are animals who participate in a ‘livestock parade’ when they do the gay pride parade, I think this is bigotry, injustice and a profanation of God’s name.” (When an interlocutor interjected sardonically, “you’ve read the book [Torat ha-Melekh]? You’re a talmida hakhama,” Calderon promptly corrected his rabbinic Hebrew: “talmidat hakhamim.”)
Throughout her remarks, Calderon reiterated that “all people … non-religious and religious, women and men, homosexuals and heterosexuals, Jews and non-Jews, all were created in the image of God,” bringing numerous Talmudic proof-texts to underscore her point to the religious audience, which often applauded her words.
Watch the highlights of her speech, with English subtitles (click “CC” if not enabled), below:
Earlier: “In the New Knesset, A True Maverick” [Tablet]