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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

Daniella Cheslow
February 25, 2013
Ruth Calderon.(Daniella Cheslow)
Ruth Calderon.(Daniella Cheslow)

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.’ ”

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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Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.