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Across the great divide

Israeli MK Ruth Calderon to speak in Teaneck

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Dr. Ruth Calderon wants others to join her on a path of Jewish discovery.

Congregation Rinat Yisrael does not host many non-Orthodox Talmud scholars.

Sure, it has a member who taught at the Reform Hebrew Union College.

But someone who doesn’t identify as Orthodox? Who is proud of solemnizing a gay marriage?

Yet Dr. Ruth Calderon, who will speak at the Teaneck synagogue Sunday evening, is not a typical Talmud scholar – of any sort.

She has made her career bridging the world of “secular” Israelis – to use the 19th century Hebrew phrase proudly claimed by Israel’s atheist, socialist pioneers – with that of the classic works of Jewish civilization, most notably the Talmud.

She earned a doctorate in Talmud at Hebrew University for a dissertation on structuralist approaches to understanding talmudic stories. She launched a movement of secular batei midrash, study halls where Jewish texts are studied in a traditional manner but without traditional presuppositions. And she has written books to share her enthusiasm for the Talmud’s tales with the Israeli public. (The first was recently published in English as “A Bride for One Night”; the most recent appeared in Israel just before Rosh Hashanah.)

But what catapulted her to international fame – and the Rinat Yisrael guest list – was her election to the Knesset in 2013. A YouTube of her maiden Knesset speech went viral in some Jewish circles, and has been watched more than any other talmudist’s video.

And a talmudist’s video it was. After briefly telling her story and her belief that “The Torah is not the property of one movement or another,” she read a short passage from the tractate Ketubbot, concerning a rabbi who forgot to return home on the eve of Yom Kippur and the tragedy that followed. Then she elaborated on it, pointing out nuances and implications – a master class from a master teacher.

David Jacobowitz, co-chair of Rinat’s adult education committee, said he and other members of is congregation were “astonished and happily surprised at the shiur,” or talmudic lecture. He was particularly struck by the charedi Knesset member “who tried to helpfully add some information rather than walking out in protest.”

“We saw that she dedicated herself to trying to reclaim Talmud and Jewish texts for the secular Israeli public who had been unfortunately estranged from their heritage for so long,” he said. “We felt it would be an honor to have her in our community to tell us more.”

Dr. Calderon first opened a Talmud as a 19-year-old college student. She remembers the urge to connect Jewishly going back to when she was 11.

“I felt I missed something. I felt something is lacking in the Israeli identity and education,” she said in an interview this week.

Somehow, she sensed something that her European-born parents had that was different from what she was taught in school and in the Zionist youth movements. She knew the missing ingredient had a name – “Judaism” – but she didn’t know how or where she could get it. “I didn’t want to become religious” – meaning Orthodox – she said. “I didn’t think that was necessary. I wanted to stay in my beliefs and values, but I felt that I was ignorant, as if I didn’t know part of my family. I felt I’m not respecting myself if I don’t know where I came from.”

Born in 1961, she had this realization in 1972. That was perhaps the peak year for a certain kind of irreligious Israeli-ness, fostered by the kibbutznik children of the pioneers, the sabras who ran the country. Five years after the Six Day War, the austerity of Israel’s first years was far behind, and the insecurity brought on by the Yom Kippur war was in the future – as was the renewed respect for Judaism that Menachem Begin would bring into the public arena with his election. Young Ruth Calderon had noticed a real vacuum.

At 14, she gained a further education in the way Jewishness meant something more than just being Israeli. Her father, a professor of entomology specializing in the infestation of stored grains, spent a sabbatical year in Canberra, Australia. There, she was the only Jew in her school.

“Children asked me all kinds of things and I realized I don’t know much,” she said. So she decided she would learn.

If this were a chasidic tale, the next step in her journey to Talmud would be an encounter with the renegade scion of a famed talmudist. And indeed it was. She spent her army service in the education corps, arranging lectures and cultural activities for the soldiers in the tank corps.

One day she brought Ari Elon in to lecture on Talmud. Mr. Elon is the non-Orthodox, Talmud-teaching son of Menachem Elon, an Orthodox rabbi, Supreme Court justice, and expert on Talmudic law. Ms. Calderon asked Ari Elon where she could study Talmud the way he taught it and he pointed her to the Oranim Teachers College, which offered a program in classic Jewish texts.

“The next day I took my backpack and hitchhiked to Oranim and enlisted,” she said.

When, after army service, she began classes and finally opened a Talmud, it lived up to her hopes.

“It really blew me away,” she said. “I felt – and still feel – that it is so relevant to our life here. Yesterday I was giving a class on the kibbutz where my partner lives. It’s like the Talmud was written about us yesterday. It’s a very amazing book that you don’t always study in an existential way.”

After graduating from Oranim, she went to Jerusalem, pursuing a graduate degree in Talmud at the Hebrew University. There, the Talmud was studied as any other academic subject. For the magic of traditional study, arguing with a chevruta – a study partner – in the study hall, she studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

“It was a wonderful place,” she said.

But while it is deeply pluralist, the institute, like its founder, Rabbi David Hartman, was at its core Orthodox. “I wanted to be not only a visitor, not a guest,” she recalled. “I wanted to be at home.”

So together with an Orthodox friend, she created Elul, a beit midrash where secular and Orthodox Jews would study together as equals.

Elul opened in the fall of 1989. It took its name not only from the month of its opening – the Hebrew month of anticipation and renewal preceding Rosh Hashanah – but from the famous pluralistic motto that the Talmud attributes to God: “elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim”- “These and those are the words of the living God.”

It was not only the participants who came from different worlds. Ruth Calderon loved the Talmud, but in contrast to a traditional yeshiva, the Elul curriculum expanded beyond Talmud and even beyond Jewish texts. The curriculum was thematic – that first year the theme was creation – and the texts included works of Greek philosophers (in Hebrew translation) and Israeli poets as well as Talmud and Zohar. Every text was approached in turn with the method of the beit midrash: First, an introductory presentation. Then, breaking into pairs – chevrutot – to read and discuss. And finally, the group would come together for a class to bring it all together.

“It was fun and exciting,” Ms. Calderon said. “I couldn’t find a place to be at home, so I was building my own nest. There was a lot of meaning in the effort. I was learning all the time.”

The learning didn’t come just from the texts. For the participants, it was an intimate encounter across Israel’s religious-secular divide. (Because this was Israel, there were few participants who did not fit on one side or the other of that binary divide, but there were more than none.) Secular Israelis could see religious Jewish texts through the eyes of Orthodox Jews. And Orthodox Jews could have the perhaps more unnerving experience of seeing their familiar texts through the eyes of outsiders. One Orthodox participant that first year still remembers the eye-opening encounter with the words of Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, words he had chanted daily since kindergarten, when his secular chevruta read them aloud as if a newspaper article as he encountered them for the very first time.

From that initial institution of 15 or 20 people, who met in a synagogue in Jerusalem, a movement grew. Dr. Calderon went on to found a similar institution, Alma, in Tel Aviv, in 1996; Elul continues, and there are a hundred other pluralist study halls across Israel, “a renaissance of Jewish study.”

All of this is “Torah l’shma” – study for its own sake.

“Degrees and academic criteria sometimes hurt the freedom of study, the freedom of thought, the imagination of feeling,” she said.

Since joining the Knesset last year, she has taken a leave of absence from Alma. But she is proud in its latest accomplishment: it is beginning a program with the kibbutz movement’s education school where teachers in training will spend time in the Alma beit midrash. This, she says, will ultimately bring the beit midrash method into the Israeli public school system.

Meanwhile, in the Knesset, she feels she is having some success in changing the Israeli conversation about Jewish identity.

“It’s a little more open. It’s not a binary choice of whether you’re Orthodox or nothing. You can express your Judaism in many different ways,” she said. “It’s like massaging the very tight muscle of how you can talk about Judaism in Israel.”

Her bill to permit civil marriage in Israel has stalled under opposition from an Orthodox party that is a coalition partner. “My legislation is usually kind of deep and big,” she said, and is in part about educating the Israeli public toward the idea of change, since “you can’t change reality with legislation if it’s not ripe in society.”

One conversation she hopes to enshrine in law is a new approach to shmitta, the sabbatical year. It is designed to restore the ancient idea of releasing debtors from their debts. She has launched a shmitta fund to get 5,000 Israeli families out of debt.

Participants will get budget counseling to begin balancing their budget. Then the organization will go with each of the families to their creditors to renegotiate their debt. “The creditor – the bank or electric company or whoever – will wipe off some of it; the family will pay a third of it, with no interest; and we are fundraising to pay the gap between the two,” she said.

“These families can come out of that terrible position where you have no credit and can do nothing economically, and we can fulfill the mitzvah of shmittat chovot – releasing from debts – since the time of Hillel” 2,000 years ago. “It’s at the same time a very ancient and a very modern, very sustainable kind of project.”

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