Scholar-activist to speak in Teaneck
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Scholar-activist to speak in Teaneck

Dr. Ruth Calderon to teach Talmud, discuss Jewish literacy

Dr. Ruth Calderon
Dr. Ruth Calderon

Dr. Ruth Calderon is spending this year as a professor of talmudic civil law at Harvard Law School, so she could be introduced as an academic.

She was a member of the Knesset from 2013 to 2015, so she might be presented as a politician.

Then again, as the founder of Alma, a Tel Aviv based cultural and intellectual center, started in 1996, that seeks to acquaint secular Israelis with Hebrew culture, Dr. Calderon might be credited for her efforts to revive Hebrew culture. Or, as a co-founder of Elul — it’s in Jerusalem, created in 1989, and is the first beit midrash in which secular and religious women and men studied and taught together — she could be described as an activist who fosters pluralism.

Remarkably, all these titles would fit, and all the knowledge and skills Dr. Calderon has gained from these pursuits will be in evidence next weekend when she takes up her new — albeit temporary — role of Barry Shaeffer Memorial Scholar-in-Residence at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom. (See box.)

How would Dr. Calderon describe herself? “I don’t feel I’m one or the other,” she said. The different fields “form one whole entity,” she said, suggesting that it is quite natural for someone to study and then “try to change what needs to be changed.” While she aspires to be an intellectual, “there’s no separation between academic work and legislating.” At different times in her life, “there was a time for this, and a time for that.”

This year, as the Caroline Zelaznik Gruss and Joseph S. Gruss Visiting Professor in Talmudic Civil Law at Harvard Law School, she teaches several courses in Jewish law, one in law and narrative in Talmud, and one in Israeli law. Her students are very diverse. Some are Jewish, some are not. Some come from the school’s divinity department, and some from its program in Middle Eastern studies.

“There is a special way that Talmud uses narrative as part of legislating, or of understanding the depth of an idea,” Dr. Calderon said. In addition to presenting legal arguments, she explains in her course description, “the Talmud presents anonymous brief stories… [raising] the question of the power and limits of the law to structure such complex human moments. In the seminar we examine these Talmudic texts, where the law as a process of generalized rulemaking reaches its limit.”

In her class on Israeli law, she said, “I show how by going historically through legal documents, one can track the building of Israel’s identity.” One of her students, a Marine officer, “wants to write about Orthodox men serving in the army,” exploring the differences between a professional army and a people’s army.

Dr. Calderon was elected to the Knesset as a member of the then newly formed Yesh Atid party, and she was deputy speaker and chair of the lobby for Jewish renewal. She remembers her time there fondly. “It was not an easy place to be, but it was a fascinating opportunity to legislate and to speak with people we don’t usually meet,” she said. “I learned a lot; the way it is built stresses learning about other views. You have to build a coalition with others who are different.”

She cited the talmudic concept of a machlochet. An argument. “A dispute is not always elegant, but it can be,” she said. “We went in as non-politicians and tried to make a difference. Many are still there as part of the Blue and White party.”

Her inaugural speech, in which she introduced herself to fellow legislators, stands out in recent memory as unique. “I’m a teacher,” she said. “So I introduced myself by teaching. It ended up being amusing.” In fact, she remembers “a nice conversation with Shas and between different Israeli factions that don’t usually study together.”

If Dr. Calderon has a concern today, it is that American Jews and Israelis are drifting apart. “Israelis and American Jews don’t think they have very much in common,” she said. This concern will echo throughout her presentation in Teaneck, which is called “People of the Book: What does it mean to be a literate Jew?”

At one session, she will lead a discussion with members of the community about what an educated Jew should know. Her other two sessions will be devoted to Talmud study and to the study of law and narrative.

Dr. Calderon’s own views will be presented as part of the discussion of Jewish literacy. Noting the vibrant growth of Israeli literature, television, and theater, she lamented that “Communities far away from Israel are rarely aware of what is not on Netflix.”

She is, she said, “fascinated by Jewish life here,” and has been visiting both academic institutions and synagogues, “eager and happy to learn. I find that the 10 tribes can do so much together.” She is disturbed, however, to hear that some congregations object to the recitation of a prayer for Israeli soldiers, and some even have taken it out of the siddur.

“That made me sad,” she said. Her own son is in the army “and it means a lot to us. I hope we won’t drift apart. Israel is a state of all Jews. We need your voice.

“I feel that it’s much better to get through difficult times together.”


Who: Dr. Ruth Calderon

What: Will be Barry Shaeffer Memorial Scholar in Residence

When: November 15-16. Her talk on Friday evening will be “A talmudic look at community — what is in and what is out?” Saturday morning will be “Headed for a third election? Israeli politics today” and Saturday afternoon will be “Bedtime with Bialik — What does it mean to be a literate Jew?” (It will be a panel discussion and she will respond to it.)

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck

For information: Call 201-833-2620

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