In 2012 Ruth Calderon surprised many Israelis, and perhaps even herself, when she was elected to the Knesset. Her party, Yesh Atid, won 19 seats, and Calderon was 13th on that list. But the bigger surprise was Calderon’s first speech in the Knesset. True to her pluralistic beliefs and excellent reputation as a Talmud scholar, Calderon gave an impromptu Talmud lesson that impressed even a Knesset member from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political party, Shas.
Posted on YouTube, the speech went viral, igniting the hope that Calderon could reconcile religious and secular factions in Israel, as well as bring together those on the right and the left. In her speech, Calderon called on Israelis to participate in Torah study, the military and civil service. She challenged the ultra-Orthodox domination on all religious matters in the state by asking the government to fund Torah study across the religious spectrum.
Calderon, who left the Knesset in 2015, was recently at Boston University to give the annual Leon and Alice F. Newton Lecture under the auspices of the Eli Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. Calderon holds a Ph.D. in Talmud from Hebrew University and is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. In 1989, she established the first Israeli egalitarian beit midrash, or house of learning, in Israel. She followed up that undertaking with the founding of ALMA in 1996, another learning initiative that exposed secular Israelis to Hebrew culture and learning.
The subject of Calderon’s lecture at Boston University was the need for religious pluralism in Israel. In framing her talk, she took a long view of Israel’s 69-year history and its distinctly Jewish nationality beginning with the founding of the state in 1948. “The totality of the public space in Israel is Jewish,” she explained. “We have a flag, an anthem and a language. We have the Zionism of Theodor Herzl and we have the spiritual or cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am.”
According to Calderon, the riff between secular and religious Jews in Israel began when the country’s Declaration of Independence was codified. Israel’s founding mothers and fathers were intent on leaving orthodoxy behind and cultivating an image of the “new Jew.” That coming generation was to be “healthy, suntanned and educated on a cultural diet of Bible, the land of Israel and the Hebrew language,” said Calderon. Accordingly, their Zionism was rooted in the Bible. “We were educated in tanach [the five Books of Moses] and palmach [the army],” she said. “We were not educated in the mishna or the Talmud because too much [traditional education] would make us look like weak Jews.”
The divide between the secular and the religious in Israel deepened when Israel’s first president, David Ben-Gurion, and his contemporaries ceded authority to the ultra-Orthodox in matters including marriage, conversion and divorce. The assumption was that the ultra-Orthodox would eventually assimilate into modern life. Sixty-eight years later, the opposite has occurred: Ultra-Orthodox communities are flourishing in Israel and have garnered political power.
The ultra-Orthodox leaders, said Calderon, “have the heart of the Jewish people when it comes to marriage, divorce and even respecting rabbis from the Diaspora. They often don’t recognize Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox rabbis as rabbis and don’t validate their conversions as kosher. We are letting this happen in Israel because most of us don’t feel we are authentic Jews. We are ignorant in our traditions and don’t have the gravitas to say there are other ways in Judaism. ”
The result, she said, is that North American Jews and Israeli Jews are drifting apart. She asserted that, “Instead of speaking Hebrew, American Jews speak the language of the synagogue.” Israelis, on the other hand, “are marinating in Jewish nationalism,” Calderon explained. “You can’t have a cup of coffee anywhere in Israel without feeling that 2,000 years of Jewish history is on your shoulders. That’s one of the successes of spiritual and cultural Zionism—they built an alive, deep and exciting Jewishness for all Jews.”
Calderon is still optimistic about bringing together Jews with diverse opinions. In her lecture, she said: “We learn from the Talmud that disputation makes us smarter. Look for someone who sees something completely different than you do and work together to go deeply into the truth.”
The sentiment echoed her famous Knesset speech, in which she declared in Hebrew: “I long for the day when the state’s resources are distributed fairly and equally to every Torah scholar, man or woman, based on the quality of their study, not their communal affiliation. … Through scholarly envy and healthy competition, the Torah will be magnified and glorified.”