'The Heritage Of All Israel'

Founder of Tel Aviv's secular yeshiva, also a Knesset member, leads Israel's parliament in study and prayer.

Thu, 02/14/2013
Ruth Calderone
Ruth Calderone

Editor’s Note: Ruth Calderon, founder of a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv, spent several years living in New York recently, teaching at the JCC in Manhattan and other venues. This was her inaugural speech in the Knesset this week as a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

Mr. Chairman, honorable Knesset, the book I am holding changed my life, and to a large extent it is the reason that I have reached this day with the opportunity to speak to the Knesset of Israel as a new member. The copy in my hands belonged to David Giladi – a writer, journalist, editor, man of culture, and the grandfather of the head of our faction. He was mentioned here yesterday, too. I had the great honor of receiving it from his daughter, writer Shulamit Lapid.

I did not inherit a set of Talmud from my grandfather. I was born and raised in a quaint neighborhood in Tel Aviv. My father, Moshe Calderon, was born in Bulgaria and immigrated to this land as a young man. After the difficult war years, he began studying agriculture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and was immediately conscripted to defend Gush Etzion during the War of Independence.

Eventually he specialized in entomology, the study of insects, and became a global expert in grain storage. My German-born mother, who had the combined misfortune (at that time) of being Jewish, left-handed, and red-haired, made aliyah as a teenager, and met my father courtesy of the British siege of Jerusalem. By the time the siege ended and they went to meet the families as a match that had already been made, the Bulgarian neighbors could not say anything but, “She’s really nice, Moshiko, but are there no Jewish girls left? You have to marry an Ashkenazi girl?”

I am recounting all of this in order to say that I grew up in a very Jewish, very Zionist, secular-traditional-religious home that combined Ashkenaz and Sepharad, [Revisionist] Betar and [Socialist] Hashomer Hatzair, in the Israeli mainstream of the 60s and 70s. I was educated like everyone else my age – public education in the spirit of “from Tanach to Palmach”. I was not acquainted with the Mishna, the Talmud, Kabbala or Hasidism. By the time I was a teenager, I already sensed that something was missing. Something about the new, liberated Israeli identity of [Moshe Shamir’s] Elik who was “born of the sea”, of Naomi Shemer’s poems, was good and beautiful, but lacking. I missed depth; I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories – were missing. The new Hebrew, created by educators from the country’s founding generation, realized their dream and became a courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier. But for me, this contained – I contained – a void. I did not know how to fill that void, but when I first encountered the Talmud and became completely enamored with it, its language, its humor, its profound thinking, its modes of discussion, and the practicality, humanity, and maturity that emerge from its lines, I sensed that I had found the love of my life, what I had been lacking.

Since then I have studied academically in batei midrash [Jewish study halls] and in the university, where I earned a doctorate in Talmudic Literature at the Hebrew University, and I have studied lishma, for the sake of the study itself. For many years I have studied daf yomi, the daily page of Talmud, and with a chavruta [study partner]; it has shaped who I am.

Motivated by my own needs, and together with others, I founded Alma – Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv, and Elul, Israel’s first joint beit midrash for men, women, religious, and secular. Since then, over the course of several decades, there a Jewish renaissance movement has begun to flourish, in which tens and hundreds of thousands of Israelis study within frameworks that do not dictate to them the proper way to be a Jew or the manner in which their Torah is to become a living Torah.

I am convinced that studying the great works of Hebrew and Jewish culture are crucial to construct a new Hebrew culture for Israel. It is impossible to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are, without knowing, intimately and in every particular, the sublime as well as the outrageous and the ridiculous. The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it a we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity.

Instead of telling you about this book’s beauty, I wish to tell you a story from Talmud, one small story, the story of Rabbi Rechumei, which appears in Ketubot 62b, and through it to say some words about this moment and about the tasks I will set for myself in the Knesset.

I have brought the text. Anyone who wants, we can pass it out – but only to those who want it.

Page 62b – I will read it once in Aramaic, for the music, and then in Hebrew, so we can read it. [An English translation of the original text is followed by Dr. Calderon’s interpretation.]

Rabbi Rechumei was constantly before Rava in Mechoza. He would habitually come home every Yom Kippur eve. One day the topic drew him in. His wife anticipated him: “Here he comes. Here he comes.” He didn’t come. She became upset. She shed a tear from her eye. He was sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him, and he died.

Rabbi Rechumei – a rabbi, a rav, a whole lot of man [“rav” can mean “rabbi” or “much”]. “Rechumei” in Aramaic means “love”. Rechumei is derived from the word “rechem”, womb, someone who knows how to include, how to completely accept, just as a woman’s womb contains the baby. This choice of word for “love” is quite beautiful. We know that the Greek word for “womb” gives us the word “hysteria”. The Aramaic choice to take the womb and turn it into love is a feminist gesture by the Sages.

He was constantly, he could be found before Rava, the head of the yeshiva at Mechoza…

Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas):

Rechem also [has a numerologically significant value of] 248.

Calderon:

Thank you. Yasher koach.

Calderon:

Thank you for participating. I am happy…

Vaknin:

I think the idea she is saying is wonderful…

Calderon:

I am happy about this participation in words of Torah.

He could be found, that is, he studied, he was accepted for study, in the great yeshiva, one of the four yeshivot, the Ivy League, of Babylonia: Nehardea, Mechoza, Pumbedita, and Sura. He studied at Mechoza; he studied in the presence of Mechoza’s rosh yeshiva, who was so well known that he was called Rava. In Aramaic, an aleph at the end of a word denoted the definite article. Rava was “the Rav”, “the Rabbi”.

He would habitually – I suggest that the Sages do not like people who do thinks out of habit; in general, when someone in the Talmud does something regularly, someone dies within a few lines. He would habitually come home – in Aramaic, “home” also means “wife”. It is both wife and home. That is, a man who has no wife is homeless. A woman who has no man is not, but a man without a wife – no home. He would habitually come home every Yom Kippur eve. Notice that the Gemara says “he would habitually come home every Yom Kippur eve.” There is a certain rabbinic irony here. What does “every” mean? Once a year. Not very often.

You are probably thinking: what kind of date is that to choose to come home? Yom Kippur eve? It is not exactly a day of intimacy. It is generally a day of prayer, and not even at home.

One day, one time, one year, the topic drew him in. The study in the beit midrash so fascinated him that he forgot. He did not leave in time. He could not abandon his studies and he did not go home. His wife anticipated him: “Here he comes. Here he comes.” One can hear the aspirant tone of her words in Aramaic: “Hhhashta atei; hhhere he comes.” This expectation, that every text message, every phone call, every footfall, every knock at the door, you are certain is him. Here he comes. Here he comes.

He didn’t come.

At some point, she realizes that he is not coming this year. Perhaps the shofar blast announcing the onset of Yom Kippur was sounded, after which nobody would arrive, due to the sanctity of the holiday. She becomes upset. This woman, who waited all year, who for many years has waited all year for one day, cannot stand it anymore. She becomes upset. She is disappointed; she is sorrowful; she loses control. She sheds a tear from her eye – this is an active verb, not a passive one. She allows one tear to leak out of her eye onto her cheek, after years of not crying.

Now we must imagine a split screen: on one side is a close-up of a female character, a woman with one tear running down her cheek. On the other side, sitting on a rooftop in Mechoza, is Rabbi Rechumei, dressed entirely in white and feeling holy. You know, after several hours without food we feel very exalted. He studies Torah on the roof, under the stars, and feels so close to the heavens. He sat on the roof, and as the tear falls from the woman’s eye, the roof caves in under him and he falls to the ground and dies.

What can I learn about this place and my work here from Rabbi Rechumei and his wife? First, I learn that one who forgets that he is sitting on another’s shoulders – will fall. I agree with what you said earlier, MK Bennett. I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings. I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumei, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home. Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work while others sit on the roof and study Torah; sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, Torah, and our culture while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.

I aspire to bring about a situation in which Torah study is the heritage of all Israel, in which the Torah is accessible to all who wish to study it, in which all young citizens of Israel take part in Torah study as well as military and civil service. Together we will build this home and avoid disappointment.

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, when secular and pluralistic yeshivot, batei midrash, and organizations win fair and equal support in comparison to Orthodox and Haredi batei midrash. Through scholarly envy and healthy competition, the Torah will be magnified and glorified.

I want to mention my mentor, Rabbi David Hartman, who passed away this week, who opened up the doors of his beit midrash for me, and who built the language of a courageous and inclusive Judaism. May his memory be a blessing.

I want to conclude with a prayer composed by my colleague Chaim Hames, the prayer for entering the Knesset:

May it be Your will, Lord our God, God of our fathers and mothers, that I leave this house as is entered it – at peace with myself and with others. May my actions benefit all residents of the State of Israel. May I work to improve the society that sent me to this chamber and cause a just peace to dwell among us and with our neighbors. May I always remember that I am a messenger of the public and that I must take care to keep my integrity and innocence intact. May I, and we, succeed in all our endeavors.

I add a small prayer for my faction, Yesh Atid, that we maintain our unique culture of cooperation and brotherhood, that we remain united, that we remain in the plenum, and that we realize our dream to make things better. Thank you.

Translated by Elli Fischer. Based on the transcript available on the Knesset website.

 

 

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May you go from strength to strength. I hope we will hear more from Dr. Calderon in the English speaking world.

The translation moved me to tears. When I spoke to our Israeli guide eight years ago about his "take" on Judaism I was disappointed. Although he lives a secular life he was willing to cede Judaism to the Haredim. He actually said that praying next to a woman would be too distracting. This to a woman celebrating her fiftieth wedding anniversary! My only conclusion is that, in spite of the fact that he had recently celebrated the bat mitzvah of his daughter, the influence of the orthodox has sexualized him to the point where the presence of a woman would interfere with his prayers!
It is encouraging to see that voices like Dr. Calderon's are being heard (and praised) in the Knesset. It gives me hope that modern Israel will add to the wisdom of traditional Israel.

One can appreciate Ruth Calderone’s speech for her sensitive literary analysis coupled with the vivid way in which she re-enacts the story. Note, for example, how she dwells on the sound of the letter “hey” in “hashta atai, hashta atai” to make the reader feel Mrs. Rechumai’s agitation, and how she gives us background information to enhance the meaning and effect of the story. Also a source of delight is the way in which she communicates her love for the text itself: for example, she reads the original Aramaic first, “just for the music.”
But above all, I like the speech for the way in which she relates this little story to the great human and political dispute between the ultra-Orthodox and the majority of Jews and at the same time humanizes the disputants.
In this story Rava’s sympathy is clearly with Mrs. Rechumei. “The sages say, students may leave to study torah for two or three years without (their wives’) permission; (but) Rava said, the rabbinic students (who rely on this ruling) act at the risk of their lives.” In other words, God himself does not like this ruling and sometimes punishes those who follow it, as the story demonstrates. Likewise the editors of the Talmud. They give Rava the last word in this discussion, with the result that it is his story and his attitude which remain with us, rather than the halachic ruling which supports the husband’s long absence. Moreover, the tear Mrs. Rechumei sheds becomes especially poignant in light of a saying which the editors quote on the previous page (52A): “A sigh breaks half of a person’s body.”
Nevertheless, Calderone takes care to avoid vilifying either the sages for their ruling or Rav Rechumei for following it. Instead, she says that she learns from this passage that often in a dispute, both sides are right - both feel responsible for “the home” - Rav Rechumei and Mrs. Rechumei, the Haredim who feel that they have a duty to study and keep their traditions alive and the secularists who resent the Haredim for not doing their bit in the army and the economy – and so she says “ Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution.”
I have often seen the contempt and even hatred with which the orthodox and the non-orthodox regard each other. By contrast, Calderone takes a passage of traditional Jewish literature as a jumping off point for a sensitive and enlightened approach to both parties in the dispute.

SHALOM DR, RUTH CALDERON:
I'M SO HAPPY THAT MY HEBREW IS GOOD TO LISTEN TO YOUR GREAT WORDS THAT
YOU DELIVERED IN THE KNESET, AND I-READ THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION IT IS GOOD
BUT YOUR HEBREW IS DELIVERY IS BETTER, AND I-THANK "HSHEM" THAT HE GAVE ME
A TEACHER "SARAH RASHKIS" OF "NIR DAVID" IN -1946- I-CAME WITH A GROUP OF
ALIYAT HANOAR FROM CZEKOSLOVAKIA ON THE "CHAYAL HAIVRI" AND WAS LUCKY TO
HAVE HER AS MY TEACHER. I'M GREATFULL THAT I-DID NOT FORGET HEBREW.
I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO MEET YOU IN JERUSALEM VERY SOON, I'M ARRIVING TO
ISRAEL MARCH -6-AND I-HOPE TO MEET YOU TO TELL YOU MY STORY.
SINCERELY YOURS, EUGENE ARYEH LEBOVITZ, MIAMI FL,33160,

Truly beautiful and deeply moving! Dr. Calderon's speech makes me immensely hopeful and genuinely grateful! Thank you for translating this remarkable and important speech!

I feel a great z'chut that I lived to read this, and celebrate the election of a feminist, ruchani but not "dati" talmud scholar to the Knesset of the state of Israel. I really did not see this coming. What a magnificent tikkun for the Jewish people!

I had heard about this speech and was to receive it in it's original from a friends. Alas my Hebrew skills are not good enough for me to have understood it in it's entirety. I am very grateful for this translation and the opportunity it provides me to fully appreciate this remarkable speech made by a clearly very remarkable woman!

Wow. Impressive, moving and intuitive. If Yesh Atid fulfills this one objective, dayenu. Dr. Calderone's speech was ray of light, and filled me with hope that maybe, one day, a better Israel is possible. Thank you for this wonderful presentation.

I don't understand how Moshiach did not come at this very moment. Beautiful.

Thank you for the speech and for the translation. Following along in English while listening in Hebrew was terrific.

The translation is lovely, but for those who have Hebrew, I strongly urge taking the time to listen to the original at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktDfdxLcUtk because you will seldom hear such beautiful Hebrew used or such a powerful sentiment expressed. It is so easy to condemn Rav Rechumei (which indeed, the Talmud seems to do), and I am so heartened by Ruth Calderon's exhortation that we need to hear both sides and recognize that each side sees itself as acting responsibly and reasonably. Indeed, that is the message of the Talmud as a whole--we may disagree, but we won't get very far in advancing our understanding unless we assume that all parties see themselves as reasonable.
May it be God's will that Ruth Calderon's prayer is heard and repeated by all members of the Knesset.

Dr. Calderon's speech was powerful and refreshing. Elli Fischer's translation is superb and has enabled the important content and message of her speech to reach the wider Jewish world. Thank you.

Dear Elli, Thank you so much for this translation. I cannot find the words to express how I felt reading this. I really was chocked up. Thank you.

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