A secular Talmud scholar makes an impassioned plea for sharing the burdens and responsibilities of Israeli society.
Editor’s note: In her inaugural Knesset speech last week, Ruth Calderon, a secular Talmud scholar and teacher and member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, created a national stir with a contemporary lesson she drew from the Talmud. This excerpt was translated, from the Hebrew, for The Jewish Week by Elli Fischer.
Mr. Chairman, honorable Knesset, the book I am holding changed my life [the Talmud], 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.
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 not acquainted with the Mishna, the Talmud, Kabbalah or chasidism. By the time I was a teenager, I already sensed that something was missing.
I missed depth; I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories — were missing. 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.
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 as 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 re-appropriate 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.
Rabbi Rechumei was constantly [studying] before Rava [the head of a great yeshiva] in [the town of] Mechoza. He would habitually come home [from his studies] every Yom Kippur eve. One day a topic in the beit midrash so fascinated him that he forgot [about going home]. He could not abandon his studies and he did not go home.
His wife anticipated him: “Here he comes. Here he comes.” At some point, she realizes that he is not coming this year. 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 allows one tear to leak out of her eye onto her cheek, after years of not crying. He was sitting on the yeshiva roof in study. 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.)
Now we must imagine a split screen: on one side is a close-up of 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. 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 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 [I am not seeing things fully]. 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 disputant and I 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.
Ruth Calderon, a new member of Knesset, is founder of Alma – Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv, and Elul, Israel’s first joint beit midrash for men, women, religious, and secular.
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