‘The Time Has Come To Re-appropriate What Is Ours’
Wed, 05/29/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Calderon telling the Talmudic story of Rabbi Rechumei in the halls of parliament. Michal Fattal/Haaretz
Calderon telling the Talmudic story of Rabbi Rechumei in the halls of parliament. Michal Fattal/Haaretz

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

Mr. Chairman, honorable Knesset, the book I am holding [a copy of the Talmud] 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 1960s 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, Kabbalah or chasidism. 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 a 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, 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 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.

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 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 was 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. (Congratulations.)

[Noise from the gallery.]

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 things 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 [Naftali] 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 from the Hebrew by Elli Fischer. Based on the transcript available on the Knesset website.