April 18, 2024
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The Accidental Politician: Ruth Calderon Speaks to Rinat

Teaneck–The room was packed at Rinat, as more than 300 people came to hear a member of the Knesset that Rabbi Yossi Adler introduced as unique. Prof. Ruth Calderon is the secular woman who shocked the Haredim with divrei torah in her maiden speech in the Knesset. Her talk at Rinat showed that Rabbi Adler knew what he was talking about.

A natural orator and teacher, Calderon’s compelling story described her journey as a Jew, more than as an Israeli, from childhood, where, as the child of immigrants from Bulgaria and Germany, she felt she lived a schizophrenic existence in the IDF-veteran-friendly Tel Aviv housing project where she grew up. She was a Zionist Israeli on the outside, with no Jewish culture per se–and inside, at home, she lived a secular life of Jewish culture at home, where there was a strong awareness and pride in being Jewish, while not necessarily being observant. Her family was very much like those of the “frei” European Jews caught in the secular net of Yiddishkeit between the wars.

She described her search for knowledge of Torah that went beyond Tanach, and how could not find volumes of Talmud in the public libraries or in the schools she attended. As a non-frum woman, she had no access to the beit medrash, and envied Yentl as played by Barbara Striesand, and described her frustrations in her search for knowledge–as well as amazing encounters with haredi men who were astonished at her need to study Talmud and fascinated that she did Daf Yomi.

Calderon also expressed her frustration with an Israeli system that ignores Jewish culture, Jewish knowledge outside of Israel. She described the Israeli obsession knowing the names of every bird and flower because they felt uncomfortable in their homeland and wanted to feel like the land belongs to them. By contrast she asked if any American is obsessed about such things… that they are not because they take those things for granted, almost…was her point. And yet, she felt that the Israelis were missing their Jewishness. That they were missing the core of something important. She wanted to bring that knowledge to all Israelis…and eventually, and reluctantly, that led to politics.

She took a Talmud course at Hebrew University and began to study with male haredi students. She soon realized that what fascinated her most about the Talmud were the stories. Stories, she noted, that the men ignored, yet whose content spoke to the humanity in all of us. She described the stories as the part of the Talmud that is the great equalizer because it speaks to the human condition, and found it interesting that the men were wresting Halacha out of the Talmud, while ignoring those same stories that were at the heart of the exercise, literally skipping over them.

Her choice of example was one that went to the heart of relationships between husband, wife, the yetzer harah, and the role of a woman. It was a story where a complete lack of basic human communication led to tragedy. These kinds of stories in the Talmud, she believes, lead to new insights and ways of dealing with each other.

She also is convinced that there needs to be a pipeline, a bridge, to feed this knowledge to Israeli society. Knowing she was speaking to a frum group, she said that frum people grasping and holding to the tradition and mesorah the way they do, they manage to keep the rest of the Jewish people going. But she is uncomfortable with dogma, with manipulation, with the notion that those who are not observant are ignorant. She was not happy that the Orthodox people she had to study with would try to manipulate her to be who they wanted her to be, and not to let her be who she is, a non-halachic Jew who loves God, takes God seriously, and believes in the Torah for the sake of the Torah. She also said that unlike those who accept the unfair and unjust things that are in the Talmud, she does not. She simply rejects them because they are not things she wants in her life.

Her struggle to bring Talmud and Jewish culture to the Israelis set her on a path that eventually landed her in the Knesset. She wasn’t going to run, but Yesh Atid convinced her to do so. She discovered that the best way to get things done was to get on the inside, because if you try to get through from the outside you will never be heard, and keeps on doing what she does best. Teaching the rest of us just how amazing and multi-faceted our Judaism is.

To listen to the entire presentation of MK Ruth Calderon at Rinat, watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpTlPUsUKhQ

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