Listening to Ruth Calderon speak at my synagogue last week, I felt sad, once again, about something that has been lacking for a long time in the Jewish community in Israel and the United States: an easy familiarity with the texts of our tradition. The good news is that Calderon, a Knesset member, has made it a mission of her life to reacquaint Jews with those texts. Given her charm and erudition, she seems to be well on her way.
Calderon startled the members of Israel’s Knesset last February when she taught a Talmudic text during her inaugural address there. She had recently been elected to the Knesset, along with 18 other members of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. After her talk went viral, she became something of an international sensation, with more than 200,000 viewers seeing her on YouTube.
Many Israelis assume that knowledge of classic Jewish texts fell by the wayside in the early days of the state, when its secular, socialist Zionist founders shed traditional religious beliefs and practices. In their determination to break with the diaspora past, they aimed to create a “new Jew,” far removed from the “yeshiva bocher” who spent his life poring over biblical and Talmudic passages. To a large extent they succeeded, rebuilding the land and creating a vibrant modern society. But often forgotten is how frequently Jewish texts, especially biblical concepts, cropped up in the words and thoughts of these founders.
When World War II ended, Israel’s soon to be first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, with his mind on the six million slaughtered, entered a verse in his diary from the prophet Hosea, “Rejoice not, O Israel, as other peoples exult.” When Menachem Begin fought passionately against Israel’s accepting reparations from Germany in the 1950s, he alluded to the Talmudic teaching of dying for “Kiddush Hashem,” the “sanctification of God’s name,” rather than committing a heinous crime. When Golda Meir wanted to describe something difficult, she invariably referred to it as “harder than crossing the Red Sea,” and when, in 1969, she publicly read a letter from suffering Soviet Jews, she pictured it as coming, in the words of the psalmist, “Mi’maamakim,” from “out of the depths.” Even Moshe Dayan, younger than the others, cried out in panic at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, that “the Third Temple” —Israel — was about to fall.
These leaders were steeped in Jewish learning and writings, the first generation having absorbed those teachings in Eastern Europe or from diaspora-born parents, later ones, like Dayan, from living on the land and connecting it to the texts. But with time, and although Israelis still study the Bible in school, those tight biblical associations have disappeared, while the Talmud has become a foreign body altogether for many young Israelis. With the secular-religious divide in the country, Jewish learning was left to the Orthodox. “It was either Tanach [biblical studies] or Palmach [the elite army corps],” Calderon recalled. “We didn’t want the Old World to take over.”
But that attitude didn’t satisfy her. When she was about 11 or 12, she began to feel a profound “hunger” for more, for a deeper understanding of her tradition, she explained during her talk last week. During her army service and later, she studied Talmud, and “fell in love with it.” She earned a doctorate in Talmud from the Hebrew University, one of the few secular students to do so. She later founded two centers for the study of Jewish texts and Jewish culture, where the secular and the Orthodox learn together. She entered politics partly as a means of gaining government support for those and other pluralistic educational institutions. Once inside, she became intrigued with additional projects that might grow from Jewish teachings.
One of those projects ties into the shmitta year coming up on the Jewish calendar in 2014. According to Jewish law, in that year, along with land lying fallow, debts are forgiven. Calderon hopes to develop a yearlong Jewish education program built around those concepts and, as part of it, help homeless people get out of debt and the dead end their lives have become. To support her ideas she told a Talmudic story of a rabbi who gave charity at the very high level, according to Maimonides, of neither knowing to whom he gave nor being known by his recipients. He learns, however, that his wife has reached an even higher level, by personally engaging in the care of the poor.
Calderon wants Jews to be engaged in Jewish study and the deeds that grow from it. “I’m not only an Israeli,” she says. “I’m Jewish. Everything I see, I see as a Jew, just as everything I see I see as a woman.”
How fortunate we are to have a Jewish woman with such vision among this generation of Israel’s leaders.
Francine Klagsbrun’s “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day” is now an E-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.