Why the Secular Talmud-Talking Feminist is Turning Heads
in the Knesset and Beyond
When Ruth Calderon gave her inaugural speech as a new Yesh Atid [There Is a Future] party member in the Knesset, Talmud volume in hand, on February 17 of this year, few people, including Calderon herself, anticipated the sensation it would create. The speech, highly personal with a plea for equality, pluralism and inclusion in Israeli society and grounded in religious text, drew more than 200,000 hits on YouTube and catapulted Calderon, a “non-religious” Talmud scholar and founder of several non-traditional schools for studying Jewish texts, to celebrity status. Many members of Israel’s religious parties didn’t know what to make of her, and secular listeners were intrigued by her message: “The Torah,” she said, “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…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.”
Moment Opinion Editor Amy E. Schwartz sits down with Calderon to discuss her decision to run for office, how she works with haredi colleagues, and what she sees for Israel’s future as a Middle Eastern state.
How did you go from founding secular Jewish schools to running for a seat in the Knesset?
Less than a year ago, there was a meeting with other liberal Jews and people from different denominations and organizations, and we looked at how effective politicians can be. The feeling was that the world of Jewish renewal, the secular Jewish world, has no voice and is suffering a terrible lack of budget and resources. Because of that, we are not as effective in the way that we should be. We understood that unless someone went in—instead of barking at the door—those inside will never listen to us.
How has your background as a teacher of Jewish texts come in handy in your new job?
All of my talents and knowledge are useful and necessary in this position. Teaching is what I do, and yes, I use it a lot. We have a Beit Midrash in the Knesset on Tuesday and it’s wonderful. It’s an hour of being together in a different kind of atmosphere—not only negotiating, but listening to each other. There are serious politicians in the Talmud who have taught me how people think when they are making decisions for the whole. They discuss punishment, how to deal with community, social affairs, opening shops near other shops, or market questions, educational questions. So even though it is in a different time and different situations, their thinking is often relevant and useful.
Can you talk about the Talmud with your haredi colleagues in the Knesset?
Not all of them—some of them are scholars, some of them are not. With members of Shas, it’s very easy and natural. With the Ashkenazi haredi, however, I feel a negative resistance. They are much less open to talking about Torah. I think some can’t accept the very fact that I study it.
What do you think is going to happen with Women of the Wall?
It’s a terrible situation. It’s crazy out there. There is a proposal to just move the fence and make the two sides equal, which is such a common-sense solution. In the end, there must be a place for everyone. We’re trying to work on it with the Orthodox partners. Yes, there will be a solution. It’s a symbol of the whole lack of freedom of religion in the Jewish State.
Do you think it’s also a symbol of the difficulty in integrating Diaspora Jews into the Israeli social fabric? Some say it’s only American women who are involved.
It’s also Israeli women. Underneath what you ask lies the difference between Catholic and Protestant. Israel is a Catholic Jewish State, and American Jewry is Protestant. So the logic of American Jewry, of different denominations and different truths lying next to each other, has yet to be accepted by Israel, which is much more Catholic. If I’m an Israeli, even if I don’t believe in Judaism, the authentic is Orthodox. American Jews only see the world through denominational eyes, and they don’t realize that here we’re not in denominations. Yes, in Israel there are Reform and Conservative Jews, and they are very important partners, but the majority of the Jewish renewal is secular. In America, if you don’t belong to a community, you can’t practice your Jewishness, but in Israel, the state is your community.
Are women advancing their role in Orthodoxy?
They are not just advancing their role, they are also leading a revolution, and I think it’s affecting the whole culture. In the haredi world, you can’t see these changes yet, but a lot is going on under the surface. I know many young haredi women who are in leadership positions but don’t have a voice yet. Feminism is the biggest revolution of our time.
How much of the haredi way of life is built on the traditional role of women?
Every traditional community is built on the family framework, and the family framework is built on the mother who is holding it all together. Now in the haredi world, many of the women are the income producers—I hope some of that will change, because more haredi men will work. When that changes, like in Modern Orthodoxy, things will change but not collapse. It might be a good thing. There’s a lot of beauty to haredi life.
Such as what?
There are some terrible things—chauvinism, racism and the role of women. But there’s a lot of beauty in the position of Torah in life. In the place of community, in the concept Bitul Torah, to not neglect the study of Torah. I accept that in many ways—I always sit with a book when I’m in the Assembly. The beauty of Judaism exists in the Orthodox world too.
Are your haredi colleagues open to your message?
Some of them are. The ones who are very negative about me and people like me are usually not the learned ones. They’re the professional politicians. It frightens them much more. People who study cannot resist a good read. So even the most Orthodox person, if he loves studying, and you talk to him about studying, doesn’t care who you are if you can give a good argument.
What do you make of the peace process?
The peace process must come from our understanding that we are an Eastern religion rather than a Western religion, and that we have much more in common with the Arab world than we usually think. We should have many more interfaith meetings, studying our classic texts together because we have heroes, narratives, stories that unite us. My belief is that real peace will come from understanding ourselves, not becoming like Americans. We must learn Arabic and we must accept that we are in the Middle East. I also feel, Jewishly, that occupation is a sin. We must find a way to be safe without occupying another people. That’s a huge challenge, and we don’t have all the answers.
How do you fight the tendency to become more and more Western?
For me, it’s just study. When you study Hebrew and the texts you can see that both in our language, habits and psychology, deep down we’re more Iraqi and Persian than we are American. I deeply appreciate that. Israel was founded in part by people who wanted to keep Europe in the Middle East. It’s time to realize that this is where we should be.
Are you working on any big projects in the Knesset?
Next year is the shmita year [the seventh year in the biblical cycle, when the land was to be left fallow and debts forgiven]. I’m trying to do a yearlong educational project that will lead to a shmita that will free poor families from some of their debt. We would choose families and try to find structural help and ask the banks to cut their interest and to make it possible for them to pay. This would make shmita relevant again today and would affiliate Judaism with social justice. This is one of the outcomes of the movement for Jewish renewal.