Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ruth Calderon's Clarion Call


In what must have been the most important speech delivered from the podium of the Knesset in years (politicians don't really talk to each other any more; they talk at each other, and rarely, if ever convince each other using something as arcane as "argument" or "logic"), Dr. Rut Calderon, in her initial speech to the Knesset as a newly elected member of Yesh Atid, essentially turned Israel's legislative body into a short Gemara shiur.
It's a powerful, insightful, and important speech. If you haven't yet watched it, you should, and if you don't understand the Hebrew, you can read a translation here although watching it is much better, because you get a sense of her masterful teaching skills. (When she opens the book, she simply stops reading her speech, and begins to teach, instinctively and masterfully. You also immediately recognize that she knows her stuff; she knows not only how to read Gemara, but is intimately familiar with Gemara terminology and idiom. This isn't a one-off of some vort she heard. She's teaching from the inside.
And her choice of which section to teach was clearly picked to send a clear message to the Chareidi world: You can't just learn Torah in a vacuum. A true student of Torah cannot simply sit on the rooftop basking in the glory of his study. Rather, he must also account for how his learning affects others around him. She said this almost explicitly:
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 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.
Of course, the Chareidi condemnation came swiftly (short English summary here). How could they not see a Gemara-learning-secular-woman as a threat to their way of life, especially when her party's clear goal is to force the Chareidi community, by and large, to leave the Beit Midrash and "share the burden".
Yet, if that's all we take away from Calderon's speech; if all we see here is a political talk, then we're missing her primary audience.

Calderon began her talk by noting her secular upbringing, (it really was a masterful speech, crafted with great care and skill. And I'm pretty critical of such things) devoid of any spiritual or true religious content. Yet, she spoke of herself as an example of her entire generation.
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 a 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.
It's not that the Chareidim took the Gemara, or Jewish tradition, away from secular Israelis. We, she said, didn't want it. We had other things to do. But in building a powerful, advanced, strong state, we forgot about our souls,and built a secular state devoid of meaning, empty of spiritual and cultural richness.
The people of Israel vaulted Yesh Atid to prominence on the power of the slogan "Shivyon B'netel" - or "Sharing the burden equally." Yet, Calderon wasn't simply calling to the Chareidim to serve in the army and pay taxes. She does, of course, call for that. But she wants the sharing of the burden to go the other way as well.
She wants secular Israel to recognize that the Torah isn't just the possession of the Chareidi world. They too must "share the burden." They too must delve into the richness and depth of Jewish tradition, to make it part of their cultural identity.
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.
Calderon concluded her remarks by mentioning the passing of her teacher, the late Rabbi David Hartman, who she said, "opened up the doors of his beit midrash for me." With all the numerous eulogies commemorating the contribution Hartman made to the Jewish world, the Orthodox world has been curiously silent about his death. Personally, I've never studied any of his books, and am only vaguely aware of the institute that he founded decades ago. His life, and his passing, seemed unrelated to my life - or that of the Orthodox world - in any tangible way. That is, until I heard Calderon's talk.
Perhaps her talking about forcing the Chareidi world to "share the burden" scares them. But perhaps the other side of her talk scared them even more.
To my mind, we can only hope that Calderon has the vision, power and influence to turn her dream into a reality. While I might not agree with all of her conclusions about each text, that matters to me much less than the fact that she has the potential to bring Torah to the masses in an unprecedented way. (As of this writing, her talk/she has been viewed over 120 thousand (!!) times. When is the last time any Torah shiur of any kind had been watched that many times?)
I hope she succeeds.