March 14, 2013
Ruth Calderon's Theological-Political Treatise
— Jeffrey Bernstein
That some Israelis might wish to view the State of Israel as congruent with the traditional texts of Judaism is fully understandable. That some might wish to bring Israeli politics more 'in line' with these texts is still comprehensible. That these issues should have been addressed on the floor of the Knesset by a newly elected, secular, female Member of the Knesset (MK) who wants to make Talmud study accessible to everyone has set the social media news networks ablaze.
Ruth Calderon, a member of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party (a centrist party emphasizing domestic issues over international issues) recently made a Knesset speech that was, in many different ways, nontraditional. She did not outline policy issues. She spoke autobiographically about growing up in a secular Zionist family around the time of the War of Independence. She recounted the lack of classical Jewish text-study (i.e., Mishnah, Talmud, etc.) in her household, preoccupied as it was with building the fledgling State. Finally, she led the Knesset (to the great enthusiasm, and in one case even participation, of some ultra-orthodox members) in Talmud study. She undertook this out of her conviction "that studying the great works of Hebrew and Jewish culture are crucial to construct a new Hebrew culture for Israel."
Her Talmud study focused on the story of Rabbi Rechumel from the Tractate Ketubot of the Talmud: Rabbi Rechumel constantly studies Torah on the roof of the yeshiva while his wife stays at home waiting for him to return -- usually, at least, for Yom Kippur. One year, he fails to come home, his wife begins to cry, and as the tears fall, so does the roof upon which he studies. He falls, you will have guessed, to his death. Calderon's interpretation runs as follows: "First, I learn that one who forgets that he is sitting on another's shoulders—will fall . . . 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 . . . 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."
Predictably, secular communities to which Calderon's educational mission has been dedicated for many years (she founded Elul—a secular Jewish house of learning—in Jerusalem, and Alma: Home For Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv) were very excited; the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) communities not so much. Her plans to open Talmud study to women and secular Israelis, raise the issue as to whether an official national Rabbinate—and its overarching authority concerning weddings, conversions, etc.—is still necessary for Israel, and make military service mandatory for the ultra-Orthodox (and eventually, perhaps, Israeli Arabs) finds similar support and outrage from the aforementioned communities.
Calderon's speech, in articulating the proper role and messages which traditional texts ought to speak to Israeli culture, has articulated something like a modern version of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise, a seventeenth-century text understood to be a founding ur-document of Zionism. She views religion as a crucial part of a culture that speaks to, but does not wield foundational authority on, politics. For some, this is exactly what needs to happen in a country with an increasing presence of ultra-Orthodox exclusivity and intolerance. For others, it seems suspiciously close to what Leora Batnitzky draws attention to as the 'protestantizing' of Judaism—i.e., if Judaism is relegated to the private and cultural spheres, if it emphasizes the lore-aspect (aggadah) of Talmud rather than the legal aspect (halakhah), how is this different from what A. B. Yehoshua holds when he derisively claims that diaspora Jews (particularly those in America) are 'partial Jews' insofar as their religious identity is alienated from their political identity. If Judaism is not a religion in the protestant sense, aren't we then compelled to recall pre-modern forms of Judaism and their concomitant foundation upon law? In this case, wouldn't we be on a slippery slope towards a theocracy?
Paradoxically, this is the concern of some American Jews, for whom any invocation of religion in a political context is too close for comfort. True, so the argument goes, Calderon more or less effected a 'cumbaya moment', but such gestures are ultimately superficial and fail to address the substantive issues which divide secular Israelis from their ultra-Orthodox neighbors—to say nothing of their Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza. It seems, then, that Calderon is between a rock and a hard place. Embodying such a place is coeval with a life in politics. It is also, however, one of the most interesting positions to be in if one wishes to raise fundamental questions about Judaism.
When viewed in tandem with other recent occurrences in Israel—i.e., the creation of Shalem College (Israel's first liberal arts undergraduate institution), and the publication of texts such as The Ten Commandments (by David Hazony), The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (by Yoram Hazony), and Jews and Words (by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger), one gets the distinct impression that there is a flourishing of humanities-style education occurring in Israel at present. Perhaps this is one effect (or maybe a cause) of the re-focus on domestic issues. Time will show whether Calderon's entrance into the politics of Yesh Atid helps this emphasis to engage other political issues as well as educational ones.
But the main issue Calderon's speech raises can be stated in Talmudic fashion. If the Rabbis of the Talmud had such difficulties determining the ownership of moveable possessions (as exemplified in Bava Metzia), how much more difficult is it to determine the 'ownership' of Talmud study. It is an issue coeval with the questions 'Who is a Jew?' and 'What is Judaism?'
Batnitzky, Leora, How Judaism Became A Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
Braiterman, Zachary, "Religion And State In Ruth Calderon's Knesset Speech," 02/15/2013, The Daily Beast.
Calderon, Ruth, "We Enter The Talmud Barefoot," 2001, Contemplate, 1, 2001.
Calderon, Ruth, "The Heritage Of All Israel," 02/14/2013.
Cheslow, Daniella, "In New Knesset, a True Maverick: Why Ruth Calderon, a Talmud Scholar and rookie politician, has a shot at breaking the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism,'" February 25, 2013, Tablet.
Harkov, Lahav, "Meet the MK: Ruth Calderon," The Jerusalem Post, February 22, 2013.
Kra-Oz, Tal, "A. B. Yehoshua Calls American Jews 'Partial Jews'", February 19, 2013, Tablet,
Jeffrey Bernstein is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. He works in the areas of Spinoza, German philosophy and Jewish thought. He is currently at work on a book entitled Leo Strauss on the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History.