Jerusalem — In the hour she spent with 150 young Jewish entrepreneurs and social activists from around the world last Wednesday morning at the annual ROI (Return on Investment) Summit here, new Knesset member Ruth Calderon chose to teach a Talmudic text, coax thoughtful comments about it from her audience, apply the discussion to modern-day situations, and then welcome questions about current affairs.
It was a vintage performance by the academic-turned-politician, encapsulating who she is, what her priorities are, and, as she left the stage to enthusiastic applause, why she has become one of the most respected and admired figures in Israel today.
Calderon, who was a founder of Elul, the first secular yeshiva in Israel, in 1989, and recently caused an international sensation when she taught a Talmudic text in her inaugural Knesset speech, says her work and goals have not changed in the switch she’s made from teacher to national leader.
“I see myself as doing the same work I’ve been doing all my life,” she told me during a breakfast interview prior to her address at ROI, sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
“I’m working for the same boss,” she added with a smile, pointing heavenward.
That task is to foster Jewish education and identity among Israelis, with an emphasis on the secular element of society. “It’s about making public space in Israel more Jewish, and working with the non-halachic community to deepen their Jewish knowledge.”
She noted that the Knesset is not “the target” of her career, but rather “the vehicle” for her work, consistent with the goals of the educational institutions she helped found, including Alma, the Tel Aviv-based “home for Hebrew culture.” That institution offers courses, programs and events for adults, while Elul encourages pluralistic encounters with modern and classical Jewish texts.
“My aim in bringing Jewish literacy to my non-halachic community is not an effort to make them more Jewish but to free Judaism and reclaim it as our heritage and cultural language,” she says.
“The good and the bad of our past should be known to us, so we can make better choices in the present for the future.”
Calderon, 51, is a bit of an anomaly, a self-described “non-halachic” woman with a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University, a serious intellectual with an easy, outgoing manner, and a high-profile political leader of late who worries about “the culture of celebrity.”
That celebrity came for her when she was among the 19 members of Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party who were swept into the Knesset in the January national elections, and even more so in mid-February when, admittedly nervous, she took to the Knesset podium for the first time to deliver what might well be the most-viewed Talmud lesson ever.
The 14-minute talk, which included personal anecdotes and a close reading of a Talmudic passage (she handed out sheets with source material in advance), underscored her belief that Jewish texts are for everyone, not just Torah scholars; that in a dispute both sides can be right; and that with mutual respect Knesset members can help build a just society.
The video of her talk went viral, with hundreds of thousands of viewers, and Calderon’s gentle but firm call for respect, equality and inclusiveness seemed to resonate with great numbers of Jews in Israel and around the world.
In our interview she emphasized that she is optimistic about the new Knesset and has been greatly impressed by the sense of cooperation and empathy among its members, including those with whom she has sharply differing political views.
“They are partners, and there is hope,” she said.
The previous night, she noted, she was up until 4:30 a.m. because of a Knesset filibuster by ultra-Orthodox party members who chose to spend their time at the podium citing Talmudic passages.
Though tired, she said she had enjoyed the Torah learning. But much as she loves the Jewish component of Israel, she is quite clear in asserting she is not willing “to pay the price of having a non-democratic state.”
She cites with pride that as a result of a new Jewish Renewal committee she is part of in the Knesset, the Ministry of Education for the first time will be giving substantial funds to non-Orthodox educational institutions teaching Torah, like the ones she helped found. She says her “dream” is to do away with government subsidies to religious institutions and replace them with an individual voucher system for Jewish cultural services. In that way each citizen can choose to use those funds as he or she chooses, whether it be to support a synagogue or course in Hebrew culture.
While she favors Rabbi David Stav, the moderate candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi in the current election, she sees the rabbinic system as “paternalistic,” since it only recognizes Orthodox rabbis to officiate at weddings or sanction divorces, and she would prefer it be abolished. “I want to live my own Jewish life,” she says, adding that she is working on a bill to legalize civil marriage.
For her session with the ROI participants, heralded as the vanguard of the Jewish future, Calderon explained that she believes the best way to connect Jews is through the study of “our family text,” which she described as a “common ground” for those who “are interested and like to think.”
She chose a Talmudic passage about Rav Zeira, a modest, homely scholar known for treating his wicked neighbors with kindness.
According to the text, which she had printed up and distributed in Aramaic, Hebrew and English, the rabbi’s colleagues looked askance at his behavior, but after he died the wicked neighbors declared, “Rav Zeira prayed for us, but who will pray for us now?”
As the story goes, they were so moved by these thoughts that they repented from their evil ways.
How is this tale relevant today? During the discussion with the young people a theme emerged, one that portrayed Rav Zeira as the bridge between the tough neighbors and the isolated rabbis — two sides that ignored each other. (One could think of Palestinians and Israelis, or secular and haredi Israelis, for starters.)
Who will be the next Rav Zeira? Who will risk criticism to take a bold step toward reconciliation?
Calderon told the audience she views classic Jewish texts as “ammunition and inspiration.” Her charge to the young people in the room, whom she described as “good looking, cool and popular” — was to emulate Rav Zeira. “Each of you needs a little of Rav Zeira’s nerd quality,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to do something new and to be unpopular.”
She noted that while “compromise” is a positive concept in the U.S., it’s a negative in Israel, where defeating one’s opponent is much preferred. “My way is not to fight” to win “but to fight for compromise,” she said.
Her approach certainly is resonating with many Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. Whether it makes a difference in the Knesset remains to be seen, but Calderon says that wherever she is, her efforts to blend Judaism and democratic equality will continue. And she is not overly impressed by perks that come with her new status, like the official car given Knesset members.
“I still have my scooter,” she says.