Ruth Calderon – Mother of Redemption? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

 Dr. Ruth Calderon’s Knesset speech has created more buzz around the Jewish world than any speech like it in the history of the State of Israel. Probably because nothing remotely like it has ever happened before. The unexpected, unprecedented, yet incredibly moving sight of a non-Dati woman passionately teaching Gemara in the Knesset has captured the attention of Jews everywhere. Most of the reaction has been extremely enthusiastic. I think it might turn out to be one of the most pivotal moments in the last 300 years of Jewish history.

 As a religious people, we still haven’t figured out how to engage modernity. Since the mid-18th century we have been trying to figure out how Judaism should respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by the Enlightenment and Jewish political equality. To this end, we have created political Zionism and Haskallah, Reform and Reform’s counterpoint Orthodoxy, Historical Judaism, Conservative Judaism and host of other movements and frameworks, each one  intended to help us live Jewishly either in concert with, or despite, modernity. None of these approaches has proved completely successful, which is why there are so many Jews who are not connected to their roots, but each has made contributions, some of enormous historical import.

 For the most part, the State of Israel has known only two of the models, Orthodoxy and secular Zionism. Both have contributed enormously to the strength and vitality of Israeli society and the rebirth of our people in its land. At the same time though, each is irremediably limited in its ability to forge a Jewish-Israeli identity that can carry the country forward. Even as we are eternally indebted to secular-Zionist ideology for creating and building the State of Israel, its weakening grip on successive generations of Israelis is well-documented and a cause of great concern. And while Orthodoxy can rightly claim credit for numerous important achievements, such as Israel’s living by the Jewish calendar in a meaningful way, and largely preserving Jewish tradition around life-cycle events, it has not – and by its internal rules frankly cannot – accommodate the thinking, the needs and the choices of most Israelis. As an Orthodox rabbi here in the States, I know only too well that the Orthodox community lacks the halachik tools and the theological leeway to satisfactorily address many people’s principled, ethical concerns around issues of universalism, intellectual honesty, and the religious inclusion of women and of gays. I obviously believe that Orthodoxy nonetheless has enormous contributions to make (through, for example, its joyful acceptance of the Divine will, and its willingness to be counter-cultural in its approach to standards of physical modesty), but like secular Zionism, it will not lead the Jewish people to redemption, at least not in the foreseeable future.

 With the emergence of people like Ruth Calderon however, and with the emergence of self-described “secular” institutions of classical Jewish learning such as Alma, and Elul, and Bina, we are seeing a development that just might step into the breach. A new way of thinking and learning and behaving as a Jew in the modern world  which can actually serve as a vital partner and ally of traditional Orthodoxy, living in dynamic intellectual and spiritual interchange with it, and with it weaving a net of Jewish life that will capture so many who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

 It takes great courage of course to enter this kind of partnership and alliance, but the first signs of a willingness to do so where on display as Ruth Calderon offered her “shiur” in the Knesset.

11 Responses to Ruth Calderon – Mother of Redemption? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

  1. Michael Stein says:

    I very much appreciate the thoughts in Rabbi Kanefsky’s posting, and I agree with almost all of his points. In particular, I think his view of all the various streams of the Jewish people each contributing something and each lacking something is absolutely correct.

  2. […] An honest Orthodox appreciation for the void Dr. Calderon, and those like her, are filling […]

  3. > I know only too well that the Orthodox community lacks the halachik tools and the theological leeway to satisfactorily address many people’s principled, ethical concerns around issues of universalism, intellectual honesty, and the religious inclusion of women and of gays.

    Is it that we lack the halachic tools or is it that Torah Judaism does have answers but they contradict secular values and no way has been found to adjust what the halacha says to make them fit into secular standards?

    What has also been missed is why Prof Calderon’s lecture rankles so many Orthodox folks. See, learning Torah is not like learning math or English literature. it is not an intellectual exercise or an attempt to amass knowledge in a specific area. It’s a religious duty and done to bring a person closer to d’veikus with God. Prof Calderon may have an impeccable knowledge of Talmud, she may truly appreciate the depth and complexity of the work but she learns it like a doctor learns medicine. Her lecture in Talmud would be akin to a new MP in Britain who happens to be an expect in Shakespeare giving a dissertation on the Bard during his first speech to Parliament.

    This is not some brave step forward that people think it is.

    • Yosef Kanefsky says:

      Thank you Garnel. Your error, in my opinion, is in assuming that there is no way of deeply appreciating and being personally impacted by Torah other than the way that you so clearly appreciate and are impacted by Torah.
      With blessings, Yosef

    • Menachem Lipkin says:

      Garnel, clearly you did not read or listen to Dr. Calderon’s speech. For had you, you could not make such an invalid analogy. She made it abundantly clear that her learning Talmud is NOT just “an intellectual exercise”.

      Here’s a small quote: “I did not know how to fill that void, but when I first encountered the Talmud and became completely enamored with it, its language, its humor, its profound thinking, its modes of discussion, and the practicality, humanity, and maturity that emerge from its lines, I sensed that I had found the love of my life, what I had been lacking.” I’d bet that the vast majority of “orthodox folks” couldn’t come close to that feeling toward Gemora.

      Many of us “orthodox folks” here in Israel understand what you folks out there have so much trouble grasping. The vast majority of Jews in Israel ARE “religious” in ways you simply can’t fathom. We know that being religious is not the binary state you all seem to think it is. It’s an ongoing continuum. In some ways Dr. Calderon is far more “religious” than many of the yappers in shuls across America. Knowing this is why so many of us here were so moved by her speech. It’s a validation of things we see and feel daily.

      Even the Shas MK, Vaknin, who was at the podium during her speech understood this. He was quoted as saying: “When she started telling the story I felt connected right away.” Vaknin also offered his amen to Calderon’s egalitarian blessing. “I don’t know why you are surprised,” he said. “Israel has a wide mosaic of people and opinions, and we must accept every person for who he is.””

      • Michael Stein says:

        Menachem’s comments are right on target. Vast numbers of people who are not part of the religious Jewish establishment are profoundly spiritual, and act in a manner that affirms the existence of the Divine.
        In his intro to Perek Chelek, Rambam describes three groups of people, and how they relate to Chazal (writ large, how they relate to religion altogether). The third group is, in Rambam’s opinion, absolutely tiny, so virtually everyone is in the first two groups. Those groups are: those who make religion look absolutely idiotic, and those who reject religion. Oddly, I find this encouraging, because times haven’t really changed…. That third group (“rare as the sun”) relates to religion with nuance and wisdom. Now relious readers of this text would either dramatically disgree with Rambam, defending the religious community, or include themselves in that elusive third category, perhaps asserting that it’s a larger group than it used to be. Unfortunately, I think few of us are really able to achieve membership in that third group, and Rambam’s arguments are still on target.
        What’s the connection to the topic at hand? The notion of God, or the Divine, is a sublimely mysterious notion, elusive, difficult to conceive of and understand. We humans have no choice but to conceive of God in primitive, anthropomorphic terminology. We become wed to our conceptions, and draw comfort in how widespread they are in the religious world. What a great conceit that is. Our notions of God are ultimately weak and foolish. Don’t we say that every morning in “l’olam yeheh adam”?
        Modernity has posed a great challenge to Judaism and organized religion of all sorts. While there is of course plenty to criticize in secular society, when talking about hundreds of millions of people who are secular, one must acknowledge that huge numbers of them are indeed profoundly spiritual, moral and ethical. They are relating to the Divine every bit as much, if not moreso, that the observant camp. They are the Ruth Calderons of the world.
        What they do may or may not be Judaism as we know it, may or may not be Judaism as our grandchildren know it. But they are no less favored by God than us, those who are more formally and traditionally observant. If modernity has taught us anything, it must teach us that degree of humility and tolerance (tolerance in the real sense, not the condescending one). I believe these thoughts underly Rabbi Kanefsky’s post, and are very important. The challenge, of course, is inspiring our children to love and maintain the tradition, knowing that we cannot denigrate the non-observant en masse.

  4. Zvi Zohar says:

    As Ruth Calderon noted in the final sentences of her speech, her emergence was made possible by rabbi David Hartman who created and inspired a beit midrash where Gemara (and other texts) were studied passionately and seriously by datiyyim and hiloniyyim and masoratiyyim of all shades of the religious and theological spectrum — including women in full intellectual equality with men. Rabbi Hartman was an Orthodox rabbi who in his lifetime was much maligned by persons who felt he was not ‘really’ kosher. But it was his vision and his disregard of ‘Ma Yomru’ that enabled the flourishing of Ruth Calderon — and many like her — within the Beit Midrash of the Hartman Institute, within the many frameworks that it gave rise to (e.g., Elul and Alma were both founded by alumni of the machon) and thence within Israeli Judaism, and also abroad. It is roght that Orthodox people who — like yourself — realize that there is immense Jewish significance to the connection of non-Orthodox Jews to Judaism(s) of non-Orhodox types, to recognize the link of much that is happening within Israeli Judaism today to the path blazed by David Hartman and the Machon that he founded.

  5. Rabbi Kanefsky,
    As always, great to read your posts. I was also inspired by Dr. Calderon’s speech. But I also noticed that earlier in the week, she had lamented that Arab MKs walk out of the Knesset before Hatikvah, and she asked what could be done to “fix the words” to create a more inclusive Hatikvah.
    http://www.timesofisrael.com/yesh-atid-mk-and-shas-head-trade-barbs-over-anthem/
    I’m wondering whether you think there’s any (unintentional?) hypocrisy at play here, and whether the Knesset pulpit was the most appropriate place to discuss Jewish learning? (Unless you believe she was inviting all ISRAELIS, not just Jews, to learn Jewish texts).

    • David Jonas Bardin says:

      David Avraham,
      I asked Elul whether they have Arab students. They answered that Elul is open to Arabs (and others, Christian or Muslim) — as well as Jews. So the invitation may well be to all. Faithfully, David Bardin

  6. […] An honest Orthodox appreciation for the void Dr. Calderon, and those like her, are filling […]

  7. Menachem, I appreciate your position but here’s my counter-point. Take a moment to go through the speech (contrary to your assertion I did read it) and do some simple word switches. Change “Israeli” and “Zionist” to “British”. Change “Jewish” to “English”. Change “Talmud” to “Shakespeare” and “Kaballah” to “Bacon” (the author, not the food). Change the university names to prominent ones in the UK and her degrees to English literature, etc.
    You will find a speech that flows just as nicely and that has absolutely nothing to do with God and Torah. Yes Prof Calderon loves Talmud and has allowed it to influence her life but there are English scholars who will say the same about their great literature.
    The learning of Torah is meant to bring a person closer to God. Heaven knows most religious Jews don’t realize that or accomplish it in their learning. Please don’t tell me someone who learns Talmud but lives a secular lifestyle is doing it right.
    As for the average Israeli being “religious” what proportion of secular Israelis know the krias Shema off by heart nowadays? And without that, how religious are they?

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