Dr. Ruth Calderon is starting a revolution in Israel.
The new Knesset member on Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is a Talmudic scholar who built two secular batei midrash (houses of learning), Elul and Alma, both of which are among the most significant educational institutions at the center of the Jewish secular renewal in Israel. And this week, in her introductory speech at the Knesset, she did something astonishing: She taught a passage of Talmud.
This was remarkable for several reasons. First, Israeli society has been trained to associate traditional Jewish sources with the ultra-Orthodox community, whose entire belief that only elite orthodox men can truly understand Talmud is at the heart of some of the most heated debates about social and economic issues in Israel. Suddenly, we had a secular feminist breaking all of the molds and expectations by owning the text. Moreover, she taught the text — a passage from Ketubat 62b about Rabbi Rechumei, who forgot to come home to his wife on Yom Kippur. And she taught it with the tenderness and care of someone who deeply loves the text.
The ultra-Orthodox community is already terrified at this reality. “She is challenging our entire way of life,” the Kikar Shabbat website wrote this morning, as if to say that a secular woman to be embracing Talmud this way goes against many of their sacred assumptions.
What’s more, Dr. Calderon brilliantly wove the text into a message about these very secular-religious rifts in society. Using the finesse of a movie director, she likened Rabbi Rechumei and his wife to secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, each one living a different life and not understanding the other. It was an interpretation that used the Talmud as a source of wisdom and insight for contemporary issues. The very presence of an incredibly brilliant female Talmudic scholar teaching a (still) predominantly-male group, with her grace, virtuosity and erudition, was an arresting sight.
But it’s not just what she taught but also how she taught. Her reading of the text was enlightened, inspired and real. She brought the story to life, connecting it to the human condition, making it relatable and present. Her reading of the words was literal, which clearly troubled the Shas Speaker of the Knesset, who rudely interrupted her and offered a much more midrashic, “traditional” and, in my opinion, stretched, reading. In one of the greatest moments of the talk, while Knesset members loudly chastised the Speaker for interrupting, Dr. Calderon gracefully turned to him and said, “That’s okay. I’m always happy to share words of Torah.” That kind of gentility is not something that is often seen in the Knesset. It was at that moment when I realized the enormity of the change she is ushering in. This is not just about teaching Talmud but about challenging the entire social discourse in Israel. Dr. Calderon is a great rebbe, now Knesset member. The possibilities are captivating.