Not The Place

02.15.13

Religion And State In Ruth Calderon's Knesset Speech

I’ll admit to being churlish about Ruth Calderon’s inaugural Knesset speech cum Talmud lesson. Calderon is a new member of Knesset with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party. The speech reflects so much of what looks wrong with contemporary Israel—the intense look inward in reaction to the harsh conditions of the world outside. Like her party leader, MK Calderon, in her speech, wants Judaism and Jewishness, wants to be herself all things to everyone. But to make matters worse, she drags the religion of Talmud onto the podium of the Knesset to highlight her political, now legislative devotion to promoting the unity of Jewish national Israeli culture.

I have great respect and admiration for Calderon, for her learning and for her work setting up so-called secular yeshivas. And I too support the position that the Jewish textual tradition belongs to everyone who wants it, as much to a secular woman as to an Orthodox yeshiva bocher. I just don’t think the podium of the Knesset is the right place to make this point by leading a Talmud shiur (lesson), no matter how progressive. I can assent to the cultural-political content of the address, but that has nothing to do with the mis-thought mix of religion and politics, not to mention the politics of cultural display and performance.

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It was a kumbaya moment. With bold authority and assertion, Calderon drew on the Jewish textual tradition in order to do—what? To make for a tight and warm circle in which Jewish Israelis can all feel good about being Jewish together. Which is what happened. Her words were warmly received by the Speaker of the Knesset, a politician from Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party. But the speech does nothing to address the harsh realities facing contemporary Israel. The warm sentiment does nothing to address the security-state or to consider critically the limits of the identity-state. There was nothing in it to promote the cause of peace, social justice, equal rights, and shared citizenship in a multicultural society. Did these words speak to all Israelis, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed, as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence?

In seeking to delimit the boundaries between religion and politics, cultural identity and politics, I would still recommend that the politician’s duty is to legislate, not to educate. Many of my (academic) friends found Calderon’s inaugural address incredibly moving, including friends more left-wing than me. But I found the whole event disturbing and pretentious, false and flat. Imagine the next time Calderon ascends the dais to make a political point. Which ancient tractate will she expect the assembled legislators to learn from then? And imagine if a haredi politician tried to pull this kind of stunt at the Knesset, or if a Congressperson or Senator sought to do the same with the New Testament at the U.S. Capitol. All hell would have broken out, rightly. Calderon somehow got away with it, which is too bad.

What are we supposed to have learned from this Talmud lesson? Are, indeed, both sides of the disputes riveting contemporary Israel “right”? This would include those who want to attack Iran and those who are terrified by the idea, those who work to entrench the occupation of Palestinian territories and those who want to end the occupation, those who want to protect and promote equal rights for Palestinian Israelis and those who want to curtail them. It was a non-political speech in a political place where difficult decisions have to be made, and I don’t see how her words do anything to facilitate those decisions.

After the speech, the left-wing Jewish parlimentarians and the right-wing Jewish parlimentarians, the men and the women, all crowded to greet the new MK as she descended from the podium. Everyone looked so happy that it made me sad. It’s not that I think religion or educators and the texts they cherish and teach have no role to play in society, even a political one. But that place is outside the Knesset or Congress, pressing in, not ensconced and privileged and from the inside. Nor do I believe, not for a minute, that it is or should be, as claimed by the new member of Knesset, the state’s job to “magnify” and “glorify” the Torah.