Existential Threat

Who’s Afraid Of Ruth Calderon?

Sigal Samuel on why ultra-Orthodox Israelis are calling Ruth Calderon, a Talmud scholar and new Member of Knesset, "the real existential threat."

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, that’s who.This headline, which appeared yesterday in Kikar HaShabbat—a major haredi news outlet—says it all: “This is the real existential threat: Ruth Calderon studying Talmud.”

To be clear: According to Kikar HaShabbat, the direst threat facing ultra-Orthodox Israelis is not the possibility that the state will stop subsidizing their Torah study and draft them into the army. It’s not even a stridently secular, Torah-allergic Israeli culture that threatens to subsume the ultra-Orthodox way of life writ large. It’s just this calm and confident woman, Ruth Calderon, who holds a PhD in Talmud and who made history this week when she used her inaugural speech in the Knesset to deliver a Talmud shiur—a lesson she then related back to her work as a newly minted MK.

A secular intellectual, Calderon taught the Talmud passage out of an old volume that had once belonged to the grandfather of another secularist, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid. She then explained how, growing up secular, she had thirsted for a deeper connection to Judaism’s foundational texts, and how she hopes to bring knowledge of these texts back to the Israeli public. So why is this woman, who sincerely loves Torah and wants others to love it too, anathema to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population?

Kikar HaShabbat explains:

To a yeshivish ear, [Calderon’s] whole speech was foreign. Suddenly, the holy words of the Talmud, spoken in an Israeli pronunciation, became profane… And then it hit us: what we’re seeing in a live broadcast is the new Haskalah [European Jewish Enlightenment movement], the new forces that have emerged and want to destroy haredi society in its current form.

Calderon and the Yesh Atid party don’t want to erase the Torah of the Jews, and they don’t want to make us into a nation like all the others. Just the opposite, they want to strengthen Torah…and herein lies the great danger.

There are parallels between the Enlightenment rabbis of the 19th century and the Yesh Atid party: Both cover themselves with the rabbinic cloak. Rabbi Shai Piron, Dov Lipman, and “Rabbi” Ruth Calderon are using our weapons—the Talmud, Gemara, and halakhic decisors—against us, and at the same time serving as a fig leaf.

Different anxieties are being weaved together here, and it’s worth untangling them. First, we’ve got those telling scare-quotes around “Rabbi,” a sarcastic epithet being attached to Calderon not because she’s actually been ordained, but because she’s a woman daring to teach Talmud to men. Then we’ve got the suggestion that sacred Jewish texts can’t be brought into the realm of the secular and the Israeli without becoming contaminated. Finally, we’ve got the comparison to the Enlightenment (which is haredi for “Judaism done wrong”) and its disturbing implication: that there is a right and a wrong way to do Judaism, and that Calderon—whose Talmudic savvy puts a friendly face on her party’s anti-religious agenda—is clearly doing it wrong.

The fact that ultra-Orthodox Israelis see themselves as guardians of “authentic” Judaism shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Jewish world, or with the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. But the fact that they’re so threatened by Calderon’s core belief—that it’s perfectly valid to be passionate and knowledgeable about Jewish texts without committing yourself to an observant Jewish life—should underscore for us just how radical, and radically needed, her message really is.

Calderon has a clear vision for what it would mean to democratize Torah study in Israel. As she told the Knesset:

The Torah is not the possession of this or that denomination—it’s the gift that was given to all of us… I aspire to bring about a situation where Torah study will be the heritage of all Jews. That all young citizens of Israel will partake both in Torah study and in military and civilian service. I yearn for a day when the state will distribute its resources fairly and equally to all Torah scholars, male and female, on the basis of their quality of learning, not their denominational affiliations. That the secular and pluralistic houses of study will receive the same support as the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox houses of study.

But if the ultra-Orthodox reception of Calderon’s speech teaches us anything, it’s that the day she’s yearning for is still far off. The notion of an “authentic” Judaism is alive and well in Israel, and it’ll continue to rule the country until people like Calderon are empowered to change the status quo.