I have a new hero. And I’m not the only one. Her name is Ruth Calderon and she is the most talked about new member of Knesset in recent memory.
It’s not merely because Dr. Calderon is not a politician. The Israeli-born daughter of Bulgarian (Sephardi) and German (Ashkenazi) Holocaust survivors, she comes to leadership from a non-conventional path. After growing up in secular schools, Ruth became enchanted with Torah and text study and pursued a career as an academic and educator. She received her PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, then founded Alma and Elul, egalitarian institutions devoted to the study of sacred texts by religious and secular Jews.
But having an academic in Israeli government circles is nothing new. What sets her apart is that she is not merely versed in our literature, she employs it every chance she can. Just as Ben-Gurion constantly referenced the Bible, Calderon teaches Talmud as a living document in a socio-political context from which modern Israel can grow.
“The Torah is not the possession of this or that denomination — it’s the gift that was given to all of us,” she said in her inaugural speech to the Knesset. “I aspire to bring about a situation where Torah study will be the heritage of all Jews.”
Of course you might well expect that I, as a rabbi, would celebrate such a statement. But, as she insists, Calderon is not religious. On the contrary, she’s a self-proclaimed secularist. And that excites me. Because Israel doesn’t need Israelis to be religious; Israel needs Israelis to embrace their identities as Jews.
We may be witnessing a ground-shift of Israel’s political landscape. Calderon is part of an emerging cadre of Israelis who are exasperated with the paucity of vision, courage, and devotion to the “spirit” of our Jewish heritage — as opposed to its “letter” — that characterizes the country’s recent governments. She is a member of the most surprising winner of Israel’s February parliamentary elections, the Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party. It captured 19 seats, making it the second-largest political party in the Knesset. (Not bad for a party that didn’t exist a year ago.) People are paying attention.
As the second-century sage Shimon bar Yochai taught, Torah can be a powerful weapon in the right hands. Dr. Calderon appears to many to be deftly ambidextrous.
Yet what I find most compelling about Ruth Calderon is her authenticity. She carries no pretenses. In fact, when I went to hear her speak recently in New York City, I was taken with how surprised she is at her own celebrity. She doesn’t get why so many people want to be her “friend” on Facebook. She’s genuinely surprised when she becomes the topic of radio and television conversation. It is clear to anyone who meets her that Ruth is simply an Israeli who loves her country, its people, and its heritage. Like so many other Israelis, she wants Israel to be the “ideal” of which its Zionist creators had dreamed.
Ruth Calderon and Yesh Atid give me hope for Israel. Her voice, deeply rooted in a reverence for sacred texts, is fresh and uninhibited. She speaks her mind regardless of who is listening. She is not afraid to offend. (She refers to the Kotel — the Western Wall — as “occupied territory.”) And while the political extremes of Israeli politics might not always agree with her — she has been sarcastically derided as “Rabbi” Calderon by the ultra-Orthodox for daring to teach Talmud to men, while equally dismaying her liberal allies for her unwillingness to protest alongside “Women of the Wall” because she feels she cannot, as a lawmaker, break the law — it is clear she has gotten their attention, if not earned their respect.
All you need do is to watch her first Knesset speech (available on YouTube), where she turns a political venue into a beit midrash (house of study). A woman. Teaching Talmud. To a room filled with more than a handful of ultra-Orthodox Jews. They listened. And by the end, several vocally called out yasher koach, the highest praise one gets from a serious Jew.
Ruth Calderon may very well be the future of Israel. And, if it be so, she will take along the Torah on her historic journey. The same Torah that God gave to “all” Jews. For such is her message. Torah — and the land where it was born — belong to each and every one of us. And should she be successful in realizing this vision, and I pray that she will, then the State of Israel and Jews the world over will have every reason to reclaim the tikva, the hope that is at the core of Israel’s soul.