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Torah and the Secular Jew

As a youth, MK Dr. Ruth Calderon was not satisfied with the secular treatment of Judaism she got in Israeli schools. So eventually she founded a secular yeshiva.
MK Dr. Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) speaking to the Knesset, February 12, 2013.

MK Dr. Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) speaking to the Knesset, February 12, 2013.
Photo Credit: Screenshot/Knesset Channel

I’m not sure what a secular-traditional-religious home is – but that is the way Ruth Calderon describes the home in which she was raised. Although I think that could describe a modern Orthodox observant Jew too, I think it can easily describe a non observant cultural Jew. Which is what I think Ruth Calderon is.

Dr. Calderon is one of Yesh Atid’s newly elected members of the Kenesset. By her own words she is not observant. If I understand correctly her education was that of the typical secular Israeli where Tanach (bible) is taught as literature and history and not as holy writ. And yet she has done something amazing. She has founded a secular Yeshiva. I suppose that means that her school is geared towards non observant Jews who want to learn Torah similar to the way observant Yeshiva students do.

As a youth, Dr. Calderon was not satisfied with the secular treatment of Judaism she got in Israeli schools. She knew instinctively that something was missing. Mainly the entire corpus of oral law as recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud. To put it the way she did in her inaugural speech before the Kenesset (as translated from the Hebrew in The Jewish Week):

I missed depth; I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories – were missing… for me, this contained – I contained – a void. I did not know how to fill that void. The Talmud is not only the source of Halacha, it is many other things as well. It rich with culture, history, humor, ethics… and much more. She goes on to tell an inspiring story about her discovery of the richness and fullness of the Talmud and described the virtual love affair she has with it to this day. That love affair led her to pursue its study – at least on a secular level and she eventually earned a doctorate in Talmudic Literature.

Because of her love of learning, her Talmud study did not end there. She learns Daf Yomi with a Chavrusa (study partner). And as mentioned she founded a secular yeshiva. She is convinced that studying the Talmud is a vital aspect of being Jewish – even if only culturally – that is missing for the secular Israeli student… lamenting the fact that the founding fathers of Zionism abandoned its study. Again, to quote Dr. Calderon:

It is impossible to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are, without knowing, intimately and in every particular, the sublime as well as the outrageous and the ridiculous. The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it a we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity. This is a truly profound and inspiring statement. She concludes her Knesset speech with a beautiful drasha – an exposition from the Talmud (Kesubos 62a) that demonstrates the kind of ethics authentic Judaism is all about… and finally ends with a prayer that is said upon entering the Knesset:

May it be Your will, Lord our God, God of our fathers and mothers, that I leave this house as is entered it – at peace with myself and with others. May my actions benefit all residents of the State of Israel. May I work to improve the society that sent me to this chamber and cause a just peace to dwell among us and with our neighbors. May I always remember that I am a messenger of the public and that I must take care to keep my integrity and innocence intact. May I, and we, succeed in all our endeavors. How beautiful it is to see a cultural -and yet still non observant Jew – extol the virtues of Judaism as expressed by our sages. There are some people who might object to a woman citing passages from the Gemarah. They might feel that it is inappropriate for a woman to even speak in public – let alone teach Torah to men. Or even learn Torah for that matter. I am not one of those people. I am on the opposite end of that spectrum. I fully support Torah study by every Jew – man or woman – who desires to do so.

The question of the study of Torah by women was resolved long ago in stages. First by the Gerrer Rebbe and the Chafetz Chaim in the 1930s. They were convinced by women’s education pioneer, Sarah Schenirer to open up the first Beis Ya’akov – allowing for mass Jewish education for women outside the home. And later expanded by Rav Soloveitchik who gave the first Gemarah Shiur in YU’s Stern College for Women.

There are those who have a religious issue listening to women speak in public – basing it on modesty concerns. That is their right. But there is no Halacha that I am aware of that forbids it. Nor is there any Halacha that precludes a woman from saying divrei Torah to men. The current over-emphasis by the right is based on a misunderstanding of what tznius really is. And it has resulted in actions that in my view are anything but Jewish and have nothing to do with tznius. Like photo-shopping women’s shoes out of a photograph published by a Charedi newspaper.

For me Dr. Calderon’s speech was a most inspiring one. There are more than a few men in Yeshivos that are not even capable of doing that – who are nevertheless exempt from military service. Because they are in Yeshivos.

Another problem some might have is that a woman who is unabashedly secular (with no intention of becoming observant ) should not be promoting Talmud study. The argument might be that the purposeful secular lifestyle she leads is a contradiction to the Torah she is learning. That by studying the oral law and rejecting it in practice – she is making a mockery of it. And treating the Talmud no differently than the secular founders of Zionism treat Tanach.

For the same reasons they may also object to her founding of a secular Yeshiva. That too makes a mockery of observance by focusing only on the culture and ethics. Much like the Reform Movement did when it was founded. They rejected ritual observance replacing it with the ethics they thought the Mitzvos in the Torah and Talmud stood for.

I understand their point of view. But I am in profound disagreement with them.

To me this is the classic Mitoch SheLo Lishmah, Bah Lishmah. Once one begins to study Torah (or do Mitzvos) for ulterior motives one will eventually come to study it for the right reasons. Those reasons being to do God’s will. So let secular Israelis study Talmud. There is nothing wrong with a Jew learning Torah. Even if it is only at first to study it for cultural or ethical reasons. As long as it is treated with the respect and reverence it deserves and the knowledge not misused in some way – it can only improve one’s understanding of his heritage and perhaps even lead to observance of Mitzvos.

As things stand now, there is quite a bit of ignorance among secular Israelis about the truth and beauty of the Torah – even as they study Tanach in their schools. At the same time there is also the fact that many Israelis are traditional in many ways – if not fully observant. Furthermore there seems to be a new respect for the Kipah wearing Jew – as was evidenced by the record number of such Jews just elected to the Knesset. There is no better time than now for a person like Ruth Calderon to be in the in the public eye. She may not be aware of it (although I’m sure she would not object) but her attitude may prove to be the best Kiruv tool yet for the secular Israeli Jew.

Here’s is Dr. Calderon’s Knesset speech (in Hebrew) in its entirety:

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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