Monday, March 4, 2013

In New Knesset, a True Maverick

Why Ruth Calderon, a Talmud scholar and rookie politician, has a shot at breaking the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism

Ruth CalderonEvery new member of Israel’s Knesset gives a debut speech, and this year, with 48 rookies, the docket was full, with parliamentarians introducing their résumés, their proposed policies, and their hopes for the coming four-year term. One decided to ignore convention altogether. This member of Knesset used the allotted time to teach Talmud.

A full third of the 19th Knesset are observant Jews, but it wasn’t any of them. It was a woman named Ruth Calderon, a Talmud scholar and the founder of two Jewish houses of study. She was elected to Knesset as No. 13 on the list of Yesh Atid, a new party headed by former journalist Yair Lapid that swept the recent elections, earning 19 seats on a promise to bring about a more equal Israel, including by drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the army.

Standing in front of her colleagues with a volume of the Talmud given to her by Lapid’s grandfather David Giladi, Calderon offered photocopies of the section she was explicating—a story about Rabbi Rechumei who studied so hard before one Yom Kippur that he did not make it home to his wife before the fast began. As his wife cried at home, Rechumei studied on the roof of his school, and the roof caved in, and he died.

The room was quiet as Calderon told this story, except for when the session’s ultra-Orthodox moderator, Shas MK Yizhak Vaknin, interceded to strengthen her point. Calderon said Rechumei’s name included the root of the Hebrew word rechem, meaning womb, as well as rachamim, mercy. Vaknin said if one would rearrange the letters, to read ramah, its numerological value would total 248, the number of organs in the human body.

Vaknin: Rechem also [has a numerologically significant] value of 248.

Calderon: Thank you. Yasher Koach. Thank you for participating.

Vaknin: I think the idea she is saying is wonderful …

Calderon: I am happy about this participation in the words of Torah.

Calderon ended her talk with a prayer, calling out to the “God of her fathers and mothers” to help her and her party do good work in government. The speech went viral, gaining almost 200,000 eyeballs within a week—and it was certainly the only time when a female member of Knesset taught about the Talmud.

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