The Politician With Literary Chops


Even as she works toward effecting change in Israel as a member of Knesset, Ruth Calderon remains a passionate student and teacher of Talmud. After her election as a member of the Yesh Atid party in February 2013, she gained international acclaim with her debut speech in the Knesset in which she taught a Talmudic unit — as well as the respect of her haredi colleagues who recognized their style of study in her own. Now, she co-leads a weekly Talmud class in the Knesset and has just published a new book, Ilana Kurshan’s fine translation of “A Bride for One Night” (Jewish Publication Society), originally published in Hebrew in 2001, that brings her eloquent conversation about Talmud to an English-speaking audience.

Calderon, who was in the United States last month to receive honorary degrees from The Jewish Theological Seminary, where she delivered the commencement address, and from Hebrew College in Boston, met with The Jewish Week early on a Sunday morning on the Upper West Side to discuss her book along with her latest initiatives in the Knesset.

For Calderon, Jewish teachings and values guide her political activism. “I don’t want to separate Judaism from the state,” she says, speaking with openness and much passion. “I want the state to be Jewish.”

She describes her positions as somewhere in between those secular Jews who don’t see the relevance of consulting Jewish texts in making decisions about current affairs, and those who turn first and foremost — and literally — to these texts.

Calderon, who has a doctorate in Talmudic literature from Hebrew University, explains her modern, creative and traditional approach to the shmittah year, which begins in September. Shmittah is a sabbatical year, following a seven-year cycle as outlined in the biblical text; it means, literally, to release. According to Jewish law, the land is released (and fields are not cultivated) and debts are released. Calderon and her colleagues are hoping to have 10,000 families engaged in a process of economic rehabilitation, working with banks to forgive part of their debt and to forgive the interest on another part, and to educate people about better handling finances and budgeting. The government has already been involved in shmittah, as per the haredi parties, including paying food producers to comply.

After a career of teaching and building educational and cultural institutions, Calderon has learned much about politics in her 16-month tenure. The always polite legislator has gotten used to the gruff manners with which business is conducted among Knesset members, with lots of yelling, but she says it’s getting better. As in her Talmudic learning, she’s open to opinions different from her own, with the potential of conflicting perspectives cross-fertilizing one another.

“You learn in the Knesset that everything is personal. I try to make friends with members of the Arab and other parties. I try to sit and have coffee and listen,” she says, adding that shmittah will be for Arab citizens too.

She’s now pressing forward on legislation giving Israel’s Declaration of Independence the status of law, with its emphasis on equality, diversity and freedom of religion. She’s also working toward establishing civil unions in Israel “to enable people — any two human beings who are Israeli citizens — to live as a couple even if they don’t get married religiously.”

Her book is written in the style in which she teaches and tells stories. There are three parts to each of the 17 chapters, each of which is focused on an Aggadic story (the Aggadah refers to the “imaginative and figurative components of Talmudic discourse”). In every chapter, she includes the simple, almost cryptic storytelling as it appears in the original text (with some information bracketed so the reader unfamiliar with Talmudic texts can follow); her elegant retelling, spinning out a full story from the brief text, bringing a novelist’s eye for detail; and her reflections on the story. She looks for the “subversive story that lies hidden between the lines, between the letters.” At the back of the book, footnotes include citations of sources.

“I wanted to make it very friendly to readers,” she says. Her expanded stories, many told in the first person, are dramatic and compelling, with contemporary resonance. Giving voice to ancient rabbis, their students, wives, lepers, beggars and a Roman matron, she expresses feelings of loneliness, desire, longing, loyalty, seduction and love. More than a few end tragically.

When she tells of a pair of sisters, based on a text in Midrash about the Torah portion of Naso, when one sister agrees to pose as the other when she is forced to drink the bitter waters as a test for adultery, she does so with an understanding of sisterly solidarity. In anticipation of this adventure after a long separation, the sisters are like young girls again, laughing and sharing their experiences. The story also features “a God who is accepting, assisting, winking at the woman from behind the back of her jealous husband, like a mother who smiles at her eldest son from behind the back of his grumbling younger brother. Like an accomplice.” But the story’s dark edges highlight the differences between the lives of men and women, their power and the conventions of their times.

“The Talmud’s discursive style allows us to enter and exit at any moment,” Calderon writes in the introduction. She tries to accomplish a “barefoot reading” of the text, that is, with unmediated access — without traditional commentaries and moral considerations, with the thrill of someone reading a story for the first time.

The stories feel cinematic, and Calderon agrees, pointing to low-budget black-and-white European cinema as the most fitting example of their style. Ruth Orkin’s well-known black-and-white photograph on the cover, “American Girl in Italy” (1951), is particularly well-suited. A young woman walks down the street in sandals, holding her shawl as it slips off her shoulders, admired and ogled by men. Her expression is unsmiling. It captures the unusual romance Calderon spins in the title story, when a notable rabbi wishes to wed a woman in a town he is visiting, only to divorce her in the morning.

The photo is actually a slice of Orkin’s original print, which featured additional men standing around and one on a Vespa. Calderon explains that she read about the photo, and learned that the woman went out on a date with the guy on the Vespa after the photograph was taken. Along with capturing some essence of the “bride” in the story, the photo reminds her of the Talmud, and also the Knesset, where she’s entered something of a men’s club. But she’d want to be the one driving the Vespa.

These days, Calderon serves as deputy chairperson of the Knesset, and is a member of the education committee. She is also chairperson and founder of the lobby for Jewish renewal at the Knesset, as well as the lobby for parliamentary culture.

Before entering politics, she established two institutions of secular, pluralistic learning of traditional Jewish texts, hosted a television show where she engaged in the pioneering Jewish study she is now known for and, most recently, served as the head of the cultural and education department at the National Library of Israel.

Calderon didn’t grow up learning Talmud, but pursued it on her own. The daughter of a German mother and Bulgarian father, she grew up in a Zionist home that respected Jewish tradition but didn’t follow (or understand) the letter of the law.

While she loves learning traditional Jewish texts, she’s less enamored of formalized prayer. Her own prayer is personal. “Ninety percent are Shechayanu,” she says, referring to the Hebrew prayer expressing gratitude for reaching a new stage, a new time of year or new experience. The other ten percent are prayers asking for healing of loved ones.

“It can’t be that the state of the Jews cannot be friendly to Jews,” she says about the Israeli rabbinic authorities. She wants to advocate for those Jews who feel left out of the process.

“It’s very important for me to stand for these people, and to say to all of the Jewish people in the world, you can have a share in this project, if you want to. I want to represent you, even if you don’t vote. She adds, “You are so good for Israel. So much goodness comes from the relationships [between Israelis and the diaspora].”