The Knesset as Beit Midrash: A Model of Hope for a Better Israel

During Dr. Ruth Calderon’s maiden Knesset speech, the new Yesh Atid MK brought the wisdom of Torah to the parliament of Israel, along with its methodology of discourse, fostering understanding and mutual respect.

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The recent election in Israel resulted in an unprecedented change in the makeup of Israel’s parliament. Of the 120 members of Israel’s 19th Knesset, 48 are new to the chamber, 27 are women, and 38 are religiously observant; all records. Furthermore, a secular woman, Ayelet Shaked, was elected as a member of the national religious party Habayit Hayehudi, and a party that did not even exist a year ago, Yesh Atid, became the second-largest party in the Knesset. All of these are positive examples of the vibrancy of Israeli democracy.

On Tuesday February 12, MK Dr. Ruth Calderon, elected 13th on Yesh Atid’s list, gave her inaugural speech. The speech has become somewhat of a YouTube phenomenon with well over 150,000 views. In her talk, Calderon described her upbringing in a secular-traditional-religious, Zionist, Ashkenazi-Sephardi home. She received a public school education in the spirit of “from Tanach to Palmach.” As a teenager, she realized something was missing from her education and her life. She then began what has become a lifelong quest and engagement with Jewish texts.

Following her passion, Calderon earned a doctorate in Talmudic Literature from the Hebrew University and went on to found Alma - Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv, and then later Elul, Israel’s first open beit midrash (study hall) for religious and secular men and women.

A beit midrash is a house of study, explanation and interpretation. Over 2,000 years ago, the great Jewish learning academies were in Babylonia: Nehardea, Mechoza, Pumbedita, and Sura. Throughout our history and until today, when there are more Jews studying than at any time in our history, the beit midrash remains the place - the home if you will - where we engage with our tradition and wrestle to understand our times in the light of its wisdom.

A beit midrash is not a public library where one quietly contemplates a book in solitude. The style of learning in the beit midrash is “chevruta,” where one is actively involved with his or her study partner. Interaction is essential to understanding. The evolving “truth” one arrives at is only a result of the quality of one’s opposition. There are 70 faces to the Torah. “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokhim chayim”, these and these are the words of the living God.

During her Knesset speech, Calderon taught a section of the Talmud. The lesson focused on a story from Ketubot 62b about Rabbi Rechumi. Rechumi was absent from his wife all year, studying at yeshiva. His wife waited for him every year for his annual one-day visit on the eve of Yom Kippur. One year, on that day, he was engrossed in his studies and did not make it home. As she waited in their home, disappointment got the better of Rechumi’s wife and she let a tear shed from her eye, after years of not having cried. At that very same moment, the floor beneath Rechumi, who was sitting in an attic in Mechoza, gave way, and he fell to his death.

What do we learn from this tragedy?

First, Calderon explains, “He who forgets that he is sitting on the shoulders of the other, will fall.”

Furthermore, “being righteous is not sticking to the Torah at the cost of insensitivity to fellow human beings.”

Then, Calderon continued with an important message: “In a dispute, both sides can be right … both the woman and Rabbi Rechumi feel that they are doing the right thing and are being responsible for their home. Often, we feel like the woman - waiting, serving in the army, [and] doing all the work, while others sit on the roof studying Torah. And sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, the culture, and Torah, while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought, and dispute rooted in understanding and mutual respect.”

For me, personally, the most significant moment in this most memorable speech occurred spontaneously, when acting Knesset chairman Yitzhak Vaknin, from Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party, interjected on a point related to the Talmudic story. According to The Jewish Week, the conversation went as follows:

Vaknin: Rechem has a significant numerological value of 248 (being the number of limbs in the human body, which parallels the 248 positive commandments).

Calderon: Thank you. Yasher koach (may you have strength). Thank you for participating. I am so happy …

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

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

This was extraordinary. Yitzhak Vaknin is a member of Shas, a party that opposes mandatory conscription of yeshiva students - a position being championed by the Yesh Atid party - and that has never in its history had a female party member. And yet, in this exchange, two members of Knesset from diametrically opposed worldviews on the future of Israel and how to get there found a mutual language from our shared tradition. At that moment, the Knesset became a beit midrash.

One week later, with over 30 parliamentarians and staff in attendance, Yesh Atid initiated Knesset Torah Study Tuesday, which will include a rotating schedule of teachers. This group, made up of men and women, from secular to ultra-Orthodox, was led for its first session by who else, Dr. Ruth Calderon.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

Ruth CalderonCredit: Alex Levac

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