Identity, Israel, Mishegas, Religion

MK Dr. Ruth Calderon: The Knesset’s Guardian against Bittul Torah

“We all are sinners, won’t you send us to Bible study faster/Your hypocrite-esque reaction a blasphemy”

–Kendrick Lamar,  “Rigamortus”

Get ready for the strangest 45 seconds of your day.  #whatthewhat

This happened today on the floor of the Israeli Knesset.  MK Dr. Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) completed a speech with an unhinged, unprompted, upbraiding of young men in ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) dress for coming and observing Parliamentary sessions from the visitors’ gallery instead of learning Torah.

A few key Hebrew phrases:

*Hillul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name, i.e., terrible public behavior by someone clearly recognized as Jewish, that brings disgrace to the Jewish people and their God

*Talmid(ei) Hakham(im) — Torah scholar(s)

*Bittul Torah — “wasting Torah”; it means slacking off when you could be learning Torah; this is the ultimate insult in the yeshiva world, what overbearing rabbis and sanctimonious veteran students accuse younger students of doing when they have a casual conversation.

*Hareidim — Ultra-Orthodox Jews (literally, “quakers”)

Here’s my translation of the clip:

“The last thing I want to say in the 27 seconds that I have [left] is this daily hillul hashem of people dressed like talmidei hakhamim who sit here, up in the gallery, slacking off, without a book, hour after hour, it drives me out of my mind!  It shames the dress of a talmid hakham, it shames the value of bittul Torah, and I request of you, either bring books, or go to the beit midrash and learn.  Thank you.”

Then, Dr. Calderon turns to leave the lectern, and all hell breaks loose.  Facing shouting from the chamber, she returns to the mic and says, “It bothers me!  I, as a person who values the Torah, I can’t tolerate people slacking off with the permission of the Torah…Because they are Hareidim and they are subsidized [to be learning in] yeshivot in order that they be learning Torah on my dime! This Is Shameful.”  Then, chaos breaks out as she has left the podium and from within the shouting, you can make out Calderon saying, among other things, “shame and travesty”, “they should take off those clothes”,  “every day, dozens of them”, “It’s a shame to the Torah”.


Dr. Ruth Calderon is an MK with Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party.  Her road to parliamentary life was as unconventional as everything else about her career:  She founded Elul and Alma, Israel’s first pluralist beit midrash centers serving mainly secular, Israeli participants. With a PhD in Talmud from Hebrew University and a rich career of scholarship and engaging teaching of Rabbinic texts, she, more than anyone, has modeled that Torah belongs to the whole Jewish people; those who don’t “look the part” should stop relinquishing their birthright, and those who do “look the part” should stop trying to monopolize the Jewish people’s spiritual treasure.  By joining Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid list, she served their campaign’s efforts to dispel the notion that the party was anti-religious, and she offered the posture that maybe bourgeois, privileged, centrist, secular nationalists stand for something.

My Reaction to what We Just Saw:

That was utterly disgraceful behavior by MK Calderon.  Here are a few reasons why:

1) The entire rant hinges on narrow judgments of people based on their dress.  So much of her public persona is about breaking down assumptions of to whom Torah belongs and what a Torah scholar looks like.  If she wants us to take her seriously as a Torah scholar — as well we should — despite not looking like what our prejudiced minds assume a Torah scholar to look like, then she should minimally not play into the ridiculous reverse assumption that any male dressed in hareidi black-and-white is a talmid hakham. She yells not that she has information that these individuals are on a yeshiva stipend and supposed to be learning, but that they’re dressed in the clothing of talmidei hakhamim, and therefore should be learning. Really?  Every hareidi man wearing a white shirt and black pants is a yeshiva student?  Does she really think that?

2) Shouldn’t we want all sectors of the Israeli public to take interest in the workings of government?  Wouldn’t it be alarming if no one from the hareidi population ever came to observe Knesset proceedings?  Yesh Atid’s signature issue has been the integration — by force — of the hareidi population into mainstream society, of cutting off government stipends for life-long yeshiva learning and exemptions from military service.  One premise of that effort is that one segment of the population shouldn’t freeload on the rest, but another premise is that it is insulting to the hard, substantive work of the public sector to say that lifelong Torah study trumps everything else, that Torah isn’t even true Torah when isolated from, yet parasitic on, the rest of society.  Does Dr. Calderon think so little of her own activities and those of her colleagues in the Knesset that it is bittul Torah to observe them and try to learn from them?  If so, what is she doing wasting her time in the Knesset instead of teaching Torah?

3) Her behavior — the yelling, heckling, pointing, incendiary name-calling — though typical of the Knesset chamber, is unbecoming, and it is especially disconcerting to see someone (a Torah scholar, no less) using that unrefined conduct while calling other people out for *their* alleged hillul Hashem, while they sit respectfully and listen.

Dr. Calderon’s path-breaking beit midrash and cultural center, Alma, lists, among its core values “respectful attitude to all” and “openness and cooperation.”  I think it’s fairly obvious how today, MK Calderon let down her voters who thought she would reflect those values in her governmental service.

But Why Am I Bothering to Write this Article?

Israeli Knesset members are notorious for their terrible behavior on the Knesset floor, so this explosion should not be newsworthy.  Moreover, I generally think that we should resist the temptation to flag all sorts of wack things in the Jewish world and point out why this sucks and that sucks and that other thing you thought was ok actually sucks, too.  We’re grown-ups and we should be productive, so I don’t want to just go Nelson on MK Calderon.  But I think there is a larger story here, with a cautionary tale.

For her nine months in office, Dr. Calderon has been a darling of the Jewish pluralism set, especially among Diaspora liberal Zionists, excited to hear “our kind of Jew” representing open, broad-minded, serious Judaism on the Jewish People’s greatest stage, the Knesset floor.  Knesset tradition is for new legislators to give a 10-15 minute personal speech inaugurating their tenure in government.  Calderon’s talk, a close reading and discussion of a provocative Talmudic passage about the meaning of being an insider or an outsider, attracted an unusual level of enthusiasm, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

It was a lush reading of a sad and foreboding text and I recommend giving her speech a listen.  But there’s something deeply problematic about it that went unnoticed by many religious pluralists and perhaps that same troubling element is what gave rise to her otherwise bizarre outburst today.  The framing upshot of her speech was that this book — the Talmud — symbolizes the cultural inheritance of “all of us” in this Knesset chamber and in the population represented by us, and that it behooves all of us, not just those who have assumed cultural hegemony, to reclaim our place in it.  A central upshot of the text she interpreted (BT Ketubbot 62b) is that marginalized, systematically unvoiced people can sometimes have the most crucial insights, and that their marginalization can corrupt the empowered, voiced authority, and ultimately lead to his tragic demise and the rotting of the culture.

I share Dr. Calderon’s commitment to expanding the tent of Jews who take ownership over the fullness of Torah, enabling Torah to manifest itself fully.  I agree that it is important in the Knesset to express wariness about the mortal costs of rendering certain members of the society voiceless outsiders.  However, she ironically engages in the most subtle but total form of silencing by telling the story from the vantage point of the disempowered character in the story (Rav Rehumei’s wife), extracting the lesson to be about suppressed Jewish heritage and the necessity of access to “all of us”, and locating that story and lesson in the Knesset, a center that represents and exerts power over many people who have no stake in Jewish heritage, who are not part of Calderon’s “all of us”.  She speaks in the voice of the voiceless, but explicitly excludes the residents of the society who are most voiceless and most vulnerable to the decisions made in the Knesset.  These ultimate outsiders — Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians under Israel’s military occupation, unprotected asylum seekers from war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, exploited foreign, low-wage workers — are at risk from the hegemonic voices (Rav Rechumei in the story’s stylization) who oppose them and deny them them a voice, but they are driven further underground when a spokeswoman for the unvoiced artistically arranges the story to leave those about whom the message is most relevant shrouded in darkness.

This is not, then, a story of solidarity, empowerment of the unvoiced, and inclusiveness, but a story of someone moderately unvoiced using the language of empowerment to jump over to the side of the powerful and leave the more vulnerable behind.  In her speech, she drew the map for her brand of supposedly unvoiced people — Yesh Atid’s middle class and wealthy, secular, Jewish men and women — to join the Jewish, cultural hegemonic class, not to dismantle the hegemony that threatens the culture’s truth and potential.  Today, in her outburst,  she dramatized her presence in that hegemony, as she parroted the terrible behavior of many other rabbinic, political leaders, lashing out at those who, perhaps, are willing to locate the Talmud in the beit midrash, where all comers have a stake in it, and to come to the Knesset in order to listen and participate in a more expansive and universal parliamentary language that might give voice to everyone in the society.

Her speech would be fabulous at a Federation General Assembly or Limmud conference.  In the Knesset, as delivered, so unaware of its ironic shrouding of the most obvious implication, it’s dangerous.  I’m glad for the fundamentalist Jewish MK’s to hear her framing of the story and to push them to expand their sense of who owns the conversation, but I would really love to see a fellow literature scholar such as MK Dr. Ahmad Tibi teach the gemara back to Dr. Calderon. And if he did, and if she heard him in the way that she must hope to be heard, she might start to be not so helpful to the Yesh Atid mission.

Today’s outburst may have been a slip of etiquette, but it hit at the core of MK Calderon’s political project:  Bittul Torah is, indeed, the greatest threat to her legislative vision.  For the sake of the deep meaning of the story she taught, and for the sake of the voiceless people most implied by the story’s pathos, let’s hope that the Knesset sees some more Bittul Torah.

4 thoughts on “MK Dr. Ruth Calderon: The Knesset’s Guardian against Bittul Torah

  1. Yes, it’s truly horrible that Christians and Muslims do not study the Talmud in Calderon’s vision of Jewish pluralism.

  2. It’s kind of amazing. A woman telling men that they will be judged by their dress, telling them to take it off if they want to go about this kind of business. Very shocking and no wonder they were horrified.

  3. Shlomo and Tara – you’ve milked some ironies and gotten your snarky comments up. Congrats. I, for one, was blown away by this key paragraph:
    “This is not, then, a story of solidarity, empowerment of the unvoiced, and inclusiveness, but a story of someone moderately unvoiced using the language of empowerment to jump over to the side of the powerful and leave the more vulnerable behind. In her speech, she drew the map for her brand of supposedly unvoiced people — Yesh Atid’s middle class and wealthy, secular, Jewish men and women — to join the Jewish, cultural hegemonic class, not to dismantle the hegemony that threatens the culture’s truth and potential.”
    Aryeh Bernstein has put his finger on a sense of self-satisfaction, even smugness, that seems to characterize MK Calderon’s worldview. She has opened herself wide to precisely this criticism because she purports to represent inclusion at its best.

  4. While I do beleive you are right and her reaction was uncalled for, I think that something important happend at that moment. Something that is always missing in the knesset: According to my understanding the biggest problem of any debate that happens in the knesset between Haredim and Chilonim is that they don’t speak whith each other but next to each other. They don’t share the same world of thought. They don’t have the same priorities. They don’t speak the same language. In short they don’t understand each other, which is why the depates are always hateful and never fruitful. Usualy the Chilonim will say that it is not moral to refuse to serve in the army and not fight for the Jewish people. The Haredim will answer that Bitul Torah is forbidden and that learning Torah is crucial especially at a time of so much secularism. The Haredim don’t relate to the Zionist thought because they haven’t studdied it and don’t see and value the state in the same way. The Chilonim don’t relate to the Torah and as they have never studied Hallacha, Gemara or anything to the like they don’t relate to the Charedim. The Chilonim are most affraid to lose their land again and that is why the hate the Charedim for not defending it. The Charedim are most scared to lose the Tora and that is why they hate the Chilonim for not studying it. They don’t understand each other and nver realy talk wiht each other.
    Although in a hateful way, Ruth Calderon changed that with her comment. She broke that deep void between Chilonim and Charedim by showing that she values their values as her values. In a way that comment was liberating and unifing. She didn’t speak about Charedim in a language they don’t understand. Even tough angry, she spoke with them. In their own language. In a shared set of values. And for me this is most important.

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