It’s not often that a Knesset (Israeli parliament) speech goes viral, but that is precisely what has happened to the inaugural speech of incoming Knesset member Dr. Ruth Calderon. A scholar with a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University, Calderon is a ground-breaking leader in the secular study of sacred texts in Israel. She co-founded the egalitarian, pluralistic Beit Midrash Elul in Jerusalem in 1989, and founded the Alma Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv in 1996. Her efforts to promote the Jewish bookshelf and strengthen Israeli-Jewish identity brought her the Avi Chai Prize. (Full disclosure: this writer has personal and professional connections with Dr. Calderon, and has participated in Alma programs in Tel Aviv and New York.)
Most recently, Calderon was elected to the Knesset as part of the new Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid. Dr. Calderon’s February 12th speech on the Knesset floor has become nothing less than an internet sensation. The original Knesset video of her speech, which included a heartfelt description of her journey into Jewish textual study, a Talmud lesson, and a plea for Jews across the religious spectrum to freely claim the Torah, is approaching 200,000 views on YouTube. Some enterprising viewers, hoping to give a broader audience access to her comments, modified that video to include English subtitles taken from this English translation of her remarks–proof that Calderon’s historic speech is continuing to reverberate far beyond the Knesset walls.
Check out Dr. Calderon’s Knesset speech (the subtitled version) below, as well as links to news coverage of the event. Her remarks include this bold declaration: ”The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. . . . 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.” With her proven ability to engage people both in Israel and in the Diaspora, Dr. Ruth Calderon may just be laying the groundwork for a textual revolution–one with the potential to transform not just the Israeli political status quo, but also the way that Jews around the world relate to sacred texts, and to each other.
If nothing else, Calderon has sparked a fresh dialogue–online, in Israel, and in Diaspora communities–about the role of the Jewish sacred canon in modern daily life. And when a Talmud lesson from the heart becomes an internet phenomenon, it seems that rather interesting possibilities lie ahead for the Jewish state.
MK Dr. Ruth Calderon, Knesset Speech with English subtitles
Suggested links for more on the Calderon story:
Daniela Cheslow, “In New Knesset, a True Maverick” Tablet Magazine (Feb. 25)
Yehoshua Looks, “The Knesset as beit midrash: A model of hope for a better Israel Ha’aretz (Feb. 25)
Jill Garbi, “‘Torah study can be part of politics’” New Jersey Jewish News (Feb. 20)
Aaron Kalman, “Resonant response to maiden speech by Yesh Atid’s secular, female Talmud Scholar” The Times of Israel (Feb. 15)
Vered Kelner, “She brought Israelis to the Talmud, can she brings its wisdom to the Knesset?” Ha’aretz (Jan. 24)
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