It’s Not Your Mother’s Knesset
What would have surprised Israel’s founding fathers more: the growth of an observant community many believed was destined to disappear in short order, or its intrusion into the very non-hallowed halls of government? The new Knesset has thirty-nine members who consider themselves Torah observant. The previous cabinet already had a majority of members who called themselves shomrei Shabbos. What is an old-time Tel Aviv secularist to think?
The surprises cut both ways. Just when we thought we had thoroughly digested Yair Lapid’s challenge to the Torah community, another member of Yesh Atid offers stirring inaugural address to Knesset. Dr. Ruth Calderon will make us rethink the role Torah study plays in bringing people closer to Yiddishkeit.
Cross-Currents readers did a good job picking apart Yair Lapid’s speech at Kiryat Ono. They flagged his historical inaccuracies and simplifications; they questioned whether he was sincere or pandering. Other readers, however, made a strong case for a very different reaction. However he meant his words, they claimed, they landed on a vulnerable place. Has not the charedi community become strong and secure enough that it cannot enjoy the luxury of giving only on its own terms? Should not it have to take its place as partners with the rest of Israel’s population in addressing all the problems faced by the Jewish state?
Ruth Calderon presents a narrower challenge. What do we think about secular Jews turning with enthusiasm to the study of Torah – but entirely on their own terms? Calderon used the opportunity of her first address to Knesset to speak of her love for Torah study. After describing her family background and her bona fides as a secular Zionist, she lets us in on a change in her life:
I was not acquainted with the Mishna, the Talmud, Kabbala or Hasidism. By the time I was a teenager, I already sensed that something was missing…. I missed depth; I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories – were missing. The new Hebrew, created by educators from the country’s founding generation, realized their dream and became a courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier. But for me, this contained – I contained – a void. I did not know how to fill that void, but when I first encountered the Talmud and became completely enamored with it, its language, its humor, its profound thinking, its modes of discussion, and the practicality, humanity, and maturity that emerge from its lines, I sensed that I had found the love of my life, what I had been lacking.
Since then I have studied academically in batei midrash [Jewish study halls] and in the university, where I earned a doctorate in Talmudic Literature at the Hebrew University, and I have studied lishma, for the sake of the study itself. For many years I have studied daf yomi, the daily page of Talmud, and with a chavruta [study partner]; it has shaped who I am.
She goes on to present her vision for the rest of the country:
It is impossible to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are, without knowing, intimately and in every particular, the sublime as well as the outrageous and the ridiculous. The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it a we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. 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.
What do we think of this? Danger lurks in this statement, but so does enormous opportunity and promise. Chazal (Yerushalmi Chagiga 1:7) describe Hashem voicing a preference for Klal Yisrael guarding/observing/studying Torah, even if it abandons Him. The study of Torah will eventually bring Jews back to Him.
We can ask, however, whether some forms of study are so foreign to the nature of Torah that they cease to have any positive effect? If Torah is treated merely as part of the literary patrimony of the Jewish people, will it still touch the soul? Will it reach the soul of people who do not believe in the soul? Can Torah become so mangled when studied not just shelo lishmah, but based on antinomian assumptions about its nature, that it becomes destructive? On the other hand, do we prefer some of today’s Jewishly clueless young Israelis, or the earlier generations of those who spoke Yiddish, studied Tanach regularly – but saw themselves as anti-religious, not just neutral? When R. Yisroel Salanter militated for the translation of the gemara into the vernacular so that it would be studied in local universities, did he not fear that in the hands of heretics Torah would do more harm than good?
We must keep in mind that Calderon is not what we picture some of the old-timers. She not only believes in HKBH, she ended her speech with a tefilah to Him. (Our understanding of the old-timers may also be inaccurate. Readers who have never seen the newsreel should watch Ben-Gurion at the moment of the announcement of statehood pull a yarmulke out of his pocket, place it on his head, and recite a beracha of Shehechiyanu.)
I don’t claim to have the answers, although my leanings are to see the gains as outweighing the risks. I have seen so many people studying Torah in institutions with treif understandings of Torah nonetheless fall in love with learning and move on to more traditional approaches and full observance. I have seen the benefit in relating to non-observant Jewish brothers and sisters through at least having a common vocabulary of Torah words and ideas. That common platform allows the relationship to go on to other places in the course of time.
Reacting to Yair Lapid’s oratory, my good friend Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in the current Mishpacha, “Those who sent me Lapid’s clip wanted to know whether anyone had taken up the challenge of articulating a vision of a state in which Torah Jews constitute a substantial part of the population…I had to confess that I did not personally know anyone who had responded or who would even have the authority to respond….In short, Lapid is totally irrelevant. For our own mission of becoming a majority, we require a Torah vision of the future of a state now home to half of the worlds’s Jews.”
As we try to think of what that vision ought to look at, we will also have to factor in an Israeli population that is clamoring for reconnection with Torah – albeit on its own terms. We must not make the mistake of believing that what was, is, and that yesterday’s battles are the ones we should be fighting today. If we do not or cannot do the hard work to put together a Torah-based vision for the future, we will have failed to do what HKBH asks – demands – of us: that we demonstrate to all people and in all situations that our Torah is a Toras Chaim.