Secular Talmud II
Guest post by R. Alan Haber
Rabbi Alan Haber is one of the founders and Directors of Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY). He has been involved in women’s education full-time for over twenty years.
Dr. Ruth Calderon’s inaugural address to the Knesset last week has gone viral on YouTube. Nine days after being posted, it has already received close to 180,000 views. The speech is entirely in Hebrew, and there are no subtitles on the video. I therefore deduce that the great majority of the 180,000 people who watched it were Israelis.
It’s worth asking what it was about this speech that Israelis found so remarkable. When I ponder that, I come to very different conclusions than those expressed in Gil’s post earlier this week. I am not going to argue with Gil’s impressive analysis of the Talmudic sources regarding a talmid she-eino hagun and learning she-lo li-shmah. I believe that his interpretation of those sources is absolutely correct. But applying them to this case shows a misunderstanding of contemporary Israeli society.
From afar, today’s Israel may seem overwhelmingly secular and (as Gil put it) shallow. Even the secular Zionists who built the state, although they were militantly anti-religious, were at least dedicated to their ideology and to building a country. But today’s society, by contrast, is often portrayed as increasingly post-Zionist, self-absorbed, materialistic and empty of values. Particularly, watching the Israeli media (the part of Israel most visible to those outside the country), one can be forgiven for believing that most Israelis care much more about what is currently going on in the “Big Brother” reality TV show than they do about Torah or the Jewish people.
However, if you scratch the surface just a little bit, you see a very different story. Leaving aside the fact that the percentage of Israelis who are religious or at least closely affiliated with religion is much, much higher than anywhere else in the Jewish world (has anyone noticed that as many as one out of every three members of the new Knesset is religious??), even the so-called “secular” population is a lot less secular than meets the eye.
If one judges only by actual halachic observance, then indeed a significant percentage of Israelis are secular (or, to use the Israeli term, chilonim). But although the media doesn’t show it, many of these “secular” people are actually very connected to their Jewishness and even to Torah – much more so than the average American Jew, for example. Secular Israelis study Tanach and Jewish history, recognize all Jewish holidays, hike the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael, and view their country as the State of the Jewish People. More to the point, many of them are thirsting to be even more connected and are constantly looking for opportunities to be learn more. In fact, a number of months ago, I wrote a blog post documenting an amazing but little-known example of this phenomenon, the “Selichot Tours” that attract thousands of secular Israelis to Jerusalem every night during Elul and Aseret Ymei Teshuva. Dr. Calderon herself is one of the primary leaders of this renewal movement. She founded the first “Secular Bet Midrash” in Jerusalem, and a few years later, founded an institute for Jewish studies in Tel Aviv (which today has branches in other cities as well), and made reference to this in her speech as well.
As a religious person who studies Torah daily, and refers to it every evening with the phrase Ki Hem Chayyenu v’Orech Yamenu, I share Gil’s hesitation (and perhaps even suspicion) about those who study Torah but are not willing (at least not yet) to follow all of its dictates. Yet at the same time, we must recognize that Dr. Calderon and the movement she leads do not (as some may think) study Talmud and Jewish texts for purely intellectual or cultural reasons. For Dr. Calderon, the study of Talmud is not equivalent to English literature, Chinese history or any other field of study at the university. She approaches it not as a detached academic, but rather as a passionate Jew who wants to (in her own words) “reclaim that which is ours”.
In an interview six years ago, she said “I do not wish to be a spectator on the world of religion – I want to participate in it.” And in last week’s Knesset speech she described the Torah as “a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it as we create the realities of our lives.” And she ended her speech with a tefillah to Hashem asking Him to bless her efforts in the Knesset on behalf of the Jewish people.
Indeed, she and other like her violate halacha on a daily basis, and do not believe it to be binding on them. Is this situation ideal? Far from it. Does such a movement perhaps even pose a danger to Torah? Perhaps. But in the big picture, this is a truly blessed phenomenon. As the Midrash (Eicha Rabba, Petichta) says, “Halevay Oti Azavu v’Torati Shamaru” – “If only they would (even) abandon Me (i.e., cease to observe the commandments) as long as they preserve My Torah.” Why is this so? The Midrash goes on to explain that it is because ultimately, we believe in the power of the Torah itself. Those who study it out of genuine love will eventually be enlightened by it and come to accept it.
So I suppose, like Gil, I also see the dilemma. But if it is a choice between an Israeli society that studies Torah out of a genuine for these texts to be a guiding force (even if not yet the entire authoritative basis) of their lives, or the type of Jewishly ignorant assimilated Jew typical in the Diaspora, there is no question in my mind which is better.
 By contrast, the speech given by Yair Lapid, the head of Calderon’s Yesh Atid party who led the campaign that brought 19 new MKs into the Knesset, was also posted on YouTube and got less than 15,000 views.
 Truth be told, even many religious Israelis share this conception of their secular counterparts. Dr. Calderon made this point herself in the speech when she acknowledged that many in her secular community often believe that haredim are wasting their time studying archaic texts and aren’t contributing anything to the Jewish People. She then pointed out that those very haredim often “feel that they are carrying the entire burden of Jewish culture and tradition on their shoulders while we are going to the beach and enjoying life”. She enjoined both sides to recognize the value of what the other is doing, and to learn from one another. Statements like this showing respect for Yeshiva studies, coming from a secular politician, should certainly be welcome.
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