“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 as 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 re-appropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity.”
Ruth Calderon, a new member of Knesset (Yesh Atid), spoke these inspiring words last month in her inaugural speech before the Knesset. Since then, the talk has gone viral, and more than 200,000 people have viewed it. I encourage you to take 14 minutes and access it on YouTube with English subtitles.
Seventeen years ago MK Calderon founded Alma, an organization that received funding from UJA-Federation to support its mission of providing opportunities for secular Israelis to explore their connection to Jewish learning. A few years ago, she was a scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation, where she taught with the same openness and fierce intelligence she displayed before Knesset. Remarkable about MK Calderon’s talk was the lack of anger and accusation. After teaching a few lines of Talmud, she opined, “Often, in a dispute, both sides are right,” and extended an invitation “to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.”
When I was in Jerusalem last week for meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, I experienced a newfound optimism in wide circles. It comes, ironically, from a growing recognition that while the external challenges remain exceedingly serious, it is also necessary to confront the internal challenges with the same intensity. This is one of many take-a-ways from MK Calderon’s talk.
Many of the issues that confront Israeli Jews are similar to those that face us here in America. For decades, we have understandably focused on responding to external challenges that face our people: caring for those most in need; rescuing millions and enabling them to establish new lives in freedom; building the infrastructure for the Jewish state; combatting anti-Semitism; and more. Those problems persist, to be sure, but in both New York and Israel, the internal fabric of Jewish communities and Jewish identity are taking center stage. This is not a surprise for many of us, given that UJA-Federation ended the anachronistic division between domestic and overseas more than a decade back, recognizing that we are now, indeed, a global Jewish people.
As Natan Sharansky has argued, Jewish identity is now the driver of everything we care about. If one is not positively identified as a Jew, why care about the hungry or elderly in New York, Moscow, or Ashdod? Why care about strengthening Jewish education in our communities? Why care about securing the Jewish state? We understandably need to continue to address the external challenges. They are serious and they persist. But we must also turn to the fabric of Israeli society and our communities. And as we transition and broaden our agenda, we must understand that the Torah belongs to all of us. We must now find ways so each of us — coming from different places with different understandings of God, obligation, and our vision for the Jewish future — has the opportunity to experience and access it. And we need to find ways to do this recognizing that our tradition has always understood that there are multiple ways to read every line of Torah.
Last month, Ruth Calderon, a friend and teacher, ascended the bimah of the Knesset. She used her platform to help all of us, in Israel and here in New York, to appreciate our changing realities and the urgent nature of the internal challenges we face. But most of all, she invited all of us to embrace the texts of our people and the wisdom found within — a prodigious resource for our lives and for shaping the Jewish present and the Jewish future.