Ruth Calderon — Mother of Redemption?


Ruth Calderon’s Knesset speech has created more buzz around the Jewish world than any speech like it in the history of the State of Israel. Probably because nothing remotely like it has ever happened before. The unexpected, unprecedented, yet incredibly moving sight of a non-Orthodox woman passionately teaching Gemara in the Knesset has captured the attention of Jews everywhere. Most of the reaction has been extremely enthusiastic. I think it might turn out to be one of the most pivotal moments in the last 300 years of Jewish history.

As a religious people, we still haven’t figured out how to engage modernity. Since the mid-18th century we have been trying to figure out how Judaism should respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by the Enlightenment and Jewish political equality. To this end, we have created political Zionism and Haskallah, Reform and Reform’s counterpoint Orthodoxy, Historical Judaism, Conservative Judaism and a host of other movements and frameworks, each one intended to help us live Jewishly either in concert with, or despite, modernity. None of these approaches has proved completely successful, which is why there are so many Jews who are not connected to their roots, but each has made contributions, some of enormous historical import.

For the most part, the State of Israel has known only two of the models, Orthodoxy and secular Zionism. Both have contributed enormously to the strength and vitality of Israeli society and the rebirth of our people in its land. At the same time though, each is irremediably limited in its ability to forge a Jewish-Israeli identity that can carry the country forward. Even as we are eternally indebted to secular-Zionist ideology for creating and building the State of Israel, its weakening grip on successive generations of Israelis is well-documented and a cause of great concern. And while Orthodoxy can rightly claim credit for numerous important achievements, such as Israel’s living by the Jewish calendar in a meaningful way, and largely preserving Jewish tradition around lifecycle events, it has not — and by its internal rules frankly cannot — accommodate the thinking, the needs and the choices of most Israelis. As an Orthodox rabbi here in the States, I know only too well that the Orthodox community lacks the halachic tools and the theological leeway to satisfactorily address many people’s principled, ethical concerns around issues of universalism, intellectual honesty, and the religious inclusion of women and of gays. I obviously believe that Orthodoxy nonetheless has enormous contributions to make (through, for example, its joyful acceptance of the Divine will, its irrepressible enthusiasm for Torah study, and its willingness to be counter-cultural in its ethic of physical modesty), but like secular Zionism, it will not lead the Jewish people to redemption, at least not in the foreseeable future.

With the emergence of people like Ruth Calderon, however, and with the emergence of self-described “secular” institutions of classical Jewish learning such as Alma, and Elul and Bina, we are seeing a development that just might step into the breach. A new way of thinking and learning and behaving as a Jew in the modern world that can actually serve as a vital partner and ally of traditional Orthodoxy, living in dynamic intellectual and spiritual interchange with it, and with it weaving a net of Jewish life that will capture so many who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

It takes great courage of course to enter this kind of partnership and alliance, but the first signs of a willingness to do so were on display as Ruth Calderon offered her “shiur” (lesson) in the Knesset.

Celebrations mark end of Talmud cycle


Serious study of the Talmud requires a high level of devotion and consistency. Finishing all 63 volumes of rabbinical discourse in one’s lifetime is an admirable feat. Completing the whole series in a little more than seven years is almost unfathomable.

Yet a core group of thousands of Talmud enthusiasts across the globe has done exactly that — studying the entire set of Gemara through the Daf Yomi method of learning. Those who take part in learning Daf Yomi, or “a page a day,” complete study of the entire Babylonian Talmud in about seven and a half years.

The Daf Yomi program is large enough that most participants learn the same page on the same day, regardless of geography. Next month marks the 12th time that Daf Yomi participants will have completed the entire set, also known as shas (an acronym of Shisha Sedarim, which refer to the six orders of the Talmud) since the widespread practice began in Poland in 1923.

On Aug. 1, the anticipated finishing date for the study, Jews across the globe will celebrate completion of their study by participating in a Siyum HaShas, or celebration for completing shas.

Agudath Israel of California is hosting a Siyum HaShas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 1 at 5:15 p.m. The program at the venue, which has a 3,100-person capacity, will include a live link-up to the Worldwide Agudath Israel movement’s main siyum in New Jersey, where 90,000 people are expected to fill MetLife Stadium.

The Agudath Israel program will also feature keynote speaker Dayan Aharon Dovid Dunner, a sitting member of the London Beit Din. The event will also honor participants in other learning programs, such as the It’s My Siyum Too program, which celebrates those who have completed a section or particular book of learning rather than the entire Talmud.

“The concept is that we’re trying to enhance the study of Torah,” said Irving Lebovics, who chairs the presidium of Agudath Israel of California. “We just want to get people more involved.”

Lebovics also said that the siyum would be a unifying event for local Jewry.

“This cuts across several different areas of the Orthodox community,” he said. “We don’t have this opportunity that often to bring together the entire community.”

Similar gatherings around the world, including those in Chicago and Toronto, will feature link-ups to the main Agudath Israel siyum in New Jersey.

The event at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion will not be the only Daf Yomi celebration in Los Angeles. Reb Mimi Feigelson, masphiah ruchanit (spiritual mentor) and a professor of Rabbinic Literature and Chasidic Thought at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, will also be celebrating completion of shas next month. Feigelson, who is the first female to receive Orthodox rabbinic ordination, learned the entire set of Talmud in sync with the Daf Yomi calendar, but learned almost entirely by herself.

“There’s a great amount of joy, and there’s a great amount of gratitude,” Feigelson said. “There’s a deep sense of belonging to my tradition and to my heritage.”

Feigelson began learning Daf Yomi from a Vilna Shas, the classic edition of the Talmud, periodically supplementing with an online lecture, though she stopped learning through the latter because, as a woman, she found the lecturer offensive.

“The Jewish world is not prepared for the reality that women are doing Daf Yomi,” she said. “There’s a conception the online lecturer is talking to Charedi men, but that is not the case.”

A growing number of women are learning Daf Yomi. This past cycle, around 30 participants were involved in an Israeli group called the Matan Talmud Program, a by-women-for-women Daf Yomi program. The Matan Talmud Program will host a celebration next month.

Feigelson says she is saving the last few lines of the Talmud for Shabbat morning, Aug. 4, at B’nai David-Judea, where she will deliver an afternoon shiur titled “The Meaning of Life and Life: From Brachot to Nidda in 30 Minutes.” She has yet to decide if she will attend the community-wide event at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

“I’m not sure that’s the place I want to be,” she said.

After completing the Babylonian Talmud, Feigelson hopes to begin study of the Jerusalem Talmud, which is not studied as commonly. Although there currently is no structure for daily study of the Yerushalmi, she hopes to study that series at the same pace — a page a day.

The Agudath Israel-run siyum at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is open to the public with orchestra seating available for men and loge seating available for women. For more information, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.

Battle of the sexes reaches Talmudic teachings — why can’t girls learn Gemara?


When Sharon Stein Merkin attended a Modern Orthodox religious day school in Los Angeles, she didn’t learn Mishna or Gemara, the Oral law, because her school, like most in the 1980s and ’90s, didn’t teach women Talmud.

But it was only when she attended seminary in Israel after high school and started studying Talmud that this fact began to bother her.

“I wasn’t as disturbed that I didn’t learn Gemara, but as I was that I didn’t have a historical background,” she said.

“My friends who graduated with me didn’t even know the difference between a Mishna and Gemara,” she said, referring to the two components that make up the Oral Law:

The Mishna, the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah compiled in 200 C.E., and the Gemara, which over the next three centuries explicated it in Aramaic. Together they make up the Talmud, which serves as the primary source of halacha, or Jewish law.

After she returned from Israel, Merkin went back to her school to talk with the rabbis. “If they don’t agree to teach Gemara, they should explain at least the historical context and give girls some education in it. It’s part of our heritage and it’s part of Jewish learning,” she told them. Although they listened, they didn’t make any changes.

The question of whether Talmud is indeed part of Jewish learning for girls and women in traditional Orthodox education has come under debate in the last two decades in Orthodox circles. It also will be one of the topics on the agenda at a Nov. 5 conference, “Teaching Our Daughters: What Should We Expect From Their Orthodox Day School Education?” sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), a New York-based organization whose mission is “to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha.”

The study of Talmud isn’t the only item on the agenda, said Merkin, who hopes that the conversation can be productive and positive.

Merkin is one of the dozen or so organizers of this first local conference, which is open to both women and men and is co-sponsored by B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Congregation Beth Jacob, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Shalhevet School and the Westwood Village Synagogue.

The conference will focus on enriching girls’ education in day schools through curricula that put more focus on women’s contributions, as well as a more balanced approach from administrators in developing comprehensive programs, both in and out of the classroom, for boys and girls, organizers say.

The centerpiece of the conference will be a presentation of a curriculum, developed by JOFA for Orthodox classrooms, that encourages students and teachers to more thoroughly analyze the role of the imahot, the foremothers, in the stories in Genesis. It also looks at issues such as modesty and brit milah (circumcision) and the different forms of convenants with God.

But for many who want their daughters to have a complete Jewish education, the study of the Talmud is at the center of the debate.

Traditionally, and for many centuries, women did not study Talmud, since it is written there “Nashim Datan Kalot,” a text that has many interpretations, but at its most literal means that women have simple minds.

“We view it more as: not prone to in-depth logical exercises as much as men are,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the Rosh Kehilla, spiritual adviser, of Yavneh, an elementary day school in Hancock Park.

Although he declined to speak in particular about his school’s curriculum, in which the boys learn Mishna and Talmud and the girls focus more on Jewish law, Bible and prophets, he said his school follows the tradition of the community. “It’s been a long-standing tradition that boys have a different thinking pattern from women: not superior, not inferior, just different. The kinds of logical exercises one finds in the Talmud is more appropriate to a male mind than a women’s mind,” he said. But, he said, the Talmud does not prohibit it, it only discourages it as “not the most productive use of a women’s time.”

At Korobkin’s own adult shiurim, or classes, he welcomes women.

“Everyone is welcome because the Talmud speaks in generalities, and not in specifics,” he said, explaining why in his classes he does not abide the idea that women’s minds aren’t made for Talmud study. “If a woman feels her mind is more inclined to logic and concreteness, she should study Talmud,” he said.

While Modern Orthodox schools on the East Coast for many years have been teaching Talmud to girls, schools in Los Angeles have been slow to do so. Although in recent years, some Los Angeles Orthodox schools –Shalhevet School and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy — have put Talmud into the girls’ programs. (At Shalhevet, unlike at all the other schools, boys and girls are not separated by gender for their classes.)

“When we were reviewing our curriculum and program goals three years ago, we wanted to make sure that we were giving a quality level of education to all of our students, and to be able to give everyone a product that would stimulate them and challenge them and increase their own fulfillment in having access to Torah learning,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Sufrin will speak on a panel at the JOFA conference, with a representative from Shalhevet School and others, to be moderated by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Jewish Journal education editor.

Two years ago, Hillel began teaching Mishna to girls as well as boys in fourth through sixth grades and now girls in seventh and eight grades are learning Gemara.

“As our students are exposed to so much more in their lives and as Jewish education encompasses both genders and so many of our current generation are professionally involved in Jewish life and Torah learning at all levels, there’s no reason why both genders should not be exposed to girls learning all aspects of Torah. It gives them a very important key,” Sufrin said, adding that that such study helps women understand Bible commentaries and understand areas where everyone agrees they should be involved.

“It also gives them a sense that they have a connection to the entire Torah, and in today’s society that’s important,” he said. “It’s not an issue of being equal — it’s an issue of giving them what they deserve.”