Turning on to Talmud

Some secular Israelis are embracing the Talmud as a source of wisdom and culture, not as a religious text.

Ruth Calderon gave a Talmud lecture in her maiden speech in the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ruth Calderon gave a Talmud lecture in her maiden speech in the Knesset
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IN MANY ways, there is little of note about the Ein Kerem yeshiva.
In a book-filled classroom overlooking the green, picturesque wadi on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, eight students are seated around a table, each with a copy of the material to be covered today – a short section from Tractate Brachot, the talmudic volume dealing with the laws of blessings.
At the front of the room, a teacher guides the students through the material, patiently answering questions and explaining nuances in the text of the Talmud’s discussion of some technical details governing the daily prayer service – how many blessings are required for the Amida prayer, the direction of prayer and finally a rabbinic exhortation to take care to pray with a sense of gravity and seriousness.
The group, however, is far from your typical yeshiva crowd. For one thing, the group is co-ed, with tattooed women in shorts and revealing tops studying next to bare-headed young men who have never even considered wearing ritual fringes. For another, several members of the group say during the discussion that they do not believe in God, and all say they do not feel themselves to be bound by the strictures of Jewish law.Welcome to the Jerusalem branch of the Secular Yeshiva.
Given the topic of the class, the statements are incongruous, to say the least, and there is a great deal of dissonance listening to a group of secular 20-somethings discuss a warning by 1st century CE Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus that a prayer mumbled by rote cannot be considered a true supplication before God. The topic is standard fare in Orthodox yeshivas, but would appear to have little currency here.
Nevertheless, the energy the students bring to the discussion cannot be denied. Coming from a variety of backgrounds ‒ urban, kibbutz, ex-religious, third-generation secular ‒ they bring fresh eyes to the Talmud. It is the excitement that comes from discovering a trove of literature previously considered outdated and irrelevant, alongside the sudden realization that the newfound wisdom is not only relevant in a general sense to the modern reader, but also to their identities as Israelis and as Jews.
“The idea of actually praying doesn’t mean very much to me,” Noa Kerem, a 22-year-old student from Kfar Yehezkel in the north, tells The Jerusalem Report. “I don’t believe in God, and I was born into secularism. From that perspective, this is all very foreign to me.
“But in one of our classes, we talked about prayer and opened up a totally new direction. One of our teachers, Rabba Mira Regev, defined prayer as a quiet moment to think, to reflect, or perhaps connect with some sort of higher power, not necessarily ‘God.’ Or maybe it is an opportunity to connect with our natural, human desire for significance, to have an impact on the world. But, whatever it is, I look at the way the ancient sages took the Torah and made laws they were incredibly smart, and it all leaves me thinking about my connection to it all.”
Kerem’s passion for the topic is typical here.
Predictably, the meaning of secular Talmud study is a major topic of conversation, especially the right to “reclaim” traditional sources that in recent generations have become almost entirely an Orthodox playing field.
One young man says he is thrilled to take part in the ongoing “history of ideas,” and especially his place in a 1,500-year chain of intellectual history. Several students describe their frustration about the fact that having been born into secular families has meant knowing little about their religious and cultural backgrounds.
“We have the same rights as religious people to know about our religion and culture, but we don’t use it. The Talmud doesn’t belong only to the religious world. It can also be part of our secular identity, if only in order to understand who we are, rather than defining ourselves only as what we are not,” Kerem sums up.
The students’ sense of having discovered a family heirloom, albeit one they don’t yet fully understand, creates a class dynamic that is fundamentally different than the discussions that are certainly happening on the same subject matter in Orthodox yeshivas in the Haredi neighborhood of Bayit Vagan, a 10-minute drive up the hill.
The discussion is not without challenges.
The students’ commitment to secularism ‒ albeit a secularism infused with Jewish thought and values ‒ seems to impede the discussion in some significant ways. Asked about the ideological approaches to prayer, both students and teacher Ariel Levinson seem reluctant to address a fundamental point that all sides of the talmudic debate are committed to crafting a God-centered community of religious believers, with individual and communal prayer constituting a mainstay of the daily experience.
Levinson’s admiration for Talmudic scholars such as Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva is palpable, but there is no mention today that all three men would likely object strongly to his focus on the Talmud as a history of secular ideas. The absence of that discussion is glaring in circles that focus largely on academic study of a fundamentally religious text.
“For religious people, the discussions of the Talmud have binding authority, but for seculars, it isn’t going to be a source of authority.
For us, the Talmud is history; it’s about knowing ideas, crafting values, thinking about what is right and not right. But the bottom line is that we will decide what to do and how we want to behave. That is a major difference between the classic religious approach and the secular approach,” Levinson tells The Report.
According to Dr. Ruth Calderon, a former Yesh Atid MK who made waves by giving a Talmud lecture from the dais for her maiden speech in the Knesset, the sight of young, secular Israelis poring over a page of Talmud is far from rare.
Whereas generations of European Jews embraced the Enlightenment by rejecting traditional Jewish texts, Calderon, 54, who holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, claims that young Israelis feel they were let down by their parents who willingly abandoned Jewish learning.
“You see it all over the place. After three or four generations of absolutely no connection to the Talmud, there was a huge feeling of emptiness. We seculars had holidays that have no meaning for us. Take the tradition of staying up all night to study Torah on Shavuot. There was nothing like it in Tel Aviv, so we essentially had no Shavuot holiday. It was just a day off work, nothing more, she asserts to The Report.
“So we started an all-night learning program on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, then moved to Alma, a secular beit midrash (study hall) in Tel Aviv, and now we have 3,500 people who study all night together in the Tel Aviv Museum. So, you see that people want a meaningful holiday, and there is a deep thirst for knowledge and connection, but not at all in a religious sense. Secular Israelis aren’t going to go to synagogue, and the classes given in synagogues have nothing in common with my life. But when you package it correctly, you see just how open people are, how much it means to them.”
Calderon contends that the phenomenon of secular Israelis embracing the Talmud, and other Jewish sources, has been growing for nearly three decades. Elul, the Jerusalem beit midrash where secular and Orthodox Israelis study together to “develop an Israeli Jewish language,” was founded in 1989. Later, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, she founded Alma and the phenomenon has grown ever since.
Today, thousands of secular Israelis study in those programs.
She points out that there are secular pre-military academies that feature Talmud studies as part of their curricula. There, more than one thousand young Israelis have embraced Jewish learning as part of their efforts to define a unique, authentic Jewish identity that is relevant to today but also connected to the nation’s history.
Calderon says that her generation was raised on the study of Bible and Israel’s military history. “Now, I’m not proposing taking the Bible off the Jewish bookshelf, but the Jewish learning project I would push today is the program to study a page of Talmud a day. I feel that we got an overdose of Bible in the first 60 years, and now it needs to be softened with the wisdom, maturity and human understanding of our sages.”
If there is any area of frustration for Calderon, and other secular talmudists, it is the glaring inequality that organizations such as Elul, Alma, Bina and other non-Orthodox institutions suffer in comparison to their halakhic counterparts regarding state funding. She says her Yesh Atid party colleague, former education minister Shai Piron, worked hard to draft a plan to secure funding for secular Talmud programs, but that his efforts were undone the minute Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) took over the ministry last year.
“There is plenty of funding for yeshivas that receive hundreds of millions of shekels a year in government funding. The religious Zionists do, indeed, want non-Orthodox Israelis to study Judaism, but only as long as they are the ones doing the teaching.
The moment the secular or non-Orthodox create their own frameworks to teach Judaism and express a more expansive approach to Jewish life, the religious Zionist establishment won’t hear of it,” says Eran Baruch, director of Bina, an umbrella organization that supports a variety of study and social justice programs, including the Secular Yeshiva “There is not one shekel for non- Orthodox education,” he tells The Report.
In response, a spokesman for Bennett informs The Report, “The minister recently floated a broad program to deepen and expand the study of Jewish tradition for secular state schools. The goal is to allow for a variety of experiential activities and pedagogic study materials. This is in collaboration with a wide range of organizations involved with teaching Jewish studies. It should be noted that the program was offered to schools, not forced on them.”
Not that the ministry’s approach has filtered down to the state schools. One student at the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem tells The Report that her exposure to a variety of Israelis while serving in the IDF sparked her interest in the multifaceted aspects of Israeli society, and from there to the traditional sources she had never come into contact with.
“All I ever knew about religious life was that you had Haredim who dressed in black, religious Zionists with knitted kippas, and the Bible,” says 20-year-old Shaked Lev from the northern town of Misgav, who describes herself as secular but traditional.
“I don’t think I ever heard the words Talmud or Gemara before the army, and I wanted to know what it was all about. And now that I know something about it all, there is so much to learn. I don’t believe in God, but I do want to learn about things like kosher laws, lighting Shabbat candles and reciting kiddush on Friday night and other things. It’s important for me to incorporate Judaism into my life,” Lev says.
Lev’s approach represents both a growing trend in Israeli society, and a sharp challenge to the Orthodox establishment, says Baruch.
“Thirty years ago, non-orthodox Israelis might have been OK with the Orthodox teaching them Judaism, but that has changed over the past 10-15 years and is no longer the case.
“It’s clear that Israelis want to have a relationship with Judaism and with Jewish learning, and to take responsibility for their own Jewish identity, but not from an Orthodox perspective. This is what frightens the religious establishment,” he contends.