ATID Fellows Discuss Talmud Study in
the Non-Orthodox World
By Aliza Segal, ATID Fellow
It has been my experience that a lecture or seminar may be engaging for
one of two reasons. It may be that the speaker is involved in arenas which are similar to
mine, and that what he or she has to say may directly impact upon my thinking or practice
in an area of personal or professional interest. In other words, it is the relevance, or
the context, of the speaker and of his or her approach to a topic which initially
interests me. On the other hand, it may be precisely the differences between a
given speaker and myself which draw me into his presentation. There is nothing like being
offered a personal glimpse into a foreign world, broadening my horizons and helping to
shape my thinking. Ruth Calderon, who addressed ATID on December 31, 1999 managed to fill
both of these roles.
Ms. Calderon is the founding director of the Alma Hebrew College, an
academic institution of higher education which includes Beit Midrash hours and
courses in its required program of study. Located in Tel Aviv, Alma is dedicated to the
study of Jewish culture and to reclaiming the Jewish bookshelf for secular
Israelis. Thus Calderon, who is completing a doctorate in Talmud, shared with the ATID
Fellows the common language of Talmud study. The traditional Beit Midrash is of
paramount importance to her, in terms of both structure and content. Students learn with havrutot,
preparing a particular passage to be discussed in a larger forum. All of this takes place
in a large, noisy room whose walls are lined with bookshelves. Ruth speaks of her love for
Rashi and her progress in Daf Yomi.
Conversely, she strongly identifies as secular and, or more accurately,
as she put it, non-halakhic. She lives in and represents a world that does not
normally establish Batei Midrash, and feels strongly connected to a tradition which
she does not observe. As an educator in Orthodox settings, the spiritual pursuits of my
students matter to me, just as their intellectual pursuits do. For Ruth, the paths adopted
by her students in their personal lives are not the indicators of success.
Initially, many Fellows might have thought that Ruth, from her
outside perspective, would have little to offer them in their evaluation of
Orthodox educational issues. Her presentation on the state of Talmud study in the chiloni
world, was the first opportunity that many of us had to interact in a serious way with
a non-Orthodox teacher of Torah.
In listening to the presentation, I identified strongly with the
discussion of Torah study, but the social and religious context were unfamiliar territory.
In order to understand how Ruth bridges the two, one must look more closely at her
approach to traditional text. She refers to the tools of anthropology, and is interested
in the human side of the Talmud more than in the legal side. Tannaitic and Amoraic figures
come alive, with personalities of their own and practical knowledge about the world.
Issues that arise in the Talmud are compared with their treatment or resolution in other
cultures. Study shapes thinking about Judaism and about the world, and adds meaning to
life-cycle events. It does not, however, affect normative practice.
A few thoughts resonate with me following her presentation. Some are in
the category of the foreign. Ruth was open in relating her personal journey
and belief system. This sharing of self enabled me to better understand some of the
secular Israeli world. She feels like an outsider in religious circles, but nevertheless,
wants to be a part of the chain of tradition. Her psyche is strongly shaped by two
factors, that she is Sephardic and that she is female. She is thus bonded to tradition,
but not the Lithuanian tradition of study or practice. She studies text, but with a
consciously feminine voice. She is serious about God and about Judaism, yet feels no
particular bond to halakhah.
There is also the realm of the familiar, and a direct
impact which I had not anticipated. Some methodologies may be directly transferable to a
traditional realm, such a model of team teaching practiced at Alma. Other aspects gave me
pause for thought. In traditional yeshiva settings, the study of aggadic sections of the
Talmud is often sorely neglected. They are usually skipped or hurried through, viewed as
an interruption to the halachic discourse. They are occasionally studied as a separate
discipline. Ms. Calderon seems to integrate aggadah into her learning, even in
halachic sections. This integration, embarking on a study of culture from within a legal,
or quasi-legal text, may be a desirable innovation for the traditional yeshiva setting.
By speaking very personally about her own motivations and goals for
learning Gemara, Ruth caused the ATID fellows to reconsider some of our own educational
methods and motives in a far more explicit and deliberative mode than we had earlier. Her
perspective on the issues from the outside served as a sharp lens for us to
evaluate the state of Tamud study on the inside.
She spoke of the Talmuds influence on forming her worldview,
which caused the ATID fellows to ponder how the classical texts help shape our own
personalities and outlooks. For example, she mentioned her attitude towards the
millennium, which was negative, and was influenced by her study of Mesechet Rosh
HaShana. Some Fellows were caught off-guard when she suggested that the Orthodox do
not talk about the Talmud as a religious text since they take that for
granted. The fellows debated whether there was truth in statement, and many were willing
to concede that there was. In the course of the discussion, one of the fellows asked Ruth
what she thinks motivates her students to want to learn Torah. Ruth answered with a
question: What motivates your students? Indeeda question we would
be well served to ponder more carefully.
Perhaps there were fellows who were uncomfortable with the whole
premise of Ruths presentationa possibility which the faculty had carefully
considered in advance. However, for most of the Fellows, her presentation did not only
offer an opportunity to understand a world that is often foreign to the Orthodox
community, it triggered us to reevaluate some of our own premises and methods. Whether or
not we found any more answers, each fellow walked away from the session thinking and
inquiring, talking and arguing in a deeper, more sophisticated way that will help elevate
our community to a superior form of education.
Ruth Calderon proved to be an engaging and dynamic speaker. Her impact
may have been different for each ATID Fellow. I have presented one persons
impressions. However, I can state with certainty that all were in some way enriched by the
lecture and by contact with a person whom we otherwise would never have been drawn into
discussion withone of the benefits of being an ATID Fellow.