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ATID Fellows Discuss Talmud Study in the Non-Orthodox World

Aliza Segal, ATID FellowBy 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 Talmud’s 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?” Indeed—a question we would be well served to ponder more carefully.

Perhaps there were fellows who were uncomfortable with the whole premise of Ruth’s presentation—a 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 person’s 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 with—one of the benefits of being an ATID Fellow.

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