Israeli Politician Stirs Up The Religious-Secular Debate : Parallels Ruth Calderon's first speech in parliament led some to call her the leader of a Jewish renaissance. But others view her as a real threat — to Judaism itself.
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Israeli Politician Stirs Up The Religious-Secular Debate

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Israeli Politician Stirs Up The Religious-Secular Debate

Israeli Politician Stirs Up The Religious-Secular Debate

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

We hear a lot about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but each group has internal conflicts as well. NPR's Emily Harris reports on an Israeli politician at the center of the country's debate about where religion and government should intersect.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Ruth Calderon sums up her childhood Jewish life simply.

DR. RUTH CALDERON: That you have to be moral, you have to be, you know, you have to be a good person, and you do not eat ham.


HARRIS: So yes to fasting on holidays, no to regular synagogue. Yes to praying at Sabbath dinner. No to strict rules about food or clothing.

CALDERON: Extremely Jewish, not at all observant.

HARRIS: Calderon was born in the early '60s. Israelis were focused on building a strong, modern state. Like all Jewish kids in Israel, Calderon studied the Old Testament in public school. But somewhere after 10 years old, she began to search for deeper experiences.

CALDERON: I kind of picked little things like a bird builds its nest. Something in school, something on the radio. I went to different synagogues, but it was always religious. And they always wanted to improve me or somehow make me something else.

HARRIS: By chance, during mandatory army service, she heard a lecture that wowed her. It was on the Talmud, primary Jewish religious texts. She fell in love with religious study. Fast-forward, Calderon earned a doctorate in Talmudic literature, then founded two centers where Orthodox and secular people study Judaism together. Ya'ir Caspi teaches at one of them. He says Calderon made ancient Judaism avant-garde.

YA'IR CASPI: Suddenly, it was - become fashionable. Suddenly, people were coming to study Judaism. They are not Orthodox, they are not conservative, they are not reform, and they study. So she made it into an in thing. She is a trendsetter.

HARRIS: In Israel, studying Jewish texts has long been the domain of Orthodox Jewish men. More crucially, Orthodox men are the state-sanctioned interpreters of Jewish law. This means they control marriage, divorce, kosher food. The government subsidizes full-time religious study. It's been this way since the founding of Israel.

CASPI: We actually gave them Judaism. We said, well, you will keep it for us. And the keeper got very, very strong from that, and they held our soul. And once they held our soul, they were able to do whatever they wanted because they are the keepers of the secrets.

HARRIS: But when Calderon was elected to parliament in January, she showed that she knew the secrets too. Each new lawmaker gives a short, introductory floor speech. Calderon told a Talmudic story and used it to illustrate some of her political goals, including getting more ultra-orthodox into the military and the workforce.

CALDERON: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Usually, these introductory speeches in the Knesset are largely ignored. Calderon's got more than 200,000 views on YouTube.

ELANA SHTOCKMAN: There was something so moving about her entire presentation.

HARRIS: Elana Shtockman runs Israel's Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

SHTOCKMAN: A secular feminist woman, to own that text, to love that text, to embrace it, with authority in this space of the Knesset in front of all of Israel, it was something we had just never seen before.

HARRIS: And for some, that signaled a new danger. An online ultra-orthodox news service called Calderon an enemy of Judaism. Yishai Cohen wrote the editorial.

YISHAI COHEN: (Through Translator) Ultra-orthodox politicians are facing a new kind of war, a war they are not used to. There is a particular problem with Ruth Calderon because she really does know how to study the religious texts. She knows what she is talking about.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

HARRIS: Calderon tries to avoid defining herself as religious or not. Each Friday evening, her family gathers for prayers over wine and bread. She reads religious texts every day. Does she believe in God?

CALDERON: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. I don't know. I count myself as a Jew.

HARRIS: And she wants Israel to be that way.

CALDERON: I want it to be a Jewish state, to have a nationality, to have an identity. I want Hebrew to be the first language. I want Arabic to be the second language. I want, you know, the holidays to be expressed in the public space. But together with that, as important as that, is that I want this country to be democratic.

HARRIS: Right now, orthodox interpretations of Judaism affect daily life in Israel from buses not running on the Sabbath to supporting arguments for Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank. If other religious viewpoints gain political influence, Ruth Calderon wonders how life might change. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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