Talmud stories from an unusual point of view
Special to The CJN
Since 2013 when she was elected to the Knesset as a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Ruth Calderon has become famous throughout Israel. But for 25 years before that, she was well known as a creative force in Jewish education in Israel and, to a lesser extent, outside of Israel.
She has founded two innovative study centres for adults: Elul in Jerusalem, a beit midrash ( house of study, a term generally connoting a yeshiva or other traditional religious institution) where secular Jewish men and women study traditional Jewish texts together; and Alma in Tel Aviv, another study centre where such text study is combined with the creative arts and cultural activities.
Years before her political life began, Calderon, who has a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published a Hebrew book combining creative and scholarly readings of rabbinic stories. The book has now been released in a first-rate English translation by Ilana Kurshan, under the title A Bride for a Night: Talmud Tales.
The book’s 17 chapters all have the same three-part structure: the text in English of a very short story, usually less than one page long, found in the Talmud or in another collection of rabbinic texts; a creative retelling of the story; and a short analysis of the story’s significance and meaning.
The unique part is Calderon’s creative retelling. For example, after she presents the talmudic story from Kiddushin 40a about a rich Roman woman propositioning Rabbi Zadok (first century), she retells it in the first-person voice of the woman. Another story originates in Rashi’s Talmud commentary to Avodah Zarah 18b. In it, Rabbi Meir (second century) urges one of his students to try to seduce Rabbi Meir’s own brilliant and learned wife, Beruriah, in order to teach her a lesson. Calderon retells this disturbing story in the first-person voice of the student. Readers who are used to traditional ways of studying Talmud might find these retellings jarring, but they help to bring the stories and their characters to life in a new way.
Calderon’s worldview is unabashedly modern, feminist and egalitarian, and the talmudic stories generally are not. Yet her explanations, most of which centre around women, are impressive and sometimes surprising. One example follows: the little-known story (Yalkut Shimoni Proverbs 18) about the wedding night of the son of Rabbi Akiva (second century).
“What did he do? When he brought his wife home he stayed up all night reading the Torah portion. He said to his wife: ‘Hold a lamp and illuminate my page.’ She held a lamp and stood before him. She illuminated his page until morning came.”
After movingly retelling this story in the first-person voice of the bride who had had different expectations for her wedding night, Calderon addresses the question of what this strange story means. She admits it is possible for modern readers to read it as the story of an unfeeling husband who ignores his wife’s needs and desires even on their wedding night. She, however, offers a different explanation.
She reminds her readers of the famous talmudic story (Ketubbot 63a) about the groom’s father, Rabbi Akiva, who was an ignoramus until he married but then, with his wife’s permission, went off to study at an out-of-town yeshiva. He returned home only 24 years later and was then a renowned scholar with 24,000 disciples.
The saga of Rabbi Akiva and his wife is often presented as a story of the true love of a long-separated husband and wife. After all, the Talmud reports that Rabbi Akiva told his disciples that all his accomplishments and all their accomplishments in Torah study were to be attributed to her. They had married, according to the Talmud, against her father’s wishes, because she saw and admired his positive character traits. Later in life, Rabbi Akiva lavished expensive gifts on his wife.
Calderon, however, focuses our attention on how difficult it must have been to be Rabbi Akiva’s son, growing up without a father at home. When you consider how the son presumably felt about a father and husband who abandoned his family in order to study Torah, then the son’s unusual wedding night behaviour takes on a different meaning. From the very beginning he was making the point that in his marriage, Torah study would not involve separation from his wife.
The ending of the story describes the conversation between Rabbi Akiva and his son on the morning after the wedding. Rabbi Akiva asks his son whether he has found a good wife and his son answers that he has. Calderon suggests that this short conversation has a deeper significance. Rabbi Akiva presumably was delicately asking whether all had gone well on the wedding night. When his son said that he had found a good wife, though, he was telling his father (with dramatic irony, as we the readers know what he meant but his father doesn’t) that he had established a better relationship with his wife than Rabbi Akiva’s relationship with his.
In her first speech in the Knesset, Calderon argued passionately that the Torah and Talmud belong to all of the Jewish People, not just to Orthodox Jews. (The video of her dynamic speech, with English subtitles, can be found on -YouTube.) Her book shows how different and worthwhile readings of our people’s classics by knowledgeable Jewish readers from non-traditional backgrounds can be.