Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel honored the memory of its late former director, Rabbi James Diamond, with a lecture by an Israeli educator and politician who shared Diamond’s commitment to Jewish learning.
Ruth Calderon, a member of the Knesset from the Yesh Atid Party, spoke May 28 on the campus about her efforts to bring Torah learning to secular Israelis.
As founder of Elul and Alma, two institutions devoted to pluralistic and egalitarian Torah and Jewish studies, she described her efforts to reconcile Judaism’s religious texts with the Israeli cultural traditions in which she was raised.
“We are trying to make the Jewish public square richer, more real for people, more authentic for people,” she said to an audience of 250 gathered for the inaugural Rabbi James S. Diamond Memorial Lecture. Her goal, she said, is to bring Judaism to the people rather than vice versa.
“I believe Jews are more important than Judaism,” she said.
The effort to connect Jews with tradition on their own terms was near and dear to Diamond, a teacher of Talmud, Bible, and literature who was killed by a speeding car in March 2013 (see sidebar).
Calderon recalled Diamond’s 1986 book, Homeland or Holy Land? The ‘Canaanite’ Critique of Israel, saying her family was influenced by the “Canaanite” movement of the 1940s that rejected the legacy of rabbinic Judaism and instead connected modern Israeli sabras to the biblical inhabitants of the land.
“It was very romantic when we grew up, trying to feel like we are native Israelis that come out of the sand and are kind of Jewish Bedouins,” she said, remembering how her light-skinned mother was “happy she has children who look like they are from the Bible and walk barefoot in the sun.”
From her parents, however, came the appreciation that before anything else she was a Jew, as much an inheritor of the rabbinic legacy that defined Judaism as a Canaanite descendant of the Bible. “You start living somewhere and don’t know where you’ll end up, and the ongoing thing is that you’re Jewish,” Calderon said.
She herself became something of a bridge between both worlds: “I felt like something was missing in this Hebrew cultural education, and I still felt like part of me is hollow and that I need to be connected to the part that the ‘Canaanites’ wanted to live in the ‘old country.’”
Calderon earned her PhD in talmudic literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and established Elul, the first Israeli secular beit midrash, or adult study hall, in 1989. Alma, a liberal arts center specializing in the study of Hebrew culture, followed in 1996. In 2013, she was elected to the Knesset on the slate of the Yesh Atid party.
Diamond’s daughter Shifra said the lectures in her father’s memory would feature scholars who “embody his values and who are pushing these issues in new directions.”
“Calderon’s efforts to revive a pluralistic Israeli-Jewish identity remind me of my father’s own spanning of secular and religious Jewish communities — a major part of his work in Hillel and also his own unique path in life,” she said.
In her talk, Calderon turned to her broader project of promoting the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture through her teaching and her work as a politician — perhaps most famously in her inaugural Knesset speech, in which she taught Talmud and asserted that “Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received.”
“If you do want to change and to evolve, trying to push it quickly…it won’t help,” she said. “Even cultural evolution or revolution — and I believe they are the same — you have to go back, collect, and reclaim what was left behind and try to go forward, maybe slower but in a more full way.”
She emphasized the value of education and of educators like Jim Diamond, in bringing about change. “You have to have this magical moment, that I understand that Jim had, between a teacher and a student; in the intimacy between teacher and student, something happens, and metaphorically good rain comes down,” she said.