Love Me or Drop Dead: A Psycho-Talmudic Inquiry into Calderon's Choice of her Knesset Talmudic Passage

Somewhere on the road between quirky and bizarre, Ruth Calderon chose a passage from the Talmud to present in her inaugural address as a member of the Knesset in Israel. The passage talks about the consequences to men who fail in their obligation to have sex frequently enough with their wives. See our previous post for the video of the speech and see the transcript of it here.

The immediate context of the passage she chose from Ketubot 62b is this:
Sages ruled: Students may go away to study Torah without the permission [of their wives even for] two or three years. Raba stated: The Rabbis relied on R. Adda b. Ahabah (according to whose statement the Sages permitted students to leave their homes for long periods) and act accordingly at the risk of [losing] their lives (they die before their time as a penalty for the neglect of their wives).
The Talmud thus allows students of the Talmud to neglect their wives for long periods of time so that they can study in a Yeshiva.

Calderone recited in her speech this passage, first in Aramaic, and then she explained it in Hebrew:
Thus R. Rehumi who was frequenting [the school] of Raba at Mahuza (a town on the Tigris, noted for its commerce and its large Jewish population) used to return home on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. On one occasion he was so attracted by his subject [that he forgot to return home]. His wife was expecting [him every moment, saying.] ‘He is coming soon, he is coming soon.’

As he did not arrive she became so depressed that tears began to flow from her eyes. He was [at that moment] sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him and he was killed (lit., ‘his soul rested’, i.e., came to its eternal rest).
On the surface, this folkloric passage proclaims the power of a neglected wife's tears to mystically kill at a distance her husband, by causing a yeshiva building to collapse.

The lesson for Calderone briefly is, "One who forgets he is sitting on another's shoulders will fall." Well, that's a stretch. The actual lesson is to watch out. If you forget and do not have sex with the woman you are married to, she can kill you with her tears even if you are far away.

Calderone provides a more imaginative interpretation:
Now we must imagine a split screen: on one side is a close-up of a female character, a woman with one tear running down her cheek. On the other side, sitting on a rooftop in Mechoza, is Rabbi Rechumei, dressed entirely in white and feeling holy. You know, after several hours without food we feel very exalted. He studies Torah on the roof, under the stars, and feels so close to the heavens. He sat on the roof, and as the tear falls from the woman’s eye, the roof caves in under him and he falls to the ground and dies.
Calderone goes on to tie this strange tale to her political agenda:
What can I learn about this place and my work here from Rabbi Rechumei and his wife? First, I learn that one who forgets that he is sitting on another’s shoulders – will fall. I agree with what you said earlier, MK Bennett. I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings. I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumei, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home. Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work while others sit on the roof and study Torah; sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, Torah, and our culture while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.
Calderone extends her political message in a burst of flowery rhetoric:
I aspire to bring about a situation in which Torah study is the heritage of all Israel, in which the Torah is accessible to all who wish to study it, in which all young citizens of Israel take part in Torah study as well as military and civil service. Together we will build this home and avoid disappointment.

I long for the day when the state’s resources are distributed fairly and equally to every Torah scholar, man or woman, based on the quality of their study, not their communal affiliation, when secular and pluralistic yeshivot, batei midrash, and organizations win fair and equal support in comparison to Orthodox and Haredi batei midrash. Through scholarly envy and healthy competition, the Torah will be magnified and glorified.
We see in the Talmud passage these elements: Wife, husband, sex, Yeshiva, Yom Kippur, tears, roof, murder at a distance.

Calderone extends those as her analogy to these elements: Sensitivity, beach, a blast, state's resources, Torah scholar, man or woman, secular and pluralistic yeshivot, Haredi batei midrash.

This extension definitely doesn't work for us. We think she chose the wrong passage to make her political points. Simply put again: The wife in the story in the Talmud is sad because she does not get sex and so she kills her husband at a distance with her tears.

Now, she could do this distance killing because God determined that she was right and because God decreed that her tears would kill her far-away husband on Yom Kippur.

Calderone selected this passage to read as a parable to politics in Israel today. One psycho-Talmudic interpretation we come up with is that she thinks she is right in crying about how she is neglected by the men in the Yeshivas, and... that God will enable her tears to destroy the men in the Yeshivas who neglect her and destroy their institutions.

Or we can read from this story that Rabbi Rechumei's wife had a direct power to curse and kill her husband and destroy his Yeshiva.

We also can speculate about Calderone's self awareness in writing this speech. It may be that she did not consciously know why she picked this passage to send an implied threatening message to the rabbis.

Or it may be that she knew well how to send a very clever threat to tell the rabbis, "Love me (and my secular Yeshiva movement) or I will make sure that you will drop dead and your Yeshiva will collapse."


Shlomo said...

And presumably she also has issues with her father?

Seriously, you are reading way too much into this. If anything she is taking a passage which is unsympathetic to kollel members, and trying to justify their behavior. Which is a rather clever way to extend an olive branch to the charedi community, to get them not to see Yesh Atid as an enemy.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

After more thought I revised the post to make it sharper. When you select a text that has a student die and a yeshiva collapse, that is not random or any olive branch. Yeah Atid is their enemy and Calderone has issued a severe threat to the Yeshiva establishment.