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Ruth CalderonFilmed at UJIA Sippur 2015

In this time of religious and cultural tension in the world, I believe returning to the great books might give us the right language to better understand each other and work towards peace. Through a close reading of the story of Rabbi Akiba and the text of the Shema, this talk explores the concept of One, Echad, in the Jewish tradition, encountering along the way a remarkable overlap with Islamic thought.

Dr. Ruth Calderon is one of Israel’s leading figures spearheading efforts to revive Hebrew Culture and a pluralistic Israeli-Jewish identity. In 1989, she co-established ELUL in Jerusalem, the first beit midrash in which secular and religious women and men studied and taught together. In 1996, she founded in Tel Aviv ALMA, which a Jewish liberal arts program for advanced learning. Dr. Calderon is the author of “A Bride for One Night” (2001), a personal homiletic reading of Talmudic legends, and “Talmudic Alpha Beta” (2014). From 2013-2015, Dr. Calderon was a Knesset Member from the Yesh Atid Party, where she was Deputy Speaker, member of the education and state control committees, and Chairperson of the Lobby for Jewish Renewal.

When I want to think about something, or I want to tell something to other people, I usually need a text. So tonight, I brought with me a text or even a few, with which I would like to talk about one, about echad. I chose rather a dark text, not only because the season is dark and maybe that’s the season when people tell themselves dark stories with some kind of a good ending.

But also because I come from Israel and we are in a dark period at the moment. These are difficult days. And when the present is difficult, I many times go back to the Jewish bookshelf, to the wisdom of the writers, the thinkers, the fathers and I try to take advice or think together with them.

So the story is going to be of a hero that we all know, Rabbi Akiba. And I’ll start with the Jerusalem Talmud. The story begins one night, very early morning, when the Romans are coming to take Rabbi Akiba, that was caught because he was teaching and studying Torah, when it was not allowed by the Romans. And he… I’ll read for a minute the Aramaic and then we’ll read the English:

[reads in aramaic]

Rabbi Akiba was being tortured before Turnusrufus the Wicked – the Aramaic says ‘was being judged by’ and the English goes to tortured so you should learn Hebrew and Aramaic and not trust translations! Rabbi Akiba was being judged by Turnusrufus the Wicked – it’s the trial we know that the Romans want to kill the Jews that are studying Torah and we know that he’s one of the ten martyrs that were killed because they went on studying Torah and teaching Torah when it was not allowed.

So it’s the last day of his life and it’s the frightening moment of being judged and knowing that he’s going to be killed, he’s all alone there. So when the writer is talking about the time, the time is his last day, but the next sentence is, “the time came for reciting shema“. What’s the time for reciting shema? Like today? Early morning, when the light just begins to come up. So it’s the darkness of night. He’s wearing, what the convicted wear, he knows that he’s going to be killed, but suddenly the light begins to come out.

He began to recite the shema. We know the shema yisrael. And he’s reciting the shema and he’s smiling. So the hangman, the Roman, that came to kill him, stops the whole ceremony, he comes with the tools of torture and killing, he stops it and he says, “Old man, Old man” [reads in Aramaic]… You are either an imbecile or you are contemptuous of suffering, what’s happening to you? How come you’re smiling? This is one thing the hangman has never seen, he’s seen all kinds of things with people that are going to be killed, they never smile. So he stops it and he asks him, what is this, why are you smiling?

And Rabbi Akiba answers him – it’s a kind of an amazing dialogue in the middle of this movie – there’s a close up between the victim and the hangman. And he says to him, “Blast your bones,” it’s kind of a swearing, “I’m neither an imbecile, nor am I contemptuous of suffering, but all my life, I read this verse Shema Yisrael and was distressed thinking, when will I fulfill the three?” When will I have the opportunity to really read shema yisrael, not as something that you just say, but as a speech act.

[…] with all my heart

[…] with all my soul

[…] with everything that I have. The translation says with all your muchness, the Yerushalmi says with all my money, with everything that I possess.

And I loved him with all my heart and I loved him and I gave everything that I own, but I never had the opportunity, I never was tested if I would give my soul, would I give my soul for the truth, for God.

And now, he says to the man that is going to kill him: you think that I’m the victim here and you came to kill me and you came to kill Judaism and you’re getting rid of us. But actually, you are working in my film, you have worked all this up and you made me… the time is exactly the time of the shema and you’re going to let me, or make me able to actually live the verse […] at the same time.

It’s like a big code that Rabbi Akiba wants to do with his own life. Excuse me for the example, but it’s like three oranges in Las Vegas. There are some things that he believes, or he says to us, if I this in the right time with the right words and I will actually do it, it’s not you winning but I am the one that is coming out well from this story. So this is why I’m smiling.

The time for reciting the shema has arrived, and my mind has not wavered. You are torturing me but I’m still intact and I understand and I can give my soul, it’s not being taken from me.
For this I recite and smile. He hardly finished saying it when his soul ascended. So he died saying the shema.

I’m going forward some 300 years to the Bavli. The Talmud Bavli – the first one was the Jerusalem Talmud, which was edited in the 3rd Century in Tiberias – that’s why it’s called Jerusalem Talmud – and now I’m going to the Babylonian Talmud in the 5th Century. They say the same story that they had from Palestine, from Eretz Yisrael, but they make it a little different and we will not study the whole text, but just noticed a few things. One is that it begins with Beshaa, the time, the time that […]

The time when they took Rabbi Akiba to be killed was the time of keriat shema. And the storyteller says that, understanding our reality, it looks like the time of our life one thing happens, but actually if you change your view, you are not the victim, you are the one that is making the story go forward. The important time is the time of keriat shema. And they were [….], while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. [….] Reciting the shema already, between the Jerusalem Babylonian Talmud, becomes what a Jew says when he is receiving upon himself the [….], the kingship of heaven.

And his disciples said to him, our teacher, even to this point – remember that in the Yerushalmi there were no disciples, he was all alone, him and he hangman – suddenly the students come and it’s a little bit echoing another story that happened with the Romans, with a teacher who is killed with his students …

The disciples come and it becomes a kind of an educational moment. They ask him, this far, and he explains to the students and he says, all my days I have been troubled by this verse, with all thy soul, even if it takes thy soul, I said to myself, everyday when he was looking at the mirror, and seeing his eyes, he would say to himself, when shall I have the opportunity to fulfill this? Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfill it?

He prolonged the word Echad. You know how Jews all over the world today, when they say Shema Yisrael, they say in the end, echaaaad?

Because of this story, because Rabbi Akiba flew or left this world and transcended on the word Echad. In the Talmud it means a lot what is the last word that a person says. This is the word, the word is like a flying object that takes him up to the heavens. He prolonged the word Echad until he expired while saying echaaad.

A bath kol went forth and proclaimed: Happy art thou, Akiba, that thy soul has departed with the word Echad.

So we understand it’s a very sad story, it’s a story of martyrdom, but Rabbi Akiba collides with the One, while saying the word one, and everything becomes one. […] with all your heart, with all your soul, all your might, and the human being can only in this way unite, not only be killed with others, but unite with the One.

So I’ve been reading this story many times, reading it and studying it with people. But this summer something new happened to me. I studied it with a group of Muslim clergy in Jerusalem. And I was a bit embarrassed to bring this story, because it’s a story that is very radical, Jewish radicalism, Rabbi Akiba is very fierce here.

And one of the clergy was an Imam from America, a black man, and he said, why stories, what’s so important about stories? Can’t we learn the philosophy?

And I said, a story that your mother used to tell you when you were little is something that would effect your life, all your life. And Rabbi Akiba is one of our heroes.

And while we were studying, suddenly he stopped, and he said, I want to tell you a story. And he told me the story of Bilal Ibn Rabah. And he said that when his mother would feed him when he was a little boy in, I think he grew up in America, she told the story of Bilal who was a slave, an African slave, who found Islam and became a Muslim. But he was bought by a master that didn’t like Islam and wanted him to change his beliefs. And Bilal wouldn’t change, and they would torture him and they put a big rock – this is what he told me – they would make him lie on the hot desert and they put a big rock on his body, and he yelled Wachad, Wachad, Wachad. One. One.

And I didn’t know this story and I thought that I’m telling them, Rabbi Akiba’s story is something that will be so foreign to the Muslims and suddenly I learned that they have a hero, Bilal, that after this happened he was bought by another master, and Mohammad met him and when they were looking for someone to call for prayer, they said, maybe we’ll use a bell, but the Christians already have a bell. Maybe we’ll use a horn, but the Jews already have a horn. We’ll use human voice. And Mohammad looked at him and said, Bilal, you have a good voice, you’ll be our first mu’azim, the person that is calling people for prayer.
And he was shocked because he was black and he was a slave and he thought that he’s not equal to everyone else and Mohammad said no, in Islam everyone could be equal.

And I learned that moment that I am so ignorant of Arabic and Islam. I live in Israel, we hear a lot of Arabic, but somehow we don’t study enough. And I understand that, while I feel at home in Hebrew, I feel at home in the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba is one of my heroes since I’m a little girl, this is home. But in the street, or in the neighbourhood, there’s also Muslims who are kind of cousins of ours, there’s also Arabic and there are so many options of feeling not alienated and far away and as the enemy, but something so close, like Wachad and Echad. Like Sulcha and Slicha, and forgiveness.

And I believe that if, maybe, if we will go towards peace with the option of Sulcha, which is an option of negotiating with pride, with honour, like you talked about, gravitas, with something that sees the other, understands their culture also, appreciating their words and the similarity of Echad and Wachad and Slicha and Sulcha. And Salaam and Shalom and it’s really so close that for me this is maybe the light in the darkness of the season, in the darkness of the time we live in and in the darkness of what happened to Rabbi Akiba.

Now, there is a young artist that tried to make graphically a new language that she calls, Aravit – Arabic v Ivrit. And she took the top of Arabic and the bottom of Hebrew, and I won’t go in length but you can understand it. And she tried to make it into one language. And I just want to say that if the time will come in the Middle East that if we can all read and understand this language, but really understand, there will be some light.

Thank you very much.

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