A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales
A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales by Ruth Calderon. Translated by Ilana Kurshan. (Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press, 184 pp. $21.95)
Ruth Calderon’s maiden speech as a newly elected member of the Israeli Knesset was a YouTube sensation in 2013, viewed by over 230,000 in Hebrew and by over 30,000 with English subtitles. The same ability to communicate, to get at the human values and emotions behind stories of the Talmud that so excited viewers of the speech, is present in her newly translated book about stories of the Talmud.
The book collects 17 Talmudic stories and does two different sorts of exegesis on them. The first exploration of a story’s meaning is in a fictionalized format, imagining what each of the characters might be feeling and what their motivations might be. The second is an academic discussion of the motifs and meanings behind the story.
All Calderon’s ideas are informed by her years of teaching and research. She holds a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and taught first at Elul, a pluralistic school for the study of Jewish texts in Jerusalem, and later at Alma, a similar school in Tel Aviv.
What makes the book so unusual and so commendable is that it can work well for readers at different levels and with varied knowledge of Talmud. The beginner will get a sense of what types of stories the Talmud contains and why a text from the third-to-sixth centuries should interest 21st-century Jews. An advanced student will gain new insight into the stories, even those that have been mulled over many times.
For instance, Calderon relates the tale of Rav Rehumi, who was so immersed in his studies in Rava’s yeshiva in the town of Mahoza that he neglected to return home to his wife (Ketubot 62b). When she cries for him, the Talmud cites, “even when all the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of a woman’s tears remain open.”
The wife’s tears come when Rav Rehumi is on the roof of his faraway study house and her tears of anguish cause his death—the roof collapses beneath him and he falls to his death.
Calderon lets us know in an understated manner, “It is a high roof, and the floor below is made of hard stone,” and she tells us that the story shows the rabbi was “a man who simply did not know what love is.”
In the story “Lamp,” a newly married couple forego the usual conjugal activities of their first night together as the husband immerses himself in Torah study and the new bride holds the lamp to light his studies. Calderon says the groom is the son of Rabbi Akiva, who spent years away from home studying Torah in an academy and thus was an estranged father.
She reads the story as the son’s critique of his father’s way to be a man and a Torah scholar.
Calderon writes of the independent son, “instead, he involves his wife in his study of Torah, and
in so doing, he creates a new paradigm for what might take place in the bridal chamber.” She sees this story as a “repair” of the relationship in the Garden of Eden, where a couple has the “sensual pleasure of the fruit replaced by a book and by the joy of intellectual and spiritual connection.”
We are fortunate to have the writings from a teacher of Calderon’s caliber now translated to English so she can connect Jews of all backgrounds to the texts of our heritage.