Why I am Controversial

January 10, 2019

7 min read

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

10 Questions for Rabbi Cardozo – An interview with Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz

“I was hospitalized in Maimonides hospital in Haifa, and I suddenly realized that the Torah was also hospitalized. I was covered in bandages, and I saw how impossible it is to live in bandages. I decided that when I would go free from my bandages, I would not leave my teaching in bandages. I would also free the Torah from its bandages.”  —Rav Shagar (1)  (As told by his well-known student Rabbi Elchanan Nir (2))

Recently, I was invited to respond to 10 personal questions asked by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, co-founder and dean of the Society of Independent Spirituality, a learning center in Jerusalem, which combines Jewish spirituality and Zionism. (3)

I agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.

Here is the first question and my response.

* * *

Question One

You have taught and inspired so many different students over the years, in a variety of religious and spiritual institutions. And yet, I get a sense that your greatest impact is made through people studying your books in general, and reading your weekly spiritual articles in particular. I myself have never sat in your classroom, and yet I feel like a student of yours, having read your books and weekly articles for many years now.

Can you say a little about the educational and spiritual goals of your weekly articles? What do you want your readers to experience when they read these articles? How do you yourself experience these goals and articles?

Nathan Lopes Cardozo: The educational and spiritual goal in my writings and lectures is to create great religious and intellectual excitement about Judaism. I want people to understand that Judaism is a protest movement that challenges the human condition. It abhors religious plagiarism, self-contentment and (religious) behaviorism. Judaism is a challenge, not a drug that people can use to put themselves to sleep so as to feel good about themselves. Louis Jacobs once said that religion has been used to comfort the troubled. We should now use it to trouble the comfortable (4).

Judaism is there to disturb; not to take anything for granted, but to discover the miraculous behind the ordinary. With the passage of years, and because of the Galut experience, it could no longer grow in an organic way. It got stuck and lost its vibrant spirit. Instead, it often became rigid and unbending, and even produced dogmas, which completely undermined its true spirit. Simultaneously, it became overly codified, taken hostage by an uncompromising Halacha, eventually losing its essence.

We should never forget what the famous Danish thinker and father of religious existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, said about Christians:

“The greatest proof of Christianity’s decay is the prodigiously large number of [same-minded] Christians.” (5)

This is also true about religious Jews. The more they behave alike and have identical beliefs, the greater the proof of Judaism’s deterioration. After all, it is impossible for people to be similar in the way they touch on the very meaning of their lives, how they deal with it, and how they stand before God. It can only be personal, different, and full of struggle accompanied by emotional upheaval.

Judaism also became victimized by misrepresentation, deliberate rewriting, trying to mainstream it, and using religious tyranny in order to keep the crowds under control. Many famous rabbis, especially today, are guilty of this. It is the destruction of individuality and the preciousness of the (Jewish) human being.

Because of this, Judaism can no longer respond to new challenges on an intellectual and spiritual basis and, consequently, becomes more and more irrelevant. This is especially true in relationship to the State of Israel, which brought about the most radical changes in Jewish life during the last 2000 years and requires a completely new approach. (See my book Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, 2018.) It’s true that many more young people have become observant and learn Torah, but often this has more to do with religious behaviorism and not with genuine religiosity. I am most concerned of a backlash.

My writings and lectures are a protest against all this. I try to show how much genuine Judaism is (or should be) at the forefront of our time, leading the Jewish people and the world to new spiritual and intellectual dimensions.

I have tremendous confidence in Judaism. It bursts with energy, which you can see throughout the Talmud in its multifaceted contents, its clashing opinions, and its invitation for new ideas. This energy is also apparent in Judaism’s many representations, such as the Ashkenazic, Sefardic and Lithuanian worlds; and, above all, through the innovative thinking of the outstanding Chassidic mentors with their immense rebellion against religious mediocrity. Even the Conservative and Reform movements reflect this. Although they frequently misfired and were too dedicated to “assimilationary” tendencies, they simultaneously warned against Judaism becoming stagnant.

There are, however, several other elements that I believe are crucial in making sure that Judaism will remain not just relevant but able to lead future generations who will live under drastically different spiritual and physical circumstances than we do.

There is too much lecturing and writing about Judaism that is often dry and does not convey its real mission. Judaism is not just an intellectual revolution. It is an encounter with the ineffable; it is the awareness that there is much more to life than what science or philosophy can offer us.

We need faith to penetrate into our very being in order to be really religiously Jewish. Faith is deeper than knowledge. The latter is absorbed by our brains and remains there. When one encounters real faith, all limbs quiver, and upheaval stirs the whole human being (6). Pure scientific knowledge and philosophical inquiry do not have that quality and do not know how to make the human being into a more sensitive person, surely not into a tzaddik. The question is not how much one has grasped Judaism by studying it, but how much of Judaism has permeated one’s very being. It is, above all, an experience that is highly personal and transformational. This doesn’t mean that one needs to behave in a certain way but rather to be a certain way. Its teachings must be transformed into an altogether different substance. It is almost ethereal without losing the ground under its feet. You need to passionately adore it. Once you have embraced it, it must result in your becoming a different human being. And if you didn’t, it means that you didn’t “get it,” although you may be living by its external demands.

So, I believe that Judaism is the most remarkable tradition around, standing head and shoulders above other religions and philosophies, although some of these religions and philosophies have much of importance to say.

But I believe that Judaism has not yet been (fully) born, is still undergoing many birth-pangs, and still stands in scaffolds. It is not yet sophisticated enough and suffers from immaturity.

Judaism’s beliefs have not yet been revealed on a level that gives full expression to what it potentially holds. The way in which it believes in God, “Torah min Hashamayim,” and Halacha are not yet properly expressed and lack sufficient sophistication.

I greatly struggle with these matters and have suggested other approaches to overcome these obstacles. But I am fully aware that my contributions are far from ideal.

I think this is due to the fact that I am unable to raise myself up to the level of kedusha (holiness) that opens up different aspects, which are outside of our run-of-the-mill sensation and way of thinking, and which are required in order to make a real breakthrough. I am still too much rooted in the purely academic world, which does not understand the spiritual qualities that are required to reach holiness. And so I somehow get stuck.

It is only in holiness — a difficult concept to define in Judaism — that we can penetrate these issues as we should. After all, it is kedusha (a holy way of living) that is the ultimate goal of Judaism. It requires such elevation of moral behavior—the nearly bursting of one’s soul out of one’s body, and honest humility—that I feel totally inadequate. Not only does that create a great obstacle, but I am caught in an ongoing moral dilemma. When I write and speak about all these matters and call on others to live a life of holiness, I sometimes feel like a scoundrel and a hypocrite. I know that I am not holy. I still have a long way to go. So how can I teach and write about these topics without feeling like a “pretender”? This causes me great anguish.

All I can say to justify myself is that I have never in my life met a genuinely religious person, but I have met many people who have sincerely tried and still try to be religious. Indeed that is all we can do: try; make the effort. And that is what I do. But deep down in my heart I know that it is not good enough! I could do better, but I don’t! Somehow I can’t pull it off.

But there is another element here that is probably more important than anything else, and it’s not easy to explain. There is an inner call, a shelichut, a mission that I am obliged to listen to and carry out. Even against my will. I feel that it is rooted in my unusual background: the child of a mixed marriage; an unusual secular education; many years of yeshiva learning; and going through much spiritual upheaval, all of which have made my life most beautiful, and often most uneasy if not painful.

I cannot escape this calling. It is too strong to ignore. In fact, it compels me and there is no turning back. Even if I would like to. I have often contemplated leaving this all behind and beginning to live a “normal” life. But when I tried, it completely failed. I have to accept it and turn it into something unique.

It is the reason why I write and teach the things I teach. I know that these matters are unusual and controversial. But this is what I have to do. Especially because I know that by doing so, I am helping many sincere people who are struggling with Judaism as much as I have struggled and still do. If I would not continue, it would be a serious dereliction of duty.

This is difficult for some people to accept, and I value that and understand their concern. Still, this is who I am and what I stand for. What some people don’t understand is that I have a strong affinity to the Haredi world. Its passion for Judaism is irresistible. I dream of it, and that’s the reason why I am so skeptical about this world. To be a Haredi, one cannot be average. One needs to be unique and live a life of such greatness, holiness, and honesty that the slightest deviation from these is a major catastrophe and chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). It should be an elite society, an example to all of us. But very often it is not. So how can it call itself Haredi, which means pious in the highest sense of the word? After all, the mitzvot were given to purge and refine us; when this is not the goal and endeavor of our religious life, why live by it?

But in order to make this happen, I believe that Judaism must undergo a metamorphosis while remaining true to its core beliefs. Halacha needs to be reconsidered so as to be itself again – organic and creative. Because if it isn’t, it won’t be able to respond to the radical new conditions that God has granted us in these unusual days. And how then can we refine ourselves?

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israel

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