The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu

The realization that Judaism began in a non-halachic way is vital to its future and to the future of Jewish identity. Only when we rediscover Halacha’s essence and try to find the spirit behind it will there be good reason to believe that many will re-engage with Judaism. To accomplish this, we need to search for Judaism in its embryonic form, before it became solidified in the Sinai experience. We are convinced that in this way Halacha can retrieve much of its spiritual power, making it more attractive and more in tune with each person’s soul. In fact, we should not forget that for several centuries the ‘de-Abrahamization’ of Judaism has already been set in motion. This is the result of many factors that are beyond the scope of this essay. We can only say that previous leaders, such as Maimonides, Nachmanides, the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and more recently Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, all luminaries of the Jewish faith, realized this. While they made major contributions to overcome this problem, the overall state of the Jewish people has subsequently drastically changed, and new initiatives are necessary. First and foremost, this is due to the establishment of the State of Israel, which ushered the Jewish people into a completely new situation, including Jewish self-determination. Second, the radical challenge to the religious faith of the Jew, due to the Holocaust experience, has been overwhelming and demands new and original ways of responding.

The Existential Meaning of the Talmud

To discover the spirit of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu, it will be necessary to approach the Talmud with the right attitude. Instead of viewing it in the conventional way, through the eyes of the great lomdim (Talmudic scholars) and halachic authorities, we will have to take an existential approach to the text. That way, one can discover the various weltanschauungs that are at the root of the great Talmudic halachic disputes, such as those between Abaye and Rava, or Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. While the approaches of chakirot (Talmudic investigations), pilpul (Talmudic casuistry),and pshat (plain meaning of text) are of great importance, we are convinced that, as a religious text, the Talmud also holds the religious foundations of Avraham’s Bet Midrash. There can be little doubt that when we encounter the disputes of the Tannaim and Amoraim (early and later Sages) we can see patterns of hashkafot (philosophies) to which each Tanna and Amora was dedicated. God endowed each of the Sages with a spark of the multifaceted dimensions of Torah, thus making it possible to trace their philosophies through their halachic positions and rulings, which reflect their individual attitudes toward life, philosophy, and good and evil. Therefore, their ideas and rulings are manifestations of the multi-colored revelation at Sinai based on the Talmudic principle of “eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim chayim” (“These and those are the words of the living God”) [Eruvin 13b].

Due to the fact that each of these rulings will have gone through an incubation period, starting with the faith of Avraham and ultimately finding its way to Sinai, it is in the Oral Torah, of which the Talmud is the main representation, that we are able to retroactively discover the foundations of the Abrahamic faith. It is, after all, the Talmud that gives us insight into how halachic decisions came into existence. The great debates are representations of the ‘pre-thoughts’ of the great halachic minds, in which they reveal their thought processes in the incubation phase before they were finalized. Here, the minority opinions are of great importance and are mentioned accordingly. As a form of archetypal mindset, these debates reveal the subconscious motivations of the multitude of thoughts and existential experiences of faith since the days of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu.

New Halachic Options

Although expanding on the following is beyond the scope of this essay, we believe it is important to mention that it will be necessary to take a much closer look at the many minority and divergent opinions in the Talmud. These religious views, although not accepted as normative, may very well hold the key to the spiritual needs of tomorrow’s Jews. They may even function as alternative options for those who are unable to find much inspiration in today’s established Halacha. In an age when personal autonomy has become crucial, it could be a wise move on the part of the rabbis to allow people to choose between several Talmudic-halachic possibilities. This may help to advance the healthy growth of many young people who are searching for new spiritualities in which they will feel entirely at home (This may be an Orthodox alternative to Humanistic, Reform, and Conservative Judaism).  Since halachic decisions are often the outgrowth of the various faith positions of our earlier Sages, much broader and diverse faith options for our future generations may be possible, and many more people will find a satisfactory and inspirational halachic lifestyle. This is especially important since human beings are made up of such variant and colorful psychological aspects, that it is quite difficult to understand how all of them could possibly live by the same religious code. (This is no doubt the reason why Judaism could never be fully defined and why several religious lifestyles such as the Kabbalistic, non-Kabbalistic, Chasidic and anti-Chasidic communities came into existence.) In this suggested way, traditional Judaism could offer many authentic and diverse forms of living a Jewish life without denying the divinity of the Torah or the authenticity of the Oral and Rabbinic Tradition. (The earlier-mentioned observation of the Sages that “These and those are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b) is a clear indication of such a position.)

The Impossibility of Inheriting Faith, and the Need for Warfare

It is most important to be aware of the fact that people cannot inherit faith and receive the Jewish tradition in conventional ways. They must fight for it and earn it. Experiencing and acquiring faith requires bold initiative, not casual continuity. Religious practice must never be rote; it should constitute a happening. Jewish commitment can be genuine only through constantstruggle and rediscovery.

Every generation must find its own way to God and subsequently to the Jewish tradition. From a religious point of view, were this not the case, there would be little reason for that generation to exist. What, after all, is the meaning of human existence if not to reveal another dimension of God’s multi-colored world and Torah, and thus to gain a greater understanding of self? To repeat what others have said without adding to it is to claim that all knowledge about Him and His Torah has been exhausted, and to insist that we are merely replicas of our forebears. Not only would that set a limit to His omnipotence and to the Torah, but it would also lead to the desecration of His name. To be God is to be a ‘Being’ of infinite possibilities and pluralism, which is reflected in all of His creations.

We are obligated to discover God in new ways, and we must find methods to advance that goal. This is the aim and purpose of the David Cardozo Academy (Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu) – to discover the new in the old. It is far from easy. Spinoza (with whom we have our differences!) says, in the last line of his Ethics: “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.” Still, with much courage and hard work, we can hope to succeed.

To be religious is to live with warfare. It requires constantly fighting complacency and repetition. The need to struggle with Judaism’s foundations while knowing that one is touching on religious truth, and being aware that one will never fully comprehend its meaning, is the only way to genuine religious cognizance.

But how does one accomplish this goal?

To be continued…

Part 3 of a 5-Part Essay

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Dear Friends,

Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so.
— Nathan Lopes Cardozo

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Sponsored Le-ilui Nishmata shel HaZekena Miriam Robles Lopes Cardozo, eshet HaRav Ha’Abir Neim Zemirot Yisrael Abraham Lopes Cardozo, by her daughters Judith Cardozo-Tenenbaum and Debbie Smith