Time to Revitalise Judaism: A Respectful Challenge to the Jewish Establishment

     Review of “Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage,” by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo

     As author of “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalising Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet,” I was immediately intrigued by the title of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s new book. The idea that Jews should not blindly accept the status quo but should use Jewish law as a source for rebelling again complacency, denial, injustice, oppression, and more, with the courage to apply Jewish teachings to help promote a better world excited me.

    My eagerness to read the book was increased when I read the eight pages of blurbs from a large group of distinguished Jews who extolled the book. These include former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (”a challenging, even provocative book … a work well worth reading …“), Rabbi Irving Greenberg, and his wife Blu (“For decades Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has been a prophetic voice in  contemporary Judaism… before you is an intellectual spiritual feast.“), Susanah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (“raises profound questions that disturb complacency and demand the attention of our hearts and minds.“), and Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland (“Anyone who wishes to appreciate both the potential of halachic Judaism as well as the challenges it poses will be greatly enriched by this impressive work.”).

     An additional incentive to read Rabbi Cardozo’s book was his statement in the Acknowledgements that the most influential person on his thinking, along with Rabbi Eliezer Berkovics, is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a person I have long regarded as a hero and an inspiration.

    So I started reading “Jewish Law as Rebellion” with great anticipation. And I was not at all disappointed, as the book, which contains almost 450 pages of Rabbi Cardozo’s essays and articles, is a constant source of challenging ideas and inspiration, which are much needed today. I strongly recommend it as it has the potential of revitalising Judaism and making it relevant to today’s challenges.

     Here is just a sample of his lovingly presented ideas that if heeded would shift Judaism to a transformative religion with great benefits to humanity:

  • The purpose of Halacha is to disturb, to not only comfort the troubled but also to trouble the comfortable. But, “Halacha has become nearly passe, … jailed in compartmentalised and awkward boxes.” (Page 35)
  • Our yeshivas are failing to properly educate students, having retreated from creative thinking and instead teaching students what to think rather than how to think. “We are in need of a radically different kind of yeshiva: one in which students are presented with serious challenges to Halacha.” (Page 41) But, “we are instructing our students and children to obey, to fit in, to conform, and not to stand out.” (Page 42)
  • “Judaism needs to be instilled with greater spiritual vitality and religious vigor” (Page 64) But, today’s Jewish community generally involves conformism, with independent thought and difference of opinion condemned.
  • “Orthodox Judaism has become over-codified and is on its way to becoming irrelevant.” (Page 59) Many young Jews are searching for an authentic Jewish life, but but are turned off by a Judaism that they find monotonous, standardised, and external, and not a response to a search for meaning.
  • While Jews are to live with a sense of radical amazement, seeing the hand of God in all of life, “Halachic living is severely impeded by observance becoming mere habit.” (Page 173)
  • While there is a Jewish obligation to be a “light unto the nations,” universal issues are generally being ignored as most present-day Halacha is self-centered, with very few halachic authorities addressing current national or global crises. Searching Jews are finding an absence of a sense of mission or concern for the rest of humanity, animals,and the planet.
  • To combat the above problems, Judaism desperately needs bigger, bolder ideas,

To provide such ideas and to help overcome the problems mentioned above, I propose the following:

•Responding to climate threats should become a major focus in Jewish life today since climate experts are warning that we may soon reach a tipping point when climate change spins out of control with catastrophic consequences.

•Vegetarianism and veganism should be put on the Jewish agenda since animal-based diets violate basic Jewish teachings on health, compassion, sharing, justice, environmental sustainability, and other values.

•Since, contrary to Jewish teachings, animals are widely abused today, using Tu B’Shvat, ‘The New Years for Trees,’ as a model, the ancient ‘New Year for Animals,’ initially used for tithing of animals for sacrifices, should be renewed. It should be transformed into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s teachings on compassion to animals and how far current realities are from these teachings.

Responding to Rabbii Cardozo’s loving, respectful, challenging critique of Jewish life today by making such changes would help revitalise Judaism and bring many currently alienated Jews back to Jewish involvement.