Nathan Lopes Cardozo

An open letter to the chief rabbi of South Africa and his rabbinical court 

The popular program is a golden chance for denominations to leave their own comfort zone and fearlessly tackle the deep ideas
Illustrative: A guitar performance at Limmud FSU in Oakland, California. (Ekaterina Efimova)
Illustrative: A guitar performance at Limmud FSU in Oakland, California. (Ekaterina Efimova)

Shalom u-vracha.

I hope you and your families are all well. 

A short while ago, I was informed that you banned all your (Orthodox) rabbis from teaching at this year’s Limmud conferences in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town, which will take place in August. 

Since I have the greatest respect for all that you have done for South African Jewry, and for the outstanding programs that you’ve built, which have been adopted in many other countries, I am, as an Orthodox rabbi, greatly saddened by your decision. In fact, I am utterly incapable of understanding what your motives for this far-reaching resolution could possibly be. 

I cannot believe that the reason is that other denominations, such as the Reform and Conservative movements, will be present as well. This sounds small-minded and doesn’t reflect the great people that you are. 

If it is the reason, then I believe it’s a huge mistake. Although I suspect that I won’t be able to change your minds, I would like to explain to you and my many readers why I have been teaching at Limmud for years, in many countries, and why I believe it is an obligation for every Orthodox rabbinate to participate. 

As far as I know, only England’s and South Africa’s batei din have taken this radical step of forbidding their rabbis to teach. In all other countries, the Orthodox Rabbinates fully participate, including Chabad. It is also bizarre that those Orthodox batei din that forbid their rabbis to teach in Limmud give their rabbinical kashrut certificates for the food that is served at these conferences!   

Although I have explained my position to you in earlier writings, let me repeat some of the points I’ve made and add a few more.  

What I love most about authentic Orthodox Judaism is its enormous courage. It dares. It avoids neither obstacle nor critique. It enjoys a good fight in order to enrich itself. It loves to confront and provoke. It is a protest movement against all sorts of “isms”; but, above all, against small-mindedness. Its task is to disturb; to fight complacency and spiritual conceit. Judaism teaches that one cannot inherit religion. One needs to fight for it and earn it. To be religious is to live in a state of warfare: to be constantly wary of clichés while struggling for insight; to avoid obstinacy and remain flexible; and, perhaps most important, to refuse to let practice become mere habit, and to strive to maintain spiritual and moral alertness.

I am a child of a mixed marriage and was raised in a completely secular environment. My discovery of Judaism has been an ongoing revelation over many decades. I studied in the ultra-Orthodox Yeshivat Beit Yosef in Gateshead, England, for eight years and then continued learning in other yeshivot in Israel. For many years I have studied secular philosophy, and the more I learn, the more I realize that while these yeshivot gave me a solid foundation of Talmudic knowledge, for which I am most thankful, there is much more to Judaism than these studies alone. I believe that real Orthodox Judaism still has scaffolding, which should remain while the building continues, never to end.

And so I love to go to Limmud, to listen and to teach. Limmud is a place where I am challenged; where I hear new things (including some utter nonsense); where I can fall in love with my fellow Jews, laugh and cry with them, and share my commitment to and struggles with Judaism. 

What I believe Limmud must insist upon, however, is not inviting anti-Semitic journalists (as happened many years ago in London) and self-hating Jews (as apparently happened in Sydney). Nor should they allow for BDS speakers to spread their lies about Israel. Pluralism does not mean that anything goes. “The peak of tolerance is most readily achieved by those who are not burdened with convictions,” said Alexander Chase (1). Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything! 

I hope that I do not need to explain to you that Reform and other denominations, however much we may disagree with them, have nothing in common with these anti-Semitic factions.   

I enjoy hearing lecturers at Limmud, specifically when I know I am likely to disagree with their conclusions. These lectures challenge me to re-examine my beliefs, and occasionally they offer many profound critiques of Judaism. Sometimes I agree with these critiques; sometimes not. 

But one thing is surely true: Orthodox Judaism today is far too dedicated to defensive self-preservation—to propping up sacred cows, which need to be slaughtered before it is able to re-discover itself and once again be authentic. If we don’t admit this, we are just misleading ourselves. And Limmud is a great facilitator, prompting me to help make Judaism once again the primary love of many of my fellow Jews. 

Limmud offers me the entire Jewish world in a microcosm. As one who has been teaching Judaism for more than 50 years, I need to know what is happening in the larger Jewish world — all the struggles, the differences of opinion, the paradoxes, and the pain of many of my fellow Jews who don’t fit into an easily definable box but still love being part of our great endeavor. I am confronted daily with the accusation that Judaism has stagnated; that it is terribly dogmatic; that it no longer advances bold ideas; and that it offers little to the many young Jews who are looking for more spiritual lives. Sadly, I agree. 

The irony is that the teachings and practices that comprise Judaism were designed to avoid just such a scenario. So I ask myself together with my Orthodox colleagues: Can we reformulate or, more accurately, help to revitalize Orthodox Judaism so that it will once again represent a vibrant way of living, without letting go of what I believe are its fundamentals? I think we can, but we need Limmud to help us hear the voices of all these searching souls.

In truth, I believe that most religious Jews — whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform — including myself, don’t even know how much more Judaism has to offer. It contains multitudes; it encompasses a world of sublime ideas, which we have not even begun to grapple with.

I myself have been asked by several Orthodox rabbis not to participate in Limmud, because by so doing I lend legitimacy to other denominations. With all due respect, I consider this utter nonsense. 

Just like the Internet, Limmud is a marketplace for many ideas that now circulate throughout the larger Jewish world. Should I not make use of the Internet at all because within its vastness exist opinions with which I partially or completely disagree and which I sometimes find a bit repulsive or silly? 

Why should I deny the many hundreds of Limmud participants the opportunity to hear a (hopefully) intelligent Orthodox idea on what Judaism is or what I believe it should be? 

Why should I offer Limmud on a silver platter to schools of thought I respectfully disagree with, although I do believe that some are intriguing? 

By telling its rabbis not to participate, doesn’t Orthodoxy give the impression that it fears the other denominations? Nothing could be worse than that. It’s a sign of utter defeat. Is this what you want to accomplish? Shouldn’t these denominations be fearful of the Orthodox, if you, as I do, believe that Orthodoxy holds the “truth,” whatever that may mean?  

I love to sit on panels where representatives of other Jewish religious movements will argue with me. It is a marvelous opportunity to learn, as well as to showcase the Orthodox position. I have a lot to learn from them, and they from me.

In fact, I think all these denominations should realize that the time has come to see where they agree. While it is true that there are differences of opinion, some of them very serious, it is also true that over the last few years important changes have taken place in all these branches — including the Orthodox — which I believe lay the foundation for new opportunities where cooperation is possible, even on an ideological and halachic level. Each denomination must leave its own comfort zone and learn to take risks. 

Though reluctance to do so is often seen as a sign of weakness, one should not make the mistake of believing this to be the full story. The stubbornness to compromise is indeed often related to weakness. But it is also related to the fact that one cannot put reconciliation before one’s conscience. Judaism is much more than politics, economics, science, or even philosophy. 

It is an entirely different category, and not even unity for the sake of unity can be its final goal. Its aim is to achieve kedusha (holiness), promulgate a great religious moral mission, and live accordingly. Why not show and explain this at Limmud? 

I want Judaism to be what it really always used to be: a tradition where ideas can be tested, discussed, thought through, reformulated, and even rejected, with the understanding that no final conclusions have ever been reached, can be reached or should be reached. 

Matters of faith should remain fluid, not static. I want my fellow Jews to fall in love with traditional Halacha — not defensive, but prophetic Halacha, about which famous Orthodox rabbis, foremost Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook — one of the greatest Orthodox thinkers of our day — and many others, have written. After all, Halacha is the practical upshot of living by unfinalized beliefs while remaining in theological suspense. Only thus can Judaism avoid becoming paralyzed by its awe of a rigid tradition or, conversely, evaporating into a utopian reverie.

For all these reasons, we Orthodox rabbis should participate in Limmud. Not to do so is a terrible dereliction of our religious duty. 

Although I suspect that I won’t be able to persuade you to change your minds, I hope you realize that your decision does more harm than good. Let us hope that next year you will decide differently.

With respect, and wishing you Shabbat Shalom from Yerushalayim,

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

  1. Perspectives, 1966.

Dear Friends,

Every week I receive hundreds of emails, as well as a host of important observations on my essays, via our website, Facebook, newspaper blogs, and other media outlets. It is therefore completely impossible for me to respond—for which I apologize—but please be assured that I read every comment, which I deeply appreciate and from which I learn so much. Only in exceptional cases will I respond in a subsequent essay. My office staff will try to be more prompt in posting these remarks on our website.

Thank you very much for taking the time to share your comments with me, as well as with your fellow readers. I hope you will continue to do so.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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