Seventh of 10 Questions for Rabbi Cardozo – An interview with Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz (For the first question, click here. For the second question, click here. For the third question, click here. For the fourth question, click here. For the fifth question, click here. For the sixth question, click here.)
Recently, I have been invited to respond to ten questions by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz of Yerushalayim. I have agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.
You are known for your incredibly controversial articles about religion and ethics. In one article, you write about the spiritual danger involved if wearing a kippah becomes robotic and meaningless; you discuss the possibility of taking off one’s kippah from time to time in order to feel more spiritually connected to it. Even though you end up deciding against this possibility, the very raising of the question is highly thought provoking. In another article, you criticize Orthodox rabbis for being too afraid to speak at Limmud, a conference that includes Conservative and Reform rabbis. You write that if Orthodox rabbis were confident in their own beliefs, they wouldn’t be afraid of speaking alongside leaders of other religious denominations. Rav Kook, after the founding of the State of Israel, showed enormous courage in supporting the secular Zionists even when he was severely criticized and rejected by the Chareidi world for doing so. Where do you get your courage to write these controversial articles? Do you ever worry about the consequences? Or is this something that you have learned to ignore over time?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: When I was about 14 years old, I was drawn to Judaism for reasons I have discussed earlier. We lived at that time in a small town called Aerdenhout, 20 kilometers from Amsterdam, and I attended a non-Jewish high school, known as a gymnasium. The school, Het Jacques P. Thijsse Lyceum, was housed in a beautiful castle on magnificent grounds. It was known around the country as an exclusive school where, besides core subjects, we also studied Latin and Greek, and whoever wanted could learn classical Hebrew so as to ready themselves for studying the great classics at the best universities.
I was the official representative of our class, which meant that I was the go-between for the class and the rector, the headmaster, and the management of the school. This was a great privilege with many responsibilities.
All of my friends were non-Jews. We often had social evenings at the homes of some students. There was food, drinks and dancing with the girls. While “incidents” occurred, they were innocent compared to what happens today at such gatherings. The Netherlands has legalized soft drugs, which are very popular, and “getting high” is not a big problem. So the Dutch count among their citizens a large number of elevated people! You can buy all sorts of drugs at any corner “coffee shop.” Coffee, however, is not served!
While I was a child with little courage, I now had to prove myself, to stand out and become a bit of a strange bird. I could no longer eat the non-kosher food and refused to dance with the girls. (Some were very beautiful!) To this day, I find dancing a strange pursuit. But this is, lehavdil, also true about Chassidic dancing with great religious fervor. So there is much more to it. Why do human beings constantly need to move and jump, unable to stay put? Why do we need to walk back and forth, even when we’re in the middle of a thought? What is the religious meaning of this, and why are Chassidim very devoted to it? Is there a connection with sexuality, which clearly has a deep religious meaning, as Chassidic teachings have emphasized? An interesting topic that we need to discuss one day!
When I suggested to my fellow students that perhaps I should step down from my role of representative and not come to these evenings anymore, they didn’t want to hear of it and insisted that I stay. They brought me fruit, and the girls understood and respected my request not to dance with them. This was a strange, uncomfortable experience because I was the only one sitting on a chair in the corner while everybody else was swaying! It made me feel like a stick-in-the-mud and a stranger. What I think kept me popular was the fact that I asked the most unusual questions and caused fierce debates that everyone loved. To have a strange and constantly challenging fellow student, who also happened to be Jewish and becoming religious, gave certain uniqueness to the class, which I think made them proud.
I felt a need to explain myself to my non-Jewish friends. I believe that this was the first time in my life that I had to have the courage to elucidate why I was trying to become religious and what it meant to be religious. But by doing so, I was turning myself into an outlandish fellow. This was a completely secular school in the extreme! Fierce debates often erupted with strong opposition to my religious inclinations, but it also elicited a lot of admiration for my willingness to explain and defend a highly unpopular view on life that was no doubt disturbing to them.
When I explained to them that I would no longer pick up the phone on Shabbat, I was attacked for wanting to return to the Middle Ages. I told them that the opposite is true and that I’m far ahead of our times. After all, we are becoming completely enslaved to all the devices we create – whether it is the phone, computer, car, or other items – with the disastrous consequences that we have no time anymore for our own lives and those of our spouses, children and friends. When I unplug my phone Friday afternoon and don’t drive or write, I liberate myself from all these items and create space for many more important and existential matters. So who is enslaved and still living in the Middle Ages – they, or I? This caught them totally off guard!
It strengthened my very being and gave me a lot of courage, which I’ve carried with me throughout my life. Since those days, fear has never stopped me from having courage. I do, however, remember serving in the Israeli army (I was already over 50 and a grandfather) and being taught how to shoot an Uzi submachine gun, which could kill another soldier or other innocent people, including children – the nightmare of any Israeli soldier, even if they are children of the enemy. The thought that I would make a mistake, or have no other option but to fire (collateral damage), made me quite anxious, but I persevered and pulled through. I never forget the quote attributed to Golda Meir: “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”
But my time in the army turned out to be one of the most remarkable experiences in my life. The feeling that I was defending the Jewish people was worth the risk. It was a privilege, and there was a metaphysical dimension to it. And so the fear did not engulf me and ultimately was turned into pride!
At the beginning, I found army life difficult since nobody gave us, older people, any mental training. (I served with about 150 Gerrer Chassidim, many of them grandparents!) We were thrown into this with no mercy or consideration. And the age of about 50 is not the best phase in life to adapt to entirely new, often tough but necessary conditions, which I was not at all used to. I had grown up as a spoiled child, educated to behave properly and be refined and polite. I had never encountered or even contemplated war conditions, although I had heard and read a lot about it when studying the Holocaust. I understand that today this is handled much more sensitively by the Israeli army, and nobody gets called up after the age of 40. In my days, people were called up to do miluim (a month of reserve duty) until the age of 54.
I remember that once at 5:00 a.m. we had to appear in front of our officer, who was many years younger than most of us. When he started using foul language, I stepped forward and said in my broken Hebrew that we who were born outside of Israel were not used to this kind of language and would not accept it. I surprised myself for speaking up, and to my utter astonishment, after being stunned by my remark the officer apologized instead of reprimanding me.
I’m not afraid to die, something I learned from my mother, z”l, who risked her life to save all of my father’s family in the Holocaust. I just hope that I won’t become a burden to my family when I’m very old. I often see other families who suffer terribly when their parents are no longer able to look after themselves due to Alzheimers, cancer or other terrible illnesses. While one can often not prevent these situations, it’s unfair to the children who have their own families and worries. I pray every day that my wife and I will die without any complications, hopefully in our own beds and with a divine kiss. (But let me be clear: I’m not planning to die, and when it happens it’s not my fault! It’s a waste of time and spoils the entire day!)
I am often attacked for my views, and I understand that. To get people, including ourselves, to think and to question our views with the implication that we may need to change our ways is not always pleasant. But if we want to make sure that Judaism has a big future, we have no option but to take that road. The new always carries a sense of violation, a kind of sacrilege. But we need to destroy the security of all conventional knowledge and undo the normalcy of all that is ordinary if we want to move forward. “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare,” said Spinoza (Last line in his Ethics).
But it’s also important not to obscure the real idea of growth, which is not to leave things behind us but to leave things inside us.
At the same time, we are forced to question some components that are now seen as essential parts of Judaism but may, after all, not qualify as such. We must be careful not to embalm Judaism and claim that it is alive simply because it continues to maintain its external shape.
It is a great pity that most of the time those who attack me do so out of ignorance and perhaps jealousy. I have been busy studying the Jewish tradition for over 50 years and have discovered that it is much more profound than I imagined and much more “pluralistic,” with many fascinating ideas that the average rabbi, yeshiva student or religious person doesn’t know. (Neither did I when I was learning in yeshiva.) Some of them are surely much greater Talmudists than I am, but I know a lot about the Jewish tradition that they have never heard about. To say that a great Talmudist is by definition also a great Jewish religious scholar is somewhat misleading. There is much more at stake. The opposite is also true. Without proper Talmudic knowledge one cannot judge or appreciate Judaism. (Spinoza’s huge mistake!)
My advice to my opponents is to go back to the drawing board. Start learning again; not just Talmud but also much of the literature that is post-Talmudic, which is nearly infinite. In fact, Talmudic study alone could stifle the mind and spirit if one doesn’t know how to approach the text and how to read between the lines. (I have already written about this but will still write about it in a future essay.) Even until today, many Talmudic students have fallen victim to this.
Let’s not forget that it’s not even a text but a transliterated voice that one needs to learn how to hear. There is a very good reason why the Talmud was written in a kind of Aramaic telegram style, where words are deliberately left out to be filled in by the imagination of the student. It is made up of highly unconventional debates, most of which remain oral. There is nothing like this in all of world literature.
The wonderful philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, tr. by C.K. Ogden, Dover Pub., NY, 1999, p. 88). In other words: People’s mental capacity is restricted by their command of language. This is very well described in George Orwell’s novel 1984, in which the totalitarian state bans words so as to limit the intellectual capacity of its citizens, which limits their scope of creative thought. This happens in Talmudic circles as well. The less one reads between the lines, the less the capacity to increase Talmudic and halachic possibilities.
I must confess that my essays are often removed from the “parashat hashavua pamphlet desk” of the Modern Orthodox Zionist synagogue where I pray. At first, I found them torn up and dropped in the trash can; now they occasionally disappear altogether. I’m sure that it is a fanatic outsider who is guilty of this and not a member of the synagogue. But the fact that this is tolerated is most unfortunate. What’s even sadder is that all of my 13 books, which I gave as gifts to the synagogue, have been removed (by whom?) and I am no longer invited to speak Friday night after Kabbalat Shabbat or after the Shabbat morning service when one of the synagogue members gives a short lecture. I can’t say for sure that this is deliberate, but it is striking that this happened after I had given a short lecture on the views of the famous kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570), who suggested that one can read the Torah on a metaphysical level and that not all the stories in the Torah actually happened. (See Chesed L’Avraham by Rabbi Avraham Azulai [1570-1643].) In other words, there may be too much literal-mindedness in today’s Orthodoxy, and literal meaning is only the minimal possibility and completely misses the boat on what the Torah tries to convey. It seems that several of my listeners became nervous, were perhaps irritated by these observations, and objected.
I don’t mind that I am no longer allowed to give these short lectures, since it takes a lot of time to prepare them properly on the level I demand of myself. (Remember the famous words attributed to Winston Churchill who apologized for having written a long letter since he had no time to write a short one!) But what I do object to is that nobody has the courage to tell me to my face that I am no longer allowed to teach. This is cowardly and does not befit my good friends.
But again, it may be purely accidental. And my reaction may be the result of a misunderstanding on my side. I am, however, not prepared to get into a discussion about it with the hanhala (the lay-leadership, or the rabbi). It would probably embarrass them, and I consider them my best friends. It’s strange, though, that nobody in the synagogue has asked me why I no longer speak. (Surely there must have been a discussion about it!)
I mentioned all this to some of my close friends who told me that I should leave the synagogue and pray somewhere else, since it’s an insult. But I don’t see it like that, and leaving this community would be a reflection of small-mindedness, which doesn’t solve the problem. I’m not made of that stuff. Much of the objection to what I have to say is the result of ignorance and fear, not willful intent. What’s needed is a different educational approach, which will remove this fear of anything that seems unconventional.
I am telling you and my readers all this, because it’s very sad that a Modern Orthodox synagogue seems to fall victim to fundamentalism. I hope that my words are a warning and will serve as a call and plea that this has to come to an end before things get worse within the Modern Orthodox, so-called open-minded communities.
To be continued.
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