Ninth 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. For part one of the seventh question, click here. For part two of the seventh question, click here. For the eighth 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.
Question 9 (Part 1)
In the early part of your life, you spent 12 years studying at various ultra-Orthodox Haredi yeshivot, beginning with Gateshead, and later on at Mirrer Yeshiva and other kollels in Yerushalayim. Eventually you would leave that realm and enter the Modern Orthodox world, which fuses Torah with secular philosophy, psychology, academia, and non-Jewish religious texts.
Rav Shagar, who was a renowned Religious Zionist Rosh Yeshiva, encouraged his modern students to embrace what he called “the authentic Haredi,” the good qualities found in the ultra-Orthodox world – their passion and dedication to God.
Rav Cardozo, even though you eventually left the Haredi world, would you agree with Rav Shagar’s idea of the “authentic Haredi,” that there is something modern Jews can learn from the Haredi world? Do you see any positive qualities and values that you learnt from your time spent in the Haredi world?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: This is a very complex question, and I’ll probably need several “Thoughts to Ponder” to explain want I stand for. I hope I’ll succeed.
I consider myself neither Modern Orthodox nor Haredi. I have big problems with both denominations. And I definitely don’t identify with the Reform or Conservative movements. However, I certainly admire many aspects of the Modern Orthodox and Haredi communities. And I’ve learned a lot from the Reform and Conservative ideologies, their religious struggles and crises, and their disagreements with the Orthodox perspectives.
I very much like the idea of Rabbi Shagar’s “authentic Haredi.” Haredim have a lot to offer in terms of passion, commitment, and religiosity. But they fail miserably in other extremely important matters. The same is true with the Modern Orthodox. They, too, have a lot to offer in terms of dealing with the modern world, but it seems to me that they’re obsessed with secular studies at the expense of religious passion, which has disastrous consequences.
All of this has to be properly explained, and I’ll try to do that later. First, something more personal as an introduction:
The Need for Multiple Conversions.
Although, as you know, I converted when I was 16 years old after having discovered Judaism on my own, over the years I got so used to it that it nearly died within me, even though I honestly believed that I did very well, religiously speaking. One day, however, I woke up and asked myself: Where have you been all these years? Are you sure you still want to be religious and Jewish? I went through the motions but had lost the essence of what it means to be religious. Also, I started to question certain Jewish (Orthodox) beliefs, since my knowledge of the Jewish Tradition had increased considerably, as did my secular knowledge. Besides belief in the divinity of the Torah, which was challenged by the academic community of Bible scholars, there were some severe moral problems with the narrative of the Torah, even more so with some of the divine commandments, and certainly with several rabbinic edicts.
But above all, it was the feeling that I was really a completely secular person who lived a halachic life. This may sound strange but I think that to this day, many religious Jews—especially the Modern Orthodox—live with this kind of ambiguity. And I believe that I belong in the same category. Perhaps the difference is that I’m terribly disturbed by it and it gives me no rest, although I try not to show it.
So I really need to start all over again. It’s a kind of surgery, but this surgery is going on for years and the anesthetics are wearing off. It’s important to realize that nobody can inherit religion, not even from oneself. It has to be an ongoing discovery. I converted when I was 16, but over the years I’ve come to realize that to convert only once is almost meaningless. Nearly every Erev Shabbat I immerse myself in a mikveh (ritual bath), and when I step into the water I say to myself: Let’s see if this time it will make me into a real Jew. Last time I failed. I did not get it. I couldn’t and still can’t “touch” real Judaism — neither its implication nor its transforming power. Sure, this is not an easy way of living, but for me it’s the only way.
Johann Sebastian Bach, My Wife’s Wig, and Leaving the Establishment
Whenever I listen to Bach’s phenomenal music, I feel as if I was hit with an uppercut to the chin and remained unconscious for several hours. That should also, and even more so, happen when I exit the mikveh and try to enter Judaism once more, but it doesn’t. And that’s my problem. I’m still not entirely Jewish in the spiritual sense of the word. I still don’t get as overwhelmed by Judaism’s music as I do by Bach’s. And what I would like to achieve is to have my students and fellow Jews enter the mikveh together with me and ask ourselves: Are we really Jewish? Are we constantly being transformed by the tradition called Judaism?
The awe-inspiring sense of the presence of God is the awareness of being known by God. God and Judaism are a challenge rather than a notion. How do I reach them? Is it possible? I still don’t know because I haven’t yet gotten out of the mikveh. I’m still standing in the water and waiting. If I don’t get out, I’m defeated. Or am I? Perhaps we only need to keep on trying. But seriously trying, and not just by being very careful halachically. And I want others to try as well. Perhaps more cannot be expected from us.
This is indeed very painful. But who says that a person should live without pain, especially if that means living a life of conventional notions and mental clichés? To be a Jew is to know and feel that one lives the unbelievable. I admit that my life is far from easy but spiritually it is surely unbelievable and “painfully beautiful.” But is that enough? Looking back, I believe that my life turned out to be very unusual if not a little absurd. When I was young and it all happened — my so-called transformation and conversion — I thought it was very ordinary. Who, after all, lives a normal life? But now that a good part is behind me and I’m surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I realize that it’s all really very strange.
Here I am with these children, all of whom are religious, including some Haredim with payot (sidelocks) behind their ears, and most of them living in Israel, and I wonder how this all happened.
When I see my wife with a sheitel (wig) on her head, I realize that in my earlier religious days, I took this for granted, while now – more than 50 years later – I’m suddenly shocked and question the validity of it. I can’t see anything normal about it. Who in the name of God hides her hair and puts on a wig! This needs not only an explanation, but deep soul-searching to discover the meaning and the experience behind it.
It seems like yesterday that I was at a non-Jewish school playing with a non-Jewish girl whom I was sure I would marry one day; yet now my wife wears a sheitel and I find myself speaking with my grandchildren about a difficult Meshech Chochma (a famous commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk [1843-1926]). I sometimes think that God has a great sense of humor. But why does He try it out on me?
I think that over the years I became more consciously religious, but that also meant I had to leave the religious establishment, as far as my ideology and sometimes even as far as conventional Halacha is concerned.
So it is not at all what some people think when I question Judaism or Halacha – that I have turned my back on Judaism. The truth is that today I have not only a much better appreciation of it, but also a deeper commitment to it.
The Calvinistic Dutch
However strange this may sound, there is another problem. I’m Dutch! Dutch Jews — and, by the way, German/Swiss Jews as well — have always been inflexible and terribly Calvinistic. Everything was done the “proper” way and neatly arranged in mental boxes. That was even truer of Orthodox Jews. I am reminded of a story concerning Rabbi Meir Shapira, the Rav of Lublin and one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of his time. When he came to Frankfurt’s Orthodox community, they showed him a kosher ice cream emporium. Rabbi Shapira saw a large notice stating: “All our products are frozen under the supervision of the Rabbinate.” “True,” he could not help saying, “of the whole of your Judaism!”
They were Calvinistic shomrei mitzvot (observant of the Jewish tradition and Halacha) with a flavor of Christian theological behavior. Their top hats were often just as important as their tallitot, if not more! I still see this in some of my Dutch friends – even those in Israel. They try hard to break out of this Calvinistic harness but don’t seem to succeed. And above all, I surely see it in myself as well. When I laugh at them I’m also laughing at myself! We can’t help it. It’s in our genes! There are positive aspects to it, of course, but it has confined many Dutch Jews, denying them the chance to try new worlds and turning them into constrained behaviorists. The difference with me is that while my mentality is not so far from theirs, my weltanschauung has totally broken with that world. But I carry the genes!
For all these reasons, I cannot relate to the great Haredi rabbis who today are the spokesmen of this community. While there may be some great people among them, they do not speak my language and I don’t speak theirs. They remind me of Rabbi Shapira’s description: frozenness. Nevertheless, there are no doubt exceptions.
Being a Western Sephardic Jew
The same is true concerning me, being a Portuguese Sephardic Jew. The Sephardic rabbis in Israel are even further removed from my culture, since they came from Middle Eastern and North African countries with their own culture. They have very little in common with the Western Sephardic mentality, where I come from. The latter is really a very nice tradition: deeply religious, flexible, and very cultured. But over the centuries that the Portuguese Jews stayed in Holland they also became very Calvinistic.
Only in later years was I able to understand these worlds and appreciate them for what they are, although my views on many matters are far removed from theirs. It was, however, very refreshing that there were some Sephardic halachists who showed tremendous courage and clearly spoke my language. They understood the situation of Jewry in the 20th century better than most of their colleagues. I’m thinking of the first Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Chacham Ben-Zion Uziel, former Chief Rabbi of Haifa Rav Yosef Mashash, and some others.
So I get caught up between all these worlds.
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