In Honor of All Those Who Perished in the Holocaust
Ten Questions for Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz
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. For the first part of the ninth question, click here. For the second part of the ninth question, click here.)
Question 9 (Part 3)
In the early part of your life, you spent 12 years studying at various ultra-Orthodox Chareidi 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 Chareidi,“ the good qualities found in the ultra-Orthodox world – their passion and dedication to God.
Rav Cardozo, even though you eventually left the Chareidi world, would you agree with Rav Shagar’s idea of the “authentic Chareidi,“ that there is something modern Jews can learn from the Chareidi world? Do you see any positive qualities and values that you learnt from your time spent in the Chareidi world?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo:
As promised, I will add a few more observations concerning the Chareidi world and why, in spite of my admiration for its passion, commitment and strong attachment to spirituality—especially of the early Chassidic masters—I believe that it is out of tune with authentic Judaism and with the reality of what is happening in Israel and the larger Jewish world. It consequently misses many opportunities to make a significant contribution to the future of Judaism.
(As I mentioned before, this doesn’t mean that I agree with Modern Orthodox’s stand on all issues. It has its own problems, which are no less crucial and detrimental. Perhaps we can discuss this another time in greater length.)
It pains me greatly to write about this, especially because I know many Chareidim who are outstanding people with supreme integrity. Some are my closest friends. They are a constant inspiration and example to me. (The same is true about many of my Modern Orthodox and even secular friends.) Still, there are some very fundamental issues on which I cannot agree with them.
I don’t think that the Chareidi world will ever agree with my positions and observations concerning its attitudes. And perhaps this is a good thing. I believe that its opposition to my suggestions needs to be heard and taken into account by all who fight for the future of Judaism. Not because Chareidi Judaism is right, but because opposition brings out certain elements that the other side may overlook, shows it its weak spots, and adds flavor to it, which it could not deliver on its own – aspects such as passion and deep commitment.
Still, it doesn’t mean that it will ever become the genuine religious movement that Rav Shagar z”l dreamed of (and that I still dream of), unless it makes a 180-degree turn.
What’s worse is the fact that the refusal to admit its failure to understand some basic dimensions of authentic Judaism will ultimately bring down the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, because the latter’s current leadership has adopted the Chareidi point of view on many matters of weltanschauung and Halacha that are in total opposition to the nature of Judaism and to the very reason why the Chief Rabbinate was created – to serve the larger Jewish community. It wasn’t meant to be the rabbinical authority for the Chareidi community, and by adopting the Chareidi point of view it has betrayed its own mission. In fact, the Chareidi world has never recognized the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and has strongly opposed it (sometimes for very good reasons). That it now gives more authenticity to this institution is not a good sign. It only means that the Chief Rabbinate has lost its way.
The Chief Rabbinate should adopt the views below, which are also those of some of my colleagues, not only because these views are closer to authentic Judaism, but also because it is the only way to move Judaism forward in a modern Jewish State. Its refusal to do so has become a serious obstacle to religious growth in Israeli society. The fact that it publicly plays the Zionist card is, I believe, a kind of hypocrisy. In truth, it opposes the Religious Zionist weltanschauung. The only way to rectify this is by radically changing its mind, which the current Chief Rabbinate will never do. With all due respect, I believe that it should step down; otherwise, it will be forced to do so and will be deeply humiliated. And if its members don’t realize this, it will continue to cause ongoing damage to Judaism, compromising it in the eyes of the majority of Israelis and alienating them from their Jewish religious roots. That there is greater interest in Judaism today among the Israeli population is not because of the Chief Rabbinate but in spite of it.
What the Chareidi leadership and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate seem to miss is that their halachic approach is built on a serious misunderstanding of how Halacha develops and has been constantly able to find ways to give halachic guidance in the new social reality, especially within the Orthodox community.
Throughout many centuries, the Orthodox population made changes in their halachic observance due to new circumstances. This was very often not done or suggested by the rabbis, but rather initiated by the larger Orthodox community itself. The rabbis just followed suit. And they did it happily, because they realized that it was the lay people who had much better insight into the conditions of the times than they did. Earlier halachic criteria could often no longer be met by the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, or they were counter-productive. Tosafot (12th-14th centuries), the main classical comprehensive commentary on the Talmud written by hundreds of sages, constantly justifies these changes by innovative halachic argumentation, but nearly always post facto. They had no option but to take that position; otherwise, Judaism would become more and more impractical, unacceptable, or simply irrelevant. (Only a few examples: Berachot 53b, s.v. Viheytem; Beitzah 30a, s.v. Tenan; Kiddushin 41a, s.v. Asur; Bava Kama 16a, s.v.Tasim; Sanhedrin 59b, s.v. Lechol Davar. See, also, the most remarkable responsum of Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein [1390-1460], who justifies the saying of the evening prayers so early that it has no basis at all in Halacha: Terumat HaDeshen, Responsum 1. See also the most interesting critique of Rabbi Avraham Ibn David, the Ravad (1125-1198) on Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 2:2 where he states that even an inferior court can overturn an earlier ruling by a superior court when the latter’s ruling has no longer any meaning. There’s an almost infinite amount of literature on halachic responses to social change that has continued up until our own times! The fact that they were willing to do so showed their courage and simultaneously proved the enormous flexibility of Halacha, which allowed it to remain organic, alive, and relevant.
In modern times, and especially today, we have seen enormous changes in halachic issues that were entirely unacceptable in earlier days. The famous example is the case of the Beit Yaakov movement—with its many seminaries for young Orthodox women—which was heavily attacked by the rabbinical establishment in the 19th and early 20th centuries but was eventually supported by the holy Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan of Radin (1839-1933), one of the greatest halachic authorities of his day, who was in fact an arch-conservative. Sarah Shenirer (1883-1935), the initiator of this movement, realized that Jewish girls no longer got enough Jewish education at home and many started to leave the fold. It became clear that their general education far outdid their Jewish education, and that they were exposed to a new world of secularism. Sarah Shenirer was therefore inspired to establish these schools and seminaries. The Chafetz Chaim understood that he would not be able to stop this initiative. So he not only allowed these seminaries to be established but encouraged them in every way possible. Today, this movement has been accepted by nearly all ultra-Orthodox communities, and nobody questions its validity or halachic justification. Still, this was not at all the accepted halachic position until that time. In fact, it was totally forbidden to teach women this high level and range of Torah. See, for example, the statement “nashim da’atan kalot,“ (Shabbat 33b), which means “women’s minds are lighthearted”; also, Rambam’s Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:13, where it states that “anyone who teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he taught her tiflut [folly].” To put it differently, the Chafetz Chaim did not have the option of forbidding the Beit Yaakov movement. Had he done so, the Orthodox Jewish community would probably not have listened to him once Sarah Schenirer fought for it and showed its absolute necessity.
Closely related to this is the famous ruling by Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993) that women are allowed to (and even should) study Gemara. Here the case was even more symptomatic. Many women had already begun studying Gemara on their own, without anybody’s permission. So it was not even an innovation or chidush by Rav Soloveitchik, but a capitulation to new circumstances (similar to Tosafot). What was new about it was that Rav Soloveitchik was prepared to support it after he realized that any opposition to it would backfire. Moreover, he himself saw the need for it. But by conventional Halacha, he had little to rely on as far as the accepted sources are concerned. But—and here lies the crux of the matter—he realized that his permission to do so was entirely within the spirit of Halacha, which incorporates many values outside “the letter of the law” and even in opposition to conventional Halacha.
What remains a puzzle is why Rav Soloveitchik didn’t do something similar in the case of the Talmudic statement “tav lemeitav tan du mi-lemeitav armelu” (Kiddushin 7a; Yevamot 118b), which declares that a woman always prefers to be married, even with a totally unsuitable husband, than to be alone (since she would not prevail on her own). Rav Soloveitchik declared this to be a “permanent ontological principle” that cannot be changed, even though today nearly no woman would agree to this statement in the Talmud. They would clearly argue that they can stand on their own feet and do not need a husband to provide for them, or to physically protect them. There is no doubt that the Talmud was speaking about women of the past and never meant this to be an ontological statement. If Rav Soloveitchik would have accepted this, he could have helped thousands of women. (See my book Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, Jerusalem 2018, chapter 51.)
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