Continuation of Question 9 – My Chareidi and Modern Orthodox Struggles
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.)
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 2
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:
The Idolization of Rabbis
Another factor that plays a role in my difficulties with the Chareidi community is the idolization of what they call the gedolei hador (the great ones of the generation). That never sat well with me. I had always understood that Judaism taught us to stand on our own feet, and to ask great rabbis for their halachic rulings only when the questions were complicated. One could, of course, also ask their advice on matters, but these were never to be considered halachic rulings that had to be followed. Around the time that I came to Israel, it started to become fashionable to view these people as faultless. They were turned into almost divine beings.
When I discovered the Religious Zionist world—including the writings of Rav Kook, Rav Eliezer Berkovits, Rav Yehuda Amital—and even some who didn’t belong to the Orthodox world but were deeply religious, such as Franz Rosenzweig and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel— a new world opened up for me. Though they were never considered by the Chareidi establishment to be gedolei hador, they were, in my opinion, much greater than some of the Chareidi gedolim, but I was completely ignorant of them. Besides having a broad understanding of Jewish law, they were independent thinkers and real tzaddikim. But since no one gave them much attention, I wasn’t aware of them. This was also due to the fact that they were never seen as “gedolei hador” by their own followers because the whole concept of a gadol hador, as understood by the Chareidi world, is completely foreign to the Religious Zionist community.
One more word about the idolization of rabbis: When I was learning in Gateshead Yeshiva, a very Chareidi institution, there was little of that. Everyone had enormous respect for the rabbis, but there was no idolization. They gave advice, but it was never turned into a ruling if it was not of a purely halachic nature. In fact, any attempt to idolize them would have made them deeply upset. But now we’ve been introduced to an even more disturbing dimension of this – Da’as Torah – a type of semi-prophetic insight of the rabbis, which is to be seen as the final, objective word on any issue, as if God Himself has spoken. I find this a little amusing, since these rabbis, who have so many varied and even opposing opinions, all claim to have Da’as Torah. It’s difficult to see how that works. And if they would respond to this difficulty by saying that there are many opinions within Da’as Torah, then we’re back to square one!
I do, however, believe that there is something that I call “Ruach haTorah.” Something can be said in the spirit of the Torah, and that can include many opinions!
The Marvelous but Isolated World of Gateshead Yeshiva.
Let me also say that my many years of learning in the Chareidi Gateshead Yeshiva in England were very important to me and gave me much happiness. Rabbi Chaim Rodrigues Pereira and Rabbi David Brodman, both remarkable people to whom I owe a lot for having taught me so much, were serving in the Amsterdam Rabbinate and fought for me to get into this illustrious yeshiva. But there was a lot of adjusting to do. When I got in, I was not prepared for the shock that I suffered. I still remember that my father took me there, and once we entered this strange world we were overwhelmed by the kindness of the families who hosted us, but it was millions of years away from anything we knew. Hundreds of bachurei yeshiva, all in black suits and hats, walking around nervously, shouting at each other while learning Talmud – this was not exactly what we were accustomed to. My father wanted to take me home immediately and rescue me from this obscure world. Remember, I was only 16! I recall asking myself what made me want to be part of this insulated world, which seemed to have no connection whatsoever with the outside world, not even the larger Jewish community. However, I kept silent and asked my father to let me stay. He left a few days later with a heavy heart. This was one of the most difficult moments in his life.
Anyway, I threw myself into the deep waters of yeshiva life, which was both very painful and wonderful. I missed my family and their lifestyle, and for many months I would write a letter to my parents weekly that I was coming home to attend university. But whenever I threw myself into the Talmudic studies, I felt great and would decide not to send the letter. I forced myself to get into this fascinating world of chakirot and pilpulim (sharp Talmudic inquiries and argumentation) only to once again long for the “other” world. It was a strange situation that I never really got used to. I believe that I remained the insider-outsider even to this day. Today I watch myself watching myself. It makes little sense but is a great experience! It feels like watching yourself in a mirror while looking in a couple of mirrors one behind the other, so that you see yourself in multiple copies, each one true but different from the others.
It’s important to mention that Gateshead Yeshiva was not Yeshiva University in New York. There were no secular studies, and there were no “enlightened” people in the conventional sense of the word. There was no place to have a coffee in a kosher restaurant, and surely no opportunity to meet a girl. The girl who later became my wife, Freyda Gnesin, was also in Gateshead at the same time. She studied in the famous Gateshead Jewish Teachers Training College, known as Gateshead Seminary. There were several hundred girls there and its many buildings were only a few hundred meters away from my yeshiva. But that was an optical illusion. In truth, they were living on another planet, light-years away. There was no contact with this seminary’s residents. I knew Freyda from the Dutch town of Haarlem, where we used to meet at the synagogue and had become friends. Sometimes I wanted to speak to her, but how could I in Gateshead? My trick was to try to get her on the phone by pretending that I was her brother. The problem was that everybody knew she had no brother! But it still worked. We would also meet at the home of a partially Dutch family that was extremely nice to me and helped me through this difficult time at yeshiva. The mother of this family was of Dutch origin and had some concept of a more secular Jewish community, such as the one in Holland. So their home became somewhat of an ir miklat (city of refuge).
The Timeless Yeshiva World and Spinoza
The fascinating thing about the yeshiva was that it existed outside any concept of time. Once you were inside, you couldn’t sense that it actually operated in the 20th century. It could have been the 12th or 17th century, and no one would have known the difference. All externals disappeared. This was a world unto itself, made up of singularly focused people learning Torah in full force. There was no walking out to the street for a few minutes to get some fresh air. Not only was it dangerous, since so many drunken people wandered around, but it was considered bitul zman (a waste of time). There was only one thing: to throw yourself into the Talmud. This wasn’t a Jewish university for religious studies; it was life in the messianic age. Most of the yeshivot in Israel have nearly nothing in common with Gateshead. Perhaps in B’nei Brak or in Meah Shearim you can find a few, but even in those places there’s an atmosphere where one can walk around and have a talk over a cup of coffee in a restaurant next to the yeshiva. None of that existed in Gateshead.
And therein lies my problem. I loved this world and felt like a fish in water, but subconsciously I knew that this was not the real Jewish world. It couldn’t have been because there was a huge gap between this world and what the Talmud told us about real Jewish life. Something didn’t make sense. We were reading texts that described the greatest sages as farmers and businessmen who discussed the financial world, interest, damages, sexuality, agriculture, farming and so on. But in our world in Gateshead there were no farms, no animals running wild destroying a neighbor’s property, and not one of our rabbis was a farmer or peddler. There were only our shtenders (lecterns), on which the Talmud was placed and at which we were able to study its fascinating text. But the distance between what the text described and what the yeshiva was all about was the distance between heaven and earth. And that’s where I got stuck.
It reminded me of Spinoza, who in some way was a bachur yeshiva. He lived in a small room in Rijnsburg, the Netherlands. That was his beit midrash (study hall) and, like the yeshiva students, he almost never left it. There he built his universe and wrote his masterpiece, the Ethics. But just like in the yeshiva, his deep thoughts, insights and noble feelings, which are timeless, are not of this world. They are ahistorical, and that is exactly what makes them suspect. I love many of Spinoza’s ideas, but I am certainly not a Spinozist. His ideas are so beautiful that for most people they’re totally unreachable. His famous sub specie aeternitatis, in which he tried to see everything from the perspective of eternity, is beautiful but for the most part unreal. Spinoza’s problem was that he wasn’t married and didn’t have children, so he never had to deal with a crying baby in the middle of the night, or stepping on a toy while looking for a pacifier! Or making sure his marriage wouldn’t fall apart. To a certain extent, the same problem existed in Gateshead Yeshiva. While the Talmudic text was generally – although not always – very down to earth, the rabbis and students lived in Spinoza’s universe.
I kept asking myself how this would work in real life. Although the Talmud is down to earth most of the time, the question that needs to be seriously considered is whether its laws can be implemented in a sovereign Jewish state. I think they can. But only if we make use of its many minority opinions and understand the meta-halachic background to all these laws, which takes into account the social conditions, which have drastically changed in the last 1600 years since the Talmud was written. We should also not forget that there was a very different perception of religiosity then.
Judaism was badly compromised. It became purely religion, only to be experienced in the synagogue or Jewish home, because the Jews had lost their homeland and a large part of Judaism was made inoperable. The Talmud was actually a product of the diaspora and deeply influenced by it.
What if the Talmud had been written while the Jewish commonwealth was still fully operating? You get a partial taste of this in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was written in Israel. The truth is that this is a huge and complicated problem. The question that must really be asked is whether the Talmud needs an upgrade, since many of its presumptions are part of a world that no longer exists. But perhaps we can say something about this another time. (See my new book: Jewish Law as Rebellion: A plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications.)
I never completely left the Chareidi world. It’s true that I became critical of it (more about that later), but my roots are definitely there. Gateshead Yeshiva shaped me and I have strong nostalgic feelings toward that world. What was most amazing about the yeshiva staff was its absolute integrity. The roshei yeshiva were close to being angels. They lived lives of absolute purity. There were no politics and no self-aggrandizement; only total simplicity. In the earlier days of the yeshiva, there was nothing to eat and the roshei yeshiva saved every little bit of food and gave it to their students.
They lived their lives as Spinoza lived in Rijnsburg, the only difference being that they had no arrogance, only humility. This made a deep impression on me. There was no competition between them, no scandals, and no quarrels – just Torah in all its sublimity. There was Rabbi Moshe Schwab z”l, who was the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual guide) of the yeshiva, brother of the famous Rabbi Shimon Schwab z”l of Washington Heights. Rabbi Moshe gave mussar shmoozen. They weren’t intellectual discourses like Kant’s sophisticated insights about ethics; they were emotional, often spontaneous, outbursts of love for God and humans. They would lift us up to heaven and ask of us to be supreme human beings and Jews. Those moments are unforgettable. Nothing in the world comes close to those experiences. Later, it was Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon – today’s mashgiach in the illustrious Lakewood Yeshiva in the United States – who would give beautiful and inspiring talks on parshat hashavua (the weekly Torah portion). I would cling to every word. Today I may not agree with some of their opinions, but it was certainly deeply inspiring!
To be continued after Pesach
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