Nathan Lopes Cardozo

The Dangling Bridges of Halacha

One of man’s strongest longings today is for authenticity. We want to be ourselves, or to become ourselves. We admire children’s spontaneity, because they do not yet know how they “ought to” be. They are still impulsive and natural.

Perhaps we human beings are genuine, but we also play the part of being genuine. We may be good, but we love to impress others with our goodness; and we don’t know where one ends and the other begins. There is artificiality in authenticity.

To use a French  expression, we have cast aside l’homme sauvage, the natural, wild, and free man, and replaced him with l’homme civilisé, the civilized man of today. We have become estranged from ourselves, abandoning the paradisiacal purity of the natural man. Through the incessant “ought to” education of norms, the childish innocence has systematically been suffocated and ultimately destroyed. We are caught up in social conventions and behavior patterns. So, real love, friendship and even good citizenship are frustrated.

The ideal of authenticity is like Adam and Chava’s eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Once one has bitten into the apple of genuineness, artificiality emerges. Then man is in need of laws to restrain him so that he may survive, but his inner self pays the price. We, like millions of other people, sit in front of our computers that have opened new worlds for us but have made it no longer possible to see the other. And so we long for more contact… more love…more human trust.

So, does real life not include social tradition and the “ought to,” despite the tension between authenticity and the needs of the society? It is this constant paradox that we must accept, however difficult it may be. Real life is the clash between our inner needs and our outer conditions. To choose one and reject the other is no longer life. To be sure, all this is the irony of our existence, but it should not be confused with cynicism. Since the time of Adam Harishon (the first man), it is the acceptance of paradox that gives life substance.

Halacha is built on this paradox and is the reason behind its call for authenticity as well as for norms and behavior patterns that do not agree with the inner man. Halacha is not consistent; it is full of seeming contradictions that sometimes cause us deep frustration. One day it asks for inner authenticity; the next day it demands conformity. It refuses to inform us why in one case it asks for a genuine, personal inner experience, while in another it disturbingly demands compliance with rules and standards.

The great halachists battle over what should have priority, because they themselves are part of the “problem.” Since they are human beings, not angels, they reflect all the dimensions of human limitation and are therefore highly competent to decide on matters of Halacha, because Halacha deals only with a life of paradoxes and constraints. 

Great halachists do not possess absolute knowledge. They are not scientists who deal with impartial conditions. They deal with human life. And once they or others start to believe that they are infallible, they have left the world of Halacha and succumbed to radical inauthenticity. It is for this reason that God gave the Torah to man. Torah lo bashamayim hi the Torah is no longer in Heaven. Halacha is and needs to be unfinalized, since life can never be perfect. It is unable to conclusively solve all problems because this world is a place where romanticism and its own artificial rules clash with the external conditions of society. Life consists of tradeoffs: equality vs. liberty; justice vs. mercy; kindness vs. truth. All Halacha can do is offer guidelines when absolute answers do not exist. But it converts arbitrary solutions into demands because loyalty to these guidelines needs to become part of the worship of God, since it is God who set up this ambivalence and demands from man to live under these conditions.

Halacha makes rules where rules should not exist but need to exist lest chaos ensue. But it is these very rules that create unsolvable problems that are inherent to our existence. 

In trying to ask for both religious authenticity and conformity, Halacha nearly collapses in its attempt to satisfy both, and consequently builds bridges that dangle loosely and are then declared by Halacha to be castles of security. Halacha is constrained by man’s need to look after his own spiritual wants: the playfulness and innocence of the child in all of us; our real I; and the fact that we have consumed the apple and must now behave because we could not deal with the tree.

It is this balancing act that becomes beautiful once the Divine Will declares it holy and teaches us that life’s absurdity has meaning.    

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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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