Tenth 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. For the third part of the ninth question, click here. For the fourth part of the ninth question, click here. For the first part of the tenth question, click here.)
In your writings, you quote both rabbis and philosophers. On the one hand, you draw your insights from great rabbis such as the Rambam, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Kook, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rav Eliezer Berkovits. On the other hand, you seem to equally find inspiration from great philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. Rabbis tend to focus on loyalty to tradition, while philosophers seem to feel freer to question and seek truth, regardless of tradition. Rav Cardozo, do you see yourself more as a rabbi, or as a philosopher? And part two of this question: Do you think that having the official title of “Rabbi Cardozo” suppresses your true thoughts, or does it rather help to express them?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo:
As I said, I have a talent for “selling” Judaism to many of my “clients,” and I’m sure that I could have sold anything and could have easily become rich. But I decided against it.
To be honest, I find all this frightening. The power of persuasion can easily be used for the most evil ideologies or dishonest practices. Hitler is a typical example of that, in the extreme. He was an excellent speaker who turned into a demagogue. He could sell — to millions of people including academics and philosophers — the idea that the Jews had to be exterminated for the sake of a better future. So many other dictators throughout history were also very gifted speakers, and were thus able to bring great evil upon humankind.
The reason is obvious: Once you have convinced yourself of something you want to believe, you’re able to sell anything if you’re a good communicator.
So, while I feel blessed to have this talent, I am also most afraid of it. The truth is that I could have been not only a good businessman, but also a good priest, bishop or atheist. It all depends on what I could have convinced myself of as being the truth or worthwhile for me to pursue.
Although I don’t have any affiliation with Catholicism or other Christian denominations, I have read many of their theologies and fully understand their religious beliefs. I’m sure I could sell them, because even ideas that are repulsive to me — such as the trinity and incarnation doctrines — would make perfect sense to me were I to accept certain basic Christian beliefs. These beliefs can never be proven or disproven. They belong to a different category and are not open to intellectual scrutiny. As with music and art, one cannot prove or disprove such matters. They just “are,” and they depend on deep emotional needs or preferences. The same is true about secular or religious philosophy. So these Christian beliefs are true from within their own system and can therefore be “sold” as the truth. I could even bring some Jewish sources, if I just “bend” them a little. Christians are not dishonest, but truthful in what they believe. As long as one realizes that this is only true when seen from within the Christian perspective.
Still, to me as a Jew, it is totally untrue. But I can never claim that it’s a sham. Even nonsense is serious stuff and requires our attention, because it’s the other side of the same coin that we can make sense of, especially because (common) sense is so limited. This is what most religious Jews don’t understand when rejecting Christianity and other religions, as I do. The difference between them and me is that I take Christianity very seriously, even if I disagree.
This is also the case with Reform Judaism. Once you buy into its ideology, it makes perfect sense. Still, I cannot and will not opt for it because my intuition tells me there’s something wrong about it. My neshama, my intellectual background, and reading about Judaism tell me that for me it is not authentic — although there are aspects of Reform Judaism that I believe are true and that Orthodox Judaism can learn a lot from. My reading of Conservative Judaism is a topic on its own, which we’ll need to discuss another time.
It is because of my awareness that any religious belief can be sold that I have become so critical of mainstream Orthodox Judaism and skeptical about the way I promulgate my own Judaism, in the way I see it. Who says it’s correct? I am fully aware that the kind of Judaism I believe in and seriously practice makes perfect sense from within its own system. As such, I am honestly promoting it. But I keep asking myself whether its claims of truth are any more valid than the claims of other religions, other Jewish denominations, or secular philosophies. Am I “in it” because it’s something I have grown into and feel at home and comfortable with, or is there something more that makes my Judaism’s claim to truth stand out from all the others?
To be clear: I believe it stands out for many reasons, and one day we need to discuss them carefully. But I am aware that this conviction is at least partially bolstered by the fact that I was born into a secular, partly Jewish family and over the years became an Orthodox although rebellious Jew. Something inside tells me that Judaism has gotten it right. I also believe that my (Orthodox) Judaism is closer to the truth than other forms of Orthodox Judaism, with which I partially or sometimes completely disagree, although I have much in common with them in practice. But it may quite well be because I have a certain kind of Jewish neshome, a type of spiritual DNA that is perhaps different because of my unusual background, my vast knowledge, and my unique reading of this tradition. Still, I believe that for nearly all Jews Judaism is unparalleled because of some kind of language, feeling, and a certain way of thinking that is bound with the Jewish neshama. It’s what Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim would call “root experiences”—historical experiences throughout nearly 4,000 years that made us different from others; the result of various archetypal experiences.
That is true for me and my fellow Jews, but not for the Christian who doesn’t have the same “DNA” and is made up of different spiritual elements that I will never understand, identify with, or live by.
Therefore, I claim that Christianity is not inauthentic. It is authentic for the Christian, but I have no part in it. Perhaps it’s another way to God, which is absolutely authentic but only meant for Christians. For me, claims that the Mashiach has already come, that Jesus is the son of God, and that he is the incarnation of God are completely unacceptable and blasphemous. But that’s because all these claims make no sense from within traditional Judaism. It is clear to me, however, that Christianity reads them in a totally different way, and within that system they make perfect sense. But my neshama and Jewish way of thinking cannot make peace with that. What this means is: If Christianity had not spouted anti-Semitism for hundreds if not thousands of years, it could have worked together with Judaism on many matters that they have in common, such as promulgating monotheism, religiosity, moral responsibility, and the importance of Tanach.
I will end here, and we will continue our discussion next week!
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