Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Things that aren’t on the map

A friend of mine once told me that he had an unusual experience that took him by total surprise.

Many years ago he had walked around Moscow, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, consulting a map so as to know where he was. From where he stood, he could see several huge churches — but not one of them appeared on the map. When he asked a tour guide, he was told, “In Russia we do not show any churches on our maps.” When he showed the guide that there was one church that was marked on the map, the guide responded, “That is a museum, not a living church. It is ‘living’ churches we do not show.”

My friend asked me what I made of that statement. I told him that I often had been confronted with this same strange phenomenon. I had seen, studied, or experienced many great things that were denied by – or absent from – my school or university education, and even my yeshiva. In fact, very often these matters that were left “off the map” were those that I cared about most.

I received a great secular education in which my teachers kept telling me that the matters I cared about most were nothing more than “museums” — irrational beliefs and superstitions. These were matters that my ancestors took very seriously, and consequently subjected themselves to certain beliefs, rituals, prayers, the Bible and different forms of religious experience.

However, I was told that today we know better, and I should ignore these matters. Sure, one was allowed to speak about the Bible and prayer, but not in the sense that they really have value, or that they are true, or applicable to real life. Sure, these beliefs were to be treated with respect since our ancestors believed in them – but while they may have been great people, in truth they had fallen victim to backwardness and underdeveloped concepts.

The point my teachers, including my professors, were making was that on the real map of life only those matters that can be proven are to be shown; only these are real. The principle that was constantly emphasized was: “If in doubt, leave it out” — otherwise, it was only good enough to be shown in a museum.

However, over the years I grew beyond my teachers and I started to ask them what actually constitutes a “proof.” The answers I got were poor, inadequate and often revealed a lot of doubt. When I looked deeper it became clear to me that proof is a very subtle and complicated topic, and that many “proven” proofs were open to doubt. After all, all that was proven was only proven on the basis of certain beliefs that themselves cannot be proven, such as the immutable existence of the laws of nature, or the logic of logic.

Perhaps it is better to claim: “If in doubt, demonstrate it clearly”. For it is doubt that gives one an education. Doubt makes you look much deeper, touching on matters you otherwise would never even realize.

Even more important was the issue that something “proven” no longer required further investigation – for it no longer constitutes a challenge to life. However, that which cannot be challenged is dead!

True, if I do not limit myself to that which can be proven, I run the risk of error, but by limiting myself I run the risk of missing out on that which is most important. “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the certain knowledge obtained of lesser,” said Thomas Aquinas in the name of Aristotle.[1] Perhaps the nature of higher things simply cannot be known with the same certainty as lesser things.

When I am told — in the name of scientific objectivity — that “meaning,” “value,” “religious experience,” and “moral intuition” are nothing but the result of biological mechanisms, similar to the workings of a computer, I wonder whether I am not being fooled.

Are these very things not the result of some other dimension that my brain cannot reach, but where my very being hears a voice that cannot be expressed in words and indeed will remain ineffable?

Should we not be afraid to miss out on the most important, highest matters merely because we do not want to admit that there is more to our lives than that which can be proven?

I experience awe, a sense of transcendence, an ongoing awareness of mystery, a thunderbolt in which the flash of the undisclosed is just for a moment revealed.

These experiences are not derived from logical assumptions and scientific studies. They are the result of an immediate insight, self-evident as the light we see with our eyes — and no less than an expression of splendor.

These matters may not be “on the map” of some very sophisticated people. But for me this is “proof” that their map has been redacted. They may laugh about my primitive notions; but I think they are the victims of the prisons of their minds.  They are like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s example of a fly that cannot get out of the bottle because it forgets to look upwards.


[1] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I,Q.1, Art. 5 Answer 1.

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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