Nathan Lopes Cardozo

To be a rabbi

The Embarrassment and Honor of Being Called a Rabbi, and Third-Epoch Halacha

Part 3 of My Struggle with Persuasion and the Truth Concerning other Religions

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. For the second part of the tenth question, click here.)

Question 10, Part 3:

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: 

Before I continue to answer your questions, I need to rectify one mistake in my last “Thoughts to Ponder.” The pope sits on the seat of Peter, not Paul.

Let me now continue answering your questions.

While I am proud to be called “Rabbi” Cardozo, I also feel handicapped by the title. First of all, it’s an enormous responsibility to be called “rabbi.” The moment you carry that title, you are held to higher moral standards than most other people, and you need to always be on your best behavior. People expect you to behave like an angel, which is extremely hard because at the end of the day you’re just a human being with all the limitations that go along with it. Who says I am able to live up to this? I do my best but I know my shortcomings. So this title of rabbi is somewhat unsettling. 

But there is much more. As a rabbi, you are expected to toe the rabbinical party line. One has to comply with other “greater” and more influential rabbis and chief rabbis, and you’re not allowed to express your own ideas and halachic insights unless you work by the conventional guidelines established by most present-day halachists who have, in my humble opinion, a most narrow reading of Halacha. 

This was not the case in the past, when it was taken for granted that there was freedom of expression and any rabbi could suggest his ideas without them being vetoed. Sure, he had to show that his arguments were based on a proper halachic argument and profound Talmudic scholarship. But that scholarship included minority opinions, unusual readings of the Talmud, the courage to state that some Talmudic rules no longer applied, and taking into account that the Talmud came into existence in a particular period in history. Later Halacha often veered from the Talmud’s rulings, sometimes to the extreme. (To study how far this went and to what extent Halacha has changed over the years since the days of the Talmud, the best sources are Menachem Elon’s four-volume work Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles, JPS, Philadelphia/Jerusalem, 5754/1994 and Louis Jacobs’ A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law, 2nd edition, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London/Oregon, 2000)

Every halachic authority should read these and similar works, in order to have a profound understanding of what Halacha is all about and how it developed. (Yes, it developed! It is organic, and that is its vitality!)  

Without that knowledge, it is entirely impossible to pasken (decide) Halacha correctly.    

Now is neither the time nor the place to discuss the world of “Meta Halacha,” which gives much more attention to the ideological, theological, and religious dimensions of the world of Halacha and its application. To study that topic, see Philosophia shel Halacha (Hebrew), edited by Avinoam Rosenak, Machon Van Leer, Jerusalem, 2012; Masa el HaHalacha (Hebrew), edited by Amichai Berholtz, Yediot Acharonot, Jerusalem, 2003; Philosophia shel Halacha (Hebrew), edited by Aviezer Ravitzky and Avinoam Rosenak, Machon Van Leer, Jerusalem, 2008; and HaHalacha haNevu’it (Hebrew), edited by Avinoam Rosenak, Magnes, Jerusalem, 5766.

This open-mindedness was even truer regarding theological matters, where one could express almost any opinion as long as it wouldn’t undermine basic Jewish beliefs, which in themselves are very flexible and open to debate. Just think of the fundamental disagreements between Maimonides’ philosophical work Guide for the Perplexed and the celebrated Kuzari of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (c. 1075-1141). One should also not forget that Maimonides’ famous 13 principles of faith, in which he tried to establish dogmas, came under heavy fire and were never accepted as axiomatic. (See Marc B. Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford/Oregon, 2004 and Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything?, 2nd edition, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006.) 

* * *

Since I view all literature as a commentary on the Torah — because the Torah is the blueprint of the world — all philosophies, whether of Baruch Spinoza, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, or Martin Buber, are part of this blueprint and consequently must be able to fit into the great tradition called Judaism. One can bring everything back to Torah, and nothing has to be left out. Sure, it means that we have to think through some of these philosophers’ ideas, reformulate them, and expand on them, but ultimately they will find their way back to Torah. Even atheism has religious meaning. (See Alasdair Macintyre & Paul Ricoeur’s The Religious Significance of Atheism, Columbia University Press, NY, 1967)    

Just take notice of the remarkable observation by the eminent Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-1586) — disciple of both Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Aruch, and Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-c.1600) — who was a most original Torah commentator. He writes: 

Concerning the faith in the (contemporary) human being, it is said in Parashat Nitzavim (Devarim 29:13-14) “And not with you alone do I establish this covenant…but with those who are here with us and with those who are not here with us today.” Therefore, each and every one of us, our children and grandchildren, until the conclusion of all the generations who have entered the covenant, are duty-bound to examine the secrets of the Torah and to straighten out our faith concerning it, by accepting the truth from whoever says it…. Nor should we be concerned about the logic of others—even if they preceded us—preventing our own individual investigation. Much to the contrary…. Just as (our forebears) did not wish to indiscriminately accept the truth from those who preceded them, and that which they did not choose (to accept) they rejected, so it is fitting for us to do…. Only on the basis of gathering many different opinions will the truth be tested. Thus, it is valuable to us to complete the views (of our predecessors) and to investigate (the meaning of the Torah) in accordance with our own mind’s understanding. 

And even if in the course of investigation into the secrets of the Torah through our love for it, we err, it will not be judged against us, even as an unwitting thing, because our intent was for the sake of Heaven. But we shall be guilty if we desist from investigating the secrets of our Torah by declaring: The lions have already established supremacy, so let us accept their words as they are…. Rather, it is proper for us to investigate and analyze according to our understanding and to write our interpretations for the good of those who come after us, whether they will agree or not….

You must struggle to scale the heights and to understand our Torah…. and do not be dismayed by the names of the great personalities when you find them in disagreement with your belief; you must investigate and choose, because for this purpose were you created, and wisdom was granted you from Above, and this will benefit you…. (Sefer Ma’asei Hashem, Sha’ar Ma’aseh Torah, Parashat Balak, Merkaz HaSefer, Jerusalem, 2005).

Indeed, this sage wisdom is often forgotten in certain religious circles, a phenomenon that has been detrimental to the future of a living Judaism. Yes, there are rules of interpretation and nobody can just disagree with the foundations of Judaism. But within those very flexible parameters, the call to fresh thinking is fundamental in order to guarantee the Torah’s eternal message.   

Now, however, a good part of the rabbinical establishment has decided that this is no longer the case. One must follow whatever Maimonides and the gedolei hador (great rabbis of our generation), and others say; even when it has nothing to do with Halacha and is purely aggadic or theological. 

This is called Da’as Torah, a claim that in non-halachic matters these rabbis have a kind of prophetic insight that makes their philosophies and ideologies infallible and not to be questioned. It is a modern invention and as un-Jewish as can be. It’s unclear to me why this idea was suddenly introduced. Some of its critics maintain that it’s only to give these rabbis more authority and power. It probably became very popular because it functioned as an escape from thinking on your own, making your own decisions, and taking responsibility. It reminds me of the infallibility of the papacy and the theology of dogma as presented by the Church.

To me, all of this is unacceptable because my reading of authentic Judaism tells me that it’s completely untrue. Sure, I believe that there is something called “Torah inspired” and that prominent rabbis can give advice based on their understanding of the Torah. But this can include many opposing ideas; no one can claim that their idea is the only true prophetic one.    

This relates to still another factor. As a rabbi, I am constantly being asked to defend the “rabbinical position” on a variety of subjects: Da’as Torah; the position of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on some crucial issues, such as the aguna problem; giyur (conversion); homosexuality; the validity or illegality of a get (bill of divorce); the very need for a get; and more. I am absolutely not prepared to do that, because I vehemently oppose their attitudes on some of these matters, based on halachic sources. 

This puts me in an awkward position. First of all, because these rabbis are my colleagues, some of them are even my friends, and I love and respect them. Secondly, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m out to undermine their positions and harm them financially. Or that I consider myself to be a greater halachist than they are. I’m not. But I cannot deny that I know many things they don’t know in the fields of halachic innovation and Jewish theology, which only few halachists have been educated in. 

It reminds me of an observation once made by Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz of England (1872-1946), a powerful and militant figure who was a great scholar but not an outstanding talmid chacham, in the conventional sense of the word. (It was said that he was in favor of resolving disagreements by calm discussion— when all other methods had failed!) He was speaking to his Av Beit Din (the head of his rabbinical court), the powerful Dayan Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky (1886-1976), who in his earlier days was sentenced to five years hard labor in Siberia, where he composed Talmudic commentaries on translucent cigarette papers. I once read in a book or paper which, to my regret, I can no longer identify that Chief Rabbi Hertz said to Dayan Abramsky: It is no doubt true that you know a lot of Halacha that I do not know. But I know a lot of things (in the world of Jewish theology) that you do not know. And that is right to the point.

To a certain extent, this is my problem as well. No doubt I know much less Halacha than some great poskim do, but my reading of the nature of Halacha is very different. Showing me a source that opposes my halachic view doesn’t do much for me, because I know of other views and I know that one can approach such an opinion very differently than some conventional poskim do. That doesn’t diminish my respect for them, but I am definitely not prepared to state that I agree with them. I’ll explain their views to my students, with integrity, but to say that I agree with them would be dishonest.

I am constantly attacked by rabbis and other people who don’t take the time to read carefully what I write and therefore draw erroneous conclusions. Some of these rabbis should know better. They attack me for halachic opinions that they believe are anti-halachic, while in fact I have shown that I rely on renowned halachic authorities whose works and opinions they don’t know. They are guilty of selective reading and are not always honest.    

Most important is the fact that I agree with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg that, since the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, we are going through the birth pangs of a third epoch in Jewish history. See “The Third Era of Jewish History: Power and Politics,” in Perspectives, National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, New York, 1981, pp. 45-55. This means that radical changes will take place in the condition and nature of the Jewish people and in Orthodox Judaism and Halacha. While during the last 2,000 years Halacha was “exile-orientated” and “defensive,” we are slowly growing out of this. 

It will therefore no longer be possible to apply “exile Halacha,” and sources that until now were the basis for Halacha will have to be replaced by new Orthodox / Israeli “prophetic” Halacha. The first signs of this are already taking place. See LeNevuchei HaDor by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935); Dor Revi’i by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (1856-1924); Malki BaKodesh by Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935); and Halacha: Kocha v’Tafkida by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992). All of these rabbis were outstanding Orthodox halachists of the past. They were grand visionaries who saw times changing and responded with remarkable erudition. And we see similar signs with great, present-day Orthodox halachists, such as Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber and Rabbi David Bigman. Lately, many articles have been written on this topic. (See, for example, “Welcoming the Jewsraelis” by Alan Rosenbaum, The Jerusalem Post, June 23, 2019.)   

I predict that in the next 50 years we’ll see a very different Orthodox Judaism appear. See my recent book, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, Jerusalem/New York, 2018.   

I fully understand that I am a threat to my opponents because I stand for these “post-exile” halachic views, while contributing my own as well. It’s a difficult position to be in, since there is so much good in ultra- and modern-Orthodoxy that should not get lost. At the same time, we need to let go of some important but dated matters that are now starting to interfere and hurt the future of this new Orthodox Judaism. In fact, it seems that some Modern Orthodox rabbis are moving over to ultra-Orthodox views regarding Halacha and ideology on topics where they should precisely not be going. 

I admit that there is one matter that may seriously challenge my and my colleagues’ views. It is something I struggle with in my own life: How will this new Orthodox Judaism be able to provide enough inspiration to our young people and ensure that they see their Judaism as the great passion of their lives? I believe that the writings of people like Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Shagar (1949-2007), as well as some others, will be able to help us out and show us the way.   

My opponents will have to acquaint themselves with this new literature, halachic thinking and worldview, which they are clearly not aware of. Once they do so, and come with clear reasoning to prove me and my colleagues wrong, I will be the first one to listen to them and declare defeat. So far, none of this has happened. Nor does it seem likely to happen anytime soon.  


Dear Friends,

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

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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