Turning the ‘Foreign’ into Jewishness

In memory of our great unforgettable teacher
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz z.l.

Advice to the Reader: To get a better understanding of the nature and intention of this autobiography, I suggest that the reader should, at the very least, read through the two-part introduction to this series  (Part 1 and Part 2).

My mother’s Sister and Her Son

Last week, I wrote of my mother and her difficult relationship with her parents. My mother had one sister with whom she enjoyed a very close relationship. We called her Tante (Aunt) Rie. She loved my father and had many Jewish friends. In fact, she had a collection of recordings of famous chazanim (cantors), which she often played and greatly enjoyed. We used to visit her frequently and she, in turn, often came to see us. She fully accepted my mother’s conversion to Judaism and they remained very close all their lives.

I am still in touch with my aunt’s oldest son Richard and whenever I am in Holland, we make sure to meet. We inhabit two totally different spiritual words, but we still feel like family. He often asks me about Israel and Judaism, which he feels he needs to defend and explain to his non-Jewish friends.

Richard was partially “adopted” by my parents because his parents had separated and later his father died. He also worked in my father’s business, Roco and Cardozo in Amsterdam, (Keizergracht-canal, 649-651), a wholesale and repair business of Kohler sewing machines.

(I remember that my brother and I would look through the large windows of my father’s private head office in the business’ mansion, called “Herenhuis,” in Dutch, overlooking one of the many Amsterdam canals We enjoyed watching cars fall into the canal! This occurred when the driver did not manage to stop in time before tumbling straight into the canal. The driver would usually appear on the surface of the water. This happened quite frequently. This spectacle was very exciting for us merciless children but the driver did not always come out alive!).

Actually, my mother took Richard in as a baby together with his mother to my parents’ home at the time when Holland was overtaken by the “hunger winter” of 1944-1945. (My parents were married in 1940 just before the Nazis conquered Holland.). She looked after him and his mother, Aunt Rie, to ensure that they would survive the war while the Holocaust was raging.

At that time, my mother, the only non-Jew in the Cardozo family, hid nearly my father’s entire immediate family while the Nazis combed Amsterdam to send the Jews to the gas chambers. I will relate this story another time. They all survived aside from my father’s brother Nico/Nathan who did not dare to hide and went off to Germany and was murdered. (I already referred to him in chapter 6.).

To this day, Richard goes several times a year to “Ouderkerk,” outside Amsterdam, where the Portuguese Jewish cemetery is located, to “pay my parents a visit.” He often expresses to me his infinite gratitude to my parents for keeping him alive during those terrible days when people died by the thousands after the Nazis had emptied Holland of all goods and left the Dutch without food.

The Advantage of Having been Born of a Mixed Marriage

I come back now to my lack of any feelings for my non-Jewish grandparents, in light of Rosenzweig’s requirement that we take “all what is alien” and bring it back to Judaism. Here I feel myself to be caught in a trap. The only way I can perhaps live up to Rosenzweig’s demand is by opening up new dimensions of insight stemming from my non-Jewish background.

Rosenzweig was seeking to transform “the maximum of what is alien” into Judaism’s greater glory. The task of Teshuva is to convert negative aspects that are seemingly detrimental to Judaism into a positive force that can enhance Judaism. I feel that as far as my grandparents are concerned, I am not able to do that, thereby failing Rosenzweig’s demands.

I do believe, however, that my non-Jewish background (which is not the same as my relationship with my grandparents!) did provide me with a unique perspective and a capacity that I may not have had were I born to two Jewish parents.

First of all, although I have lived as a religious Jew for over 50 years and I am currently engaged in a new religious search, I have no problem relating to the non-Jewish world. I have no unpleasant feelings toward that world, and can appreciate the lifestyles of non-Jews, including extremely devout Christians and completely secular people. I can be friends with them, share certain experiences with them, sit among them even while I’m wearing my kipah and inhabiting an entirely different religious planet. I am still able to understand and appreciate their very un-Jewish, often Christian ideas, and help them find the way back to their own religion when they feel lost. I can do this without ever compromising my own Jewish religious commitment.

This is not the same as a non-religious person who also has no problems with doing this. As Rosenzweig points out, one needs to “hear” a religion, and this is only possible when one lives it. Being committed to one’s own religion makes it much more difficult to relate to a person of a different faith than when someone is not committed to any particular religion. After all, there is no place for “hearing” a foreign religion, when one is completely preoccupied with listening to one’s own religion. For most religious Jews, it is an impossibility.

In my case, however, I have no problems with a second “hearing” because it gets absorbed in my own primary “hearing” without compromising it. My hearing capacity is much more expansive and universal. This is precisely what Rosenzweig means when he demands that we take “the maximum of what is alien” and bring it back to Judaism.”

Actually, all this gives me great joy. I am fully capable of understanding the feelings of a Christian—however un-Jewish these feelings may be, and despite my intense disagreement with the beliefs underlying these feelings—while remaining completely separate from it at the same time. The fact that I know the religious world very well, including the non-Jewish religious world about which I have read a lot, allows me to appreciate and even feel the atmosphere in which a church mass takes place without taking any part in it and actually being disturbed by it.

I wonder whether my non-Jewish background created the foundations for this capability. It could be the result of a non-Jewish awareness rooted in my non-Jewish background, which is deeply embedded in my subconscious and which I am now able to transform as Rosenzweig requires.

I believe that additional things that Rosenzweig and I share. We are both simultaneously insiders and outsiders. It is clear that Rosenzweig never felt completely at home within mainstream Orthodoxy. First of all, he had intellectual difficulties with some of the beliefs of the official Orthodox ideology. The same is true of me, although for different reasons. Moreover, even if we did not have intellectual problems with mainstream Orthodoxy, we still could not completely identify with it, since our backgrounds have molded us in a way that does not enable us to fully accept the official Orthodox ideology. I don’t want to compare myself to Rosenzweig, who was a master thinker, but in this matter it seems like we share something in common.

We both look at Orthodoxy through a psychological window from without.

To be continued.

With thanks to Yehudah DovBer Zirkind and Yael Shahar for their editorial advice.

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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