Recently, I have been invited to respond to 10 personal questions asked by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz of Yerushalayim. I have agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability. Here is the third question and my response. I thank Rabbi Schwartz for posing these questions.
You have been very public about your conversion (giyur) to Judaism. In my opinion, one of the most powerful themes found in your writings is that Judaism must not be practiced because of external pressure, but instead, it should be rooted in a person’s freely choosing to develop a personal connection to Torah, mitzvot and God. The title of your most recent book, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, is all about perceiving Judaism in an empowering way and not as simple external obedience.
In your opinion, how can a person born Jewish, or born religious, freely choose to develop a personal connection to Torah, mitzvot and God? Do you think it is sometimes more difficult for the person born into religion?
* * *
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: Yes. I believe it may be harder for a person born into a religious family to appreciate Judaism’s teachings and great message than for one who was not. All around me I see a great amount of religious complacency, and even religious plagiarism, within mainstream Orthodox Judaism because people were educated within this lifestyle since the day they were born and therefore indoctrinated with beliefs and halachic norms. (The same thing happens in secular societies where indoctrination has become rampant, even in universities that claim to be objective.)
But I also realize that I am missing something. I am deeply impressed with all those Jews who were raised in Orthodox Judaism and go every day to synagogue, sometimes three times a day, and without any problem repeat the same words over and over again, often in a hurry because they need to be back at work or with their families. What is it that motivates them?
One cannot inherit religiosity. One needs to discover it on one’s own. And this means struggle and spiritual warfare. It must be accompanied with some kind of a personal religious-spiritual crisis, doubt, and rebellion, perhaps even with psychological despair. If you have not been in the abyss, you cannot get to the peak of the mountain. This happened to me and I feel enormously blessed. And sometimes I am still faced with these challenges. They are not easy but they give me an abundance of spiritual wealth.
Yes, one must give one’s children the best Jewish education possible, but always with the notion that they have to discover it on their own, through struggle and questioning.
The trouble is that Judaism itself has created a system where one can hide behind one’s own religiosity. The constant and demanding requirements to live a particular lifestyle, which one cannot escape, have laid the foundation for this problem.
I would have preferred a kind of Judaism that one is able to step out of, so as to rediscover it; as the Amish seem to do when they allow or perhaps even demand of their children to step outside and encounter the secular world so as to rediscover the beauty of their own religion and lifestyle and return to it with new enthusiasm. Only when you see and recognize the opposite of what you stand for can you value your own convictions. This was probably the case before Matan Torah, in the days of our Avot. These generations could “walk in and out,” as one can see from all the converts that Avraham and Sarah made and were never heard about again (1). Did they walk out and never returned? Maybe this was the most authentic form of Judaism! (Why Judaism ultimately did not go that way is a story on its own, which we can perhaps discuss another time.)
Obviously, this involves taking a risk: Perhaps one’s children will not return. I think the only way to prevent or minimize this is to instill in one’s children such powerful spirituality and feeling of mission that the secular world – with all its appeal – is unable to compete with it. (How is it that we cannot beat the idolization of sport and general entertainment?)
But this requires a completely new kind of religious education, which is by now, with few exceptions, completely absent in Jewish teaching. In some way, the “Hasidic uprising,” at the time of the Baal Shem Tov and for some time afterwards, carried that notion but ultimately succumbed to the same malady.
It constantly needs new ideas, educational surprises, religious pride, and a strong feeling of passion. A love story that is unconquerable. And if that doesn’t work, and our children walk out, we need to accept it with love and see in it a higher meaning, which we may not fathom but still has some meaning. (How often was God not disillusioned with “the children of Israel” in biblical times and did not remove His love from them? Even in secularity there is a divine spark and religious meaning.)
For myself, I can only say that passion for Yahadut is the ultimate force that moves me. (I get so excited about it that I have to keep myself under control in order not to lose myself in all of it.) But this can, as I mentioned before, never be a Yahadut that is mainstream and confined to the Shulchan Aruch. I have to be able to break out of its strictures and obligations when I feel the need for it and know that there are other halachic alternatives. Halacha as represented in the Shulchan Aruch is for me not the sum total of Torah. The highest standards of Torah are beyond the boundaries of conventional Halacha. It’s not a matter of leniency but of religious authenticity.
This is why I see a huge danger in books like the Mishna Berura of the holy Chafetz Chaim. I understand the pragmatic need for it, but it comes at an enormous price. The same is true of all these “self-help” halachic works. They have made Judaism and Halacha flat, dry, and colorless. The music has been ruined.
We need to convey this message to our children, but it’s not easy and requires a new kind of Hasidic revolt.
First of all, parents and teachers need to show their children and students that they see their own Judaism as the love of their lives and that they take it very seriously.
Secondly, we must allow and encourage our children and students to ask any questions they want and to never be ashamed to ask. To challenge, to probe, and to fight is the proper way. “Nothing is more irrelevant that an answer to a question nobody asked” said the famous Protestant thinker and friend of the Jews, Reinhold Niebuhr. Providing information without first having a question is a meaningless undertaking for an obvious reason. No information is real when it is brought on a silver platter with no spiritual or intellectual problem preceding it.
Thirdly, we need to teach our children that one does not have to believe everything literally, and that certainty is perhaps more comfortable but doubt gives you a great education.
I believe that people don’t realize this enough.
Let me explain.
We are currently living in a transitional phase of monumental proportions and far-reaching consequences. Our religious beliefs are being challenged as never before. We are forced to our knees due to extreme shifts and radical changes in scientific discoveries; in our understanding of the origins of our holy texts; in our belief in God; in the meaning of our lives; and in the historical developments of our tradition.
We find ourselves on the precipice, and it is becoming more and more of a balancing act not to fall off the cliff.
We must ask ourselves: Can we survive and overcome? What are the tools to make that possible? Or, shall we drop our earlier beliefs, give in and admit our defeat?
In the old religious climate everything was certain. We knew the truth. Traditional Judaism gave us the foundations, and everything was under control. The tradition was safeguarded behind shatterproof glass, well protected and unshakable. But now, all certainty is affected by skepticism and the glass has been broken.
Today, faith dangles in the free flow of doubt, and we need to learn how to live in this new stratosphere.
The truth is that Jewish Orthodoxy (from the Greek orthos (“true” or “right”) and doxa (“opinion” or “belief”) never existed. Originally, Judaism was highly unorthodox. While it always believed in God and Torah, it never offered any specifics of what “God” meant or what Torah consisted of. That was left to speculation, never to be determined. The early Sages, as testified by the Talmud and philosophers, disagreed on some of the most fundamental issues of faith.
But over the years we wanted more certainty. We wanted it handed to us on a silver platter, so that we could avoid debates and live a life of religious comfort, apathy and mediocrity. Influenced by other religions, we adopted the need for cast-iron certainty and psychological security. So we began to rewrite Judaism in a way that would fit into the notions of established religions – well structured, with a good dose of dogma. What we did not realize is that by doing so, we misrepresented Judaism by losing sight of the plot, thus doing it a great disservice.
We need to realize that our epoch of uncertainty is in fact much more conducive to authentic Judaism than all the conviction we’ve had in previous generations. It forces us to rediscover what Judaism is really about and gives us the opportunity to rebuild where rebuilding is required and leave untouched what should remain untouched.
Because we are compelled to reconsider, we will delve more deeply into the great resources of Judaism and stay away from all superficiality to which Judaism has lately succumbed. The greater the challenge, the more profound are the discoveries. Knowledge is important, but, as I said, doubt is what gives you an education.
Moreover, we will actually be able to enter the minds of all those biblical figures who lived in constant ambiguity about God and the Torah. Avraham’s great doubts concerning the reliability of God in connection with His request to sacrifice his son Yitzchak was a most traumatic experience. It was the pinnacle of religious uncertainty.
Moshe’s bewilderment at not knowing who God was when he asked to see Him and God’s refusal to reveal Himself are the climax of intense religious struggle (2).
In the desert, the Israelites asked whether God was among them. This came close to pantheism, or even atheism. Nadav and Avihu’s unauthorized offering of a “strange fire” in the Tent of Meeting came from a feeling of ambiguity about whether the only way to serve God was by merely following the strict demands of Halacha as given by God, or whether one could explore new avenues to divine service (3).
On one occasion, the Israelites were not sure whether the Torah was indeed the word of God. Korach challenged this very belief and declared that it was not from heaven and that Moshe and Aharon were not prophets (4). This must have caused a major crisis among the Israelites.
The Torah gives evidence to a most difficult religious journey traveled by the Israelites, full of doubt, struggle and trauma. Surely some of these doubts were more existential than intellectual, but the latter cannot be disregarded.
Once we realize that uncertainty was part of the biblical personality, we will have a much better grasp of the text and what Judaism is actually claiming. But this is only possible if we find ourselves challenged by those very existential doubts.
There is nearly nothing greater than the free flow of doubt in today’s society. It offers us unprecedented opportunities to rediscover real religiosity. In contrast, the quest for certitude paralyzes the search for meaning.
Uncertainty is the very condition that impels a person to develop their spiritual and intellectual capacity. Sure, this is a risky undertaking, but there is no authentic life choice that is risk-free. Life means constantly moving and growing, whereas organic matter that fails to shift and grow decays and will eventually die. So it is with a person’s religious life. The role of religion is to accommodate the blossoming of the human soul and to prevent one from descending into a place of spiritual stagnation.
While our not-so-distant forefathers in the days of the emancipation walked out and left Judaism behind, declaring it no longer relevant, we know better. We won’t take that cheap and easy road. We know that Judaism is much too great to abandon, even if there are obstacles along the way.
We are aware that Judaism stands head and shoulders above anything else, and that no philosophy or religious practice can replace it, but we have yet to discover what it is that gives Judaism its unique profundity. We still walk in our childhood shoes, knowing that we have not yet entered the world of adulthood. Aus dem Kindes — in das Mannesalter (5).
What we all know deep down is that we have to renew Judaism from within. Not by letting it go, but by raising it up.
Not through Reform and Conservative Judaism, or Orthodox dogma, but through a radical purifying process that will take years. Until now, we have been busy digging and have found some very interesting elements, but we have not yet hit rock bottom (does that even exist?) and our findings have been too superficial and too few to make a breakthrough.
Over the years, we have covered Judaism with too many clinging vines, to the point where we can no longer see or even recognize das Ding an sich (the thing in itself). A thick scab has grown on Judaism, and it needs to be scraped off. We have to expose the founding pillars and build a superstructure.
We must recognize that the barer Judaism gets and the more uncertain we become, the closer we get to where we need to be, until we hit the core. It will manifest itself in many opposing colors, creating an enormous, beautiful canvas. In this new setting it will be clear that religious uncertainty is one of the most powerful ideas, which keeps us on our toes. And it will give us great insight into Judaism’s core beliefs.
Beneath the clinging vines are divine words. For too long we have mistakenly believed that Judaism is the clinging vine itself. Yes, it had its purpose, but that is not where we will find divinity. It is deeper down, beneath the layers. The time has come to remove it. But it has to be done slowly and in such a way that we do not harm the core.
We must remove outdated ideas, often borrowed from other religions; remove the galut from Halacha, which became overly defensive; and have the courage to see a new religious world emerging, which will offer us the authentic meaning of the divine Torah and mitzvot.
It will be painful for those who are looking for absolute certainty. We understand the anguish it will cause. But there is no turning back. And after a time, the joy of uncertainty and of discovering the deeper meaning behind Judaism will be immensely greater than that which certainty could ever offer us.
The goal is not at all to be sure that the Torah was given at Sinai, or that all its stories are true. There are very good reasons to believe it is, but we don’t know for sure and we should not know for sure. Is it not marvelous to take a leap of faith and live according to something that one cannot be sure of?
Of what value are convictions that are unaccompanied by struggle?
Faith means striving for faith. It is never an arrival. It can only burst forth at singular moments. It does not arise out of logical deduction, but out of uncertainty, which is its natural breeding ground.
To have faith is to live with unresolved doubts, prepared to rise above ourselves and our wisdom. Looking into the Jewish tradition with its many debates, one clearly understands that those who deny themselves the comfort of certainty are much more authentic than those who are sure.
Faith means that we worship and praise God before we ask any questions about Him. We respond before we question. In the synagogue hymn “Ein Kelokeinu,” we first praise God and state that there is nobody like God. And only then do we ask: “Mi Kelokeinu” — Is there anyone like our God?
People can die for something even as they are unsure of its true existence, because their inner faith tells them it is right to do so. This honest admission of doubt is not only the very reason why it is possible to be religious in modern times; it is the actual stimulus to do so.
To believe is not to prove, not to explain, but to yield to a vision.
Of course belief cannot be credo quia absurdum est (I believe because it is absurd). It has to make sense and have a lot to say for itself in terms of knowledge and wisdom. Still, just as no building stands on rock-bottom, but on unsure pillars deeply driven into the ground so as to resist an earthquake, so must belief have enough strength to prove its worth without ever reaching absolute certainty.
Faith is like music. It is true because of its beauty, not because of its intellectual certainty. Is it not created from impossible paradoxes, as well as a great deal of imagination that surpasses rationality and scientific or historical facts?
The truly great need no synthesis. They absorb whatever experience offers them. Their intensely creative personalities act like a fiery furnace, melting away contradictions. What emerges is either a harmonious whole or a creative parallelism with parts that mutually fructify and supplement each other. The truly great do not need to trim edges, as it were, to make genuine experiences fit with each other. They preserve them intact. And if their experiences appear contradictory, they build an emotional bridge spanning them allowing both the landscape and the water to be seen. Lesser mortals resort to logical means of harmonization (8).
The aim of Halacha is to teach us the art of living with uncertainty. Halacha was not meant for those who are sure, because nobody can act out of certainty.
The most challenging question in all of life is what do you do and what do you believe when you are not sure. It is that notion that moves the scientist, the philosopher, and most of all the religious personality. To be religious is to realize that no final conclusions have ever been reached or can ever be reached.
Halacha is the upshot of unfinalized beliefs, a practical way of living while remaining in theological suspense. In that way, Judaism doesn’t turn into a religion that either becomes paralyzed in awe of a rigid tradition, or evaporates into a utopian reverie. This dynamic can only come about when Jewish beliefs consist of fluid matter, which Halacha then turns into a solid substance. The purpose of Halacha is to chill the heated steel of exalted beliefs and turn them into pragmatic deeds without allowing the inner heat to be cooled off entirely. Jewish beliefs are like arrows, which dart hither and thither, wavering as though shot into the air from a slackened bowstring, while Halacha must be straight and unswerving but still adaptable.
Indeed, we should be careful not to make faith into an intellectual issue. It is much more than that. The moment we look down on those who continue to have unshakable faith, considering them primitive in face of the many challenges, we have overlooked an important dimension of real faith.
Besides the fact that such an attitude reflects arrogance, it also misses an important point: Faith is always more than just thinking about faith. Yes, those people who have lost their faith yet still hold on to it, honestly attempting by way of discussion and study to give their lost faith a new shape, should be deeply respected. At the same time, we should not forget that they are searching for something that the “simple” believer already has.
When we place the reflection on faith higher than the direct experience of faith, we are involved in a purely intellectual endeavor. The search for faith can only be genuine when it is personal, deep, and emotional, and the intellect only plays a small part. The accompanying qualities must be humility, the notion of inadequacy, and a strong urge to find authentic faith.
Genuine belief is a way of living, not an academic undertaking. It is an experience in which the whole of the human being is engaged.
So doubt is most important, and we must confront it, but we should never forget that it only appeals to the intellect. The intellectual approach to faith is always a barer form of existence than faith itself.
The reason is obvious. Besides our critical assessment, the other human faculties remain idle. Trust, hope, love, and the notion that one is part of something bigger no longer play a role. Instead, life becomes nothing more than only itself. When doubt and skepticism are no longer the most important faculties through which one seeks religious faith, only then is it possible to actually find it. Skepticism, though it has its place, should not be at the center of one’s search. In today’s climate there is a certain gratification in going to the extremes of genius and brilliance until one nearly loses that which one would like to discover. Intellectual thought and scientific discovery can never cover the sum total of the inner life of a human being.
When one prays, one is involved in something that the intellect can never reach. When one studies Torah and hears its divine voice, it becomes something different than what academic study can ever achieve. It is in a separate category, which is closed to the solely scientific mind.
It is crucial that we see these facts for what they are. Only when we realize that intellectual certainty is not the primary path toward finding religious truth, will we be able to deal with our new awareness that the transitional phase we now experience has great purpose and must be part of our religious struggle and identity. It won’t be easy. Novelty, as always, carries with it a sense of violation, a kind of sacrilege. Most people are more at home with that which is common than with that which is different.
With a few exceptions, this awareness is absent in today’s Jewish education. But it is perhaps the most important message to convey to our children, students and ourselves. One should give enormous attention to this at home and in the classroom. Any form of teaching Torah or Talmud must have this matter as its centerpiece. But this requires a completely different mindset, methodology and daily schedule. Since yeshiva studies and studies at women’s seminaries are by nature so amenable to this kind of learning, it is such a tragedy that for the most part they do not live up to the challenge. If they would, they could prevent many young people from walking out on the Jewish way of life and give many students a desire to be passionate about their Judaism.
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