Rabbijn Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo (1946) werd geboren in Amsterdam en woont sinds 1977 in Israël. Als kind van een Portugees-Joodse vader en een niet-Joodse moeder heeft hij een lange weg afgelegd. Op zijn 16e is hij ‘uitgekomen’ (Joods geworden) bij Chacham Salomon Rodrigues Pereira. Jaren later haalde hij zijn rabbijnentitel aan de orthodoxe Gateshead Yeshiva. In Jeruzalem richtte hij de David Cardozo Academy op en geeft lezingen in Israel en het buitenland voor Joden en niet Joden. Hij is de auteur van 15 boeken. De laatste twee: “Jewish Law as Rebellion. A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage” (Urim Publications, 2018) en “Cardozo on the Parasha, Bereshit” (Kasva Press, 2019),het eerste van 7 delen op de Tora en de feestdagen. Rabbijn Lopes Cardozo neemt in zijn geschriften geen blad voor de mond en zijn ideeën worden in de velerlei media fel bediscussieerd.
Chapter 5, Hearing the Deed
A Cautionary Note to the Reader
This is Chapter 5 of my Contemplative Autobiography. It is the story of how I rediscovered – and continue to rediscover – what I believe to be authentic Judaism. It is the story of a search for deep religiosity and the re-engagement with Halacha, which I view as musical notes written by the Great Maestro to be played by each one of us on the strings of our souls.
I am taking the reader through all the different stages, the ups and downs, the agony and ecstasy, and the trials and travails that marked my quest as I experienced them throughout decades of study and contemplation. I hope that this will serve as an inspiration and guide for those who find themselves in similar positions. The purpose of describing my spiritual journey is not to relate how or whether I ever arrived at a final destination, but to share vignettes of my odyssey on the “road less traveled.” I hope that this will inspire others to forge their unique spiritual path and embark on a journey to become a better and more authentic human being and Jew.
In order 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. Also to be found on our website.
Franz Rosenzweig’s Crucial Insight
In my search for authentic Judaism, there was another powerful idea that greatly influenced me. It was an insight by Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), the great German Jewish philosopher. In his earlier years, Rosenzweig had decided to baptize, since he believed that secular Jews, like himself, were basically living Christian lives. Thus, the only reasonable thing to do was to draw the consequences and convert to Christianity.
Arguing his case, he wrote: “We [Jews] are Christians in everything. We live in a Christian state, attend Christian schools, read Christian books, in short, our whole culture rests entirely on Christian foundations. Therefore, if a man has nothing to hold him back, he needs only a very slight push…to make him accept Christianity.” (Quoted by Samuel Hugo Bergman in Faith and Reason: Modern Jewish Thought (NY: Schocken Books, 1961), p. 57).
Before going through with the conversion, however, Rosenzweig decided to say a formal goodbye to Judaism by attending a Yom Kippur service in a small synagogue (shtiebel) in Berlin.
This “farewell gesture” became a far-reaching turning point in his life. It seems that he underwent a mystical experience while attending services. As a result of this encounter with the Divine, which is so well described by Rudolf Otto in his famous work, Das Heilige, The Idea of the Holy (See chapter 1 of this series.), he not only called off his decision to become a Christian, but decided to become a religious Jew although not mainstream Orthodox in the conventional sense of the word. Consequently, he devoted himself to the study of Judaism, wrote some remarkable works about his newfound religion, and became one of the most significant thinkers of Judaism in modern times.
In his main work, the Star of Redemption, a difficult work to read, and many other writings, he articulated his religious views. He was influenced by philosophers such as Hermann Cohen, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Søren Kierkegaard. Rosenzweig, in turn, influenced philosophers such as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Emil Fackenheim and Jacques Derrida.
Franz Rosenzweig made the point (also expressed by Chassidic thinkers) that one can only understand religion and religious life when one actually lives it. After all, it is not something which can be comprehended by the mind alone but is something that must be experienced by the sum-total of the human being. He writes that “one hears in the doing”, meaning that only by actually living and practicing Judaism one can hear its message and internalize its values. “Only in the commandment can the voice of Him Who commands be heard.” (see Franz Rosenzweig’s essay “The Commandments: Divine or Human?” in On Jewish Learning, ed. N.N. Glatzer (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955), pp. 119-124).
This made a great impression on me because it meant that if I really wanted to understand Judaism, I had to live it. If I would be an outsider and not partake of this living tradition, it would be akin to a color-blind person describing colors.
This meant that I had to stay observant, celebrate shabbat, eat kosher and observe many more mitzvot while studying Judaism in depth. Only then would I hear the music, Das Ding an Sich, the “Thing Itself” and would I be able to decide whether or not I “heard” enough to convince me.
“Hearing” the Torah and Another Kind of Teshuva
Rosenzweig went as far as to claim that one could only perceive the Torah as divine revelation when one does not (merely) read the text but is fully engaged in the religious act of listening to the divine voice contained in the words of Torah with one’s entire being, (see my Thoughts to Ponder 450: “Torah: Hearing the Divine Voice at Sinai Now”).
Furthermore, Rosenzweig taught me something else as well. While the concept of Teshuva (repentance/return to Judaism) is conventionally interpreted to mean that one must renounce and relinquish the past, he strongly felt that this would be a mistake. Rosenzweig taught that one’s past has to be transformed and redirected toward Judaism. “In being Jewish we must not give up anything, nor renounce anything but lead everything back to Judaism.” “This”, he writes “is a new sort of learning. A learning for which – in these days – he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien” (See On Jewish Learning, pages, 98-99).
In other words, teshuva is not (just) the act of turning a new page or returning to a previous stage in life, but a program for life. Teshuva is an integral component of religious life, not merely a repair mechanism to remedy spiritual pathologies. According to this conception, the essence of teshuva is not the rectification of misdeeds but the need for constant growth, improvement, and change. Teshuva is a lifelong process, not a one-time event.
My Spiritual “Confusion”
This observation confronted me personally in a profound way which I had not anticipated.
Sometimes, religious people believe that the reason why I wanted to start all over again and reevaluate my Judaism, is because I am unable to make peace with my non-Jewish past. According to them, this led to my critical assessment of contemporary Judaism. They even claim that I am “confused” about my Jewish identity and hence cannot fit into the mainstream Jewish framework to which they belong and which, in their eyes, is obviously the only authentic Judaism! (This was never said to me straight to my face but always via a third party!)
What they do not seem to realize is that there is a great advantage to spiritual confusion. It is a healthy kind of upheaval within a person. As such it is a great blessing: it forces one to rethink what one had taken for granted. “Chaos breeds life, while order breeds habit.” (See Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918), p. 249). Not to be confused means that one is not alive, just going through the motions.
What amuses me is that this is used as a defense mechanism to justify their own unwillingness and fear to conduct their own investigation into Judaism. They hide behind an argument that frees them from doing so. This common form of self-deception has evolved into a highly sophisticated art-form practiced by thousands of well-meaning people! This tactic is so pervasive and persuasive that it even leads some people to become arrogant and self-righteous by convincing themselves that they are above scrutiny and the need to subject themselves to religious self-examination. They are set in their ways and will look down upon anybody who feels the need to engage in Jewish introspection.
My Non-Jewish Grandparents
However this does not let me off the hook! There was a time when I had totally forgotten about my non-Jewish background, probably because I was so well integrated into the Orthodox “yeshive” world (I spoke fluent Yiddish!) that whenever people in my surroundings spoke disparagingly about converts, I never took it as personal offense, although I strongly objected to it since it was a violation of Jewish ethics. Later in my life, I became more sensitive to this issue for reasons I will have to explain later, but I never had a problem with my non-Jewish (or half Jewish) background and in fact, it was and is a source of pride. I never attempted to deny it, and constantly speak about it, openly and with pride, even in public gatherings (as my family can testify!).
Reflecting on Rosenzweig’s aforementioned observation: “In being Jewish we must not give up anything, nor renounce anything but lead everything back to Judaism”, I realized that he also added a few more words: “he is the most apt who brings with him the maximum of what is alien.” Rosenzweig shocked me with his message since it meant that not only is there no reason for me to deny my past, but that I had to lead it back to Judaism, however alien it may have been.
This brings me to my non-Jewish maternal grandparents. I never had and still do not have any feelings for them. I never met them, since they both died before I was born, and consequently, I have no recollection of them.
But there is more to the story. Rosenzweig’s demand “to bring the maximum of what is alien back to Judaism” confronted me with a huge difficult. How was I going to take my non-Jewish “alien” background back and make it part of my Judaism and search for its authenticity?
To be continued.
Chapter 4, Inner Enigmatic Struggles
A Cautionary Note to the Reader
This is Chapter 4 of my Contemplative Autobiography. It is the story of how I rediscovered – continue to rediscover – what I believe to be authentic (Orthodox?) Judaism. It is the story of a search for deep religiosity and the re-engagement with Halacha, which I view as musical notes written by the Great Maestro to be played by each one of us on the strings of our souls.
I am taking the reader through all the different stages, the ups and downs, the agony and ecstasy, and the trials and travails as I experienced them throughout decades of study and contemplation. I hope that this will serve as an inspiration and guide for those who find themselves in similar positions. The purpose of describing my spiritual journey is not to relate how I arrived at a final destination, but to share vignettes of my odyssey on the “road less traveled.” I hope that this will inspire others forge their unique spiritual path and embark on a journey to become a better and more authentic human being and Jew.
In order 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.
As Though God Exists
Until now, I discussed the fact (see Chapter 3)that the kind of Judaism I practiced and believed in when I converted (at the age of 16 ) was very simplistic and one-dimensional. I realized many years later, that although I had studied in a Yeshiva for many years, I had to start all over again and undertake a much more extensive study of Judaism before I could decide whether to stay religious or not. At the same time, it also raised the question of whether I knew enough about secular philosophy to make such a momentous decision. Only when I had a good grasp of both religious and secular philosophy would I be in a position to make an informed decision.
Meanwhile, the question, about what to do in the meantime was gnawing away at my soul. Should I stay religious or revert back to the secular lifestyle I was accustomed to before I thought about converting?
I first thought that the best solution was to be partially religious and partially secular. (i.e., to adopt a religious lifestyle during the first half of the week and lead a secular lifestyle during the remainder of the week). But, as I explained in Chapter 3, that did not make any sense to me.
Afterward, I considered making a decision based on ‘Pascal’s Wager’, which is based on the idea that it is better to side with those who live a life as though God exists because you have less to lose (see again Chapter 3). When a person lives a religious life, and God does in fact exist, one would receive infinite rewards in the Heavenly Spheres after death. And even if God does not exist, one would only lose the benefit of enjoying some worldly pleasures proscribed by religion. Compared with Eternity, that is a small price to pay.
I rejected this argument because I felt that determining such a weighty issue based on the potential gains and losses of Heavenly reward or the lack thereof was too ‘business-like’. I could not see how this approach would bring me to an encounter with the Divine (in case It actually existed).
The Joy and the Relevance of Living a Religious Life
There was however another vital factor to consider: and here I make poor showing! I love to live a religiously observant life, whether or not God actually exists. I had done so for years and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although I subsequently came to the realization that my religious commitment had been based on a superficial understanding of Judaism and that it may not represent the (whole) truth. Nevertheless, I was sure that Judaism contained at least some truth. (Although I realized that this was probably true regarding other religions and philosophies as well). Thus, I argued, why should I give this all up?
Moreover, the secular lifestyle of my youth had never quenched my spiritual thirst and satisfied my quest for meaning. It left too many problems concerning the meaning of life and questions about morality unanswered. Although I now realized that I had to revisit the basis of my religious commitment and also re-examine many arguments within secular philosophy I had previously overlooked, I greatly enjoyed my religious life and there was enough reason to stay religiously observant, even when it was not based on compelling arguments.
I do have to admit, however, that I was biased. I realized that I was not able to stay neutral. Perhaps I was not completely honest, but there was no escape.
There were also additional issues at play.
As I explained in Lonely but Not Alone, I was convinced that the Jewish Tradition had much to offer to the world. Even if God does not exist, and the entire Tradition was invented by humans it still contains a lot of great wisdom which we should not reject or ignore. An institution such as the Shabbat and its rituals is of universal value because humankind really needs a day of rest as described by the Jewish tradition. (See Eric Fromm, To Have or to Be? London and New York: Continuum, 2008, pp. 41-43 and Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The lesson of Shabbat, that at least once a week we need to relinquish our dominion over the world, and instead of wielding our power as creators and masters we need to embrace our creaturely status and acknowledge our dependence upon a possible God and interdependence with nature is a great moral lesson and spiritual blessing for all humanity I learned to appreciate this universal message of Judaism even during the “simplistic” phase of my understanding of Judaism.
The same is true regarding many other commandments, customs and rituals which contain tremendous spiritual depth and psychological meaning. I could appreciate the value of some of the Kashrut (kosher) laws or those of Taharat Hamishpacha, (family purity). These laws mandate the exercise of restraint and curb the overindulgence of human appetites such as the obsession with food and sexuality. These laws are highly beneficial, even if they were not commanded directly by God.
Thus, to reject all this and throw out the baby with the bathwater did not make sense to me. Certain powerful aspects of Judaism had to stay alive even if it were the result of human invention. This however, does not mean that there are no aspects of Judaism, such as discrimination against women, that are highly disturbing and really made me question some of the basic underlying assumptions of Judaism.
There was still another reason why I was not prepared to terminate my religious observance. Most of my thoughts concerning starting all over again, took place when I was already married and had children and even grandchildren. My wife and I had given them a deeply religious education. They all went to religious schools (including Yeshivot for the boys and Beit Ya’akov schools for the girls). The foundations of our home were deeply rooted in the Jewish Tradition. I would have wreaked havoc on my entire family had I suddenly walked out and become secular. The pain that such a move would have inflicted upon my family could not be morally justified.
Also, let us not forget that it was not at all sure I would decide to become secular. It was nothing more than a possibility. As I mentioned previously, I wanted to stay religious, but this time for the right reasons!
Thus, I decided not to tell my wife and children that I was contemplating living a secular life. And, again, I was enjoying it too much just to abandon it. Furthermore, imagine I would have started to live a secular lifestyle while the rest of the family was deeply religious, only to change my mind after my philosophical investigation and return to being deeply religious again, how would I be perceived by my family? They would surely think that they have a father who cannot make up his mind and they would probably send me to a mental asylum!
The scariest part of this, however, was to consider what would happen if I would discover that Judaism is not the answer, (even if it contains some value), and I would discover a radically different lifestyle and belief system which is superior to Judaism. In such a scenario, I would face an insoluble dilemma: on the one hand, I would be confronted with my intense love for my family and concern for their happiness; on the other hand, I would face the daunting prospect of living a life riddled with severe hypocrisy.
Undoubtedly, I would continue to live an observant life, for their sake; however, this would be meaningless to me. It would mean that for the rest of my life, I would live a life of spiritual dishonesty, (even if I would be able to defend my decision to lead an observant lifestyle on moral grounds)! Would I be able to survive such an intense internal war? It would be akin to living a life of spiritual schizophrenia. It would also mean that I had wasted some 50 years of my life teaching something which was not true! This problem would not have existed if I would have lived a life in search of meaning without ever claiming to have found it. This would have provided some solace. However, I had lived my life as if I had reached the summit of Truth and there was nothing to discuss anymore! I considered this position to be extremely problematic, dangerous and in fact scary.
To be continued.
With thanks to Yehudah Behr Zirkind and Yael Shahar for their editorial comments.
Chapter 3, Catch 22
In my last essay, I mentioned that I decided to reevaluate my commitment to Judaism from scratch since the reason for my conversion was based on a simplistic understanding of the Jewish Tradition. I may have had a wrong perspective of what Judaism was all about and I wondered whether I should stay religious or return to a secular lifestyle, like the one I was raised on in my parents' home. However, I felt that I could not do so without undertaking a much more thorough study of Judaism then I had realised at the time of my conversion or in my yeshiva days, since it would be impossible to reject something unless I would fully understand what I was rejecting. Thus, I found myself in a very painful situation.
But there were two other questions. First of all, what should I do during this interim period before I reached a final decision? Should I continue to live an observant life? Or should I lead a totally secular lifestyle? The famous American philosopher William James (1842-1910) wrote that when you have to make a choice and don't make it, that in itself is a choice. Second, should I also embark on a careful study of the philosophy of secularism? If not, how was I going to decide which of these two philosophies is the most compelling?
Consequently, I became entangled in a Catch 22 situation. I felt I was in real trouble. How was I going to solve that problem? Let me explain what I decided to do.
To Be Partially Observant or to be Partially Secular
I first played around with the idea of alternating between being observant for several days a week and then switching to a secular lifestyle for the remainder of the week. After all, I thought that this would be the most honest way to go about it since it was unclear what the outcome of my investigation would be. It could go both ways.
But I quickly came to the realization that this was foolish. God's existence or non-existence does not depend on which day of the week it is! Moreover, I couldn't keep the cake and eat it at the same time. Either the secular approach was true, in which case living a religious lifestyle during the rest of the week was meaningless, or the religious approach was true, in which case it demanded that I live as a religious person for the entire week.
Thus, on a practical level, it was completely impossible to be neutral.
Blaise Pascal's Solution
Afterwards, I considered adopting the famous solution called the Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a renowned French mathematician and physicist, turned to philosophy and religion and came up with the following argument: a rational person should live as though God exists. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures and luxuries in this world which he would have to give up because of his belief or his religion), whereas if God does exist, he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in heaven) and avoid infinite losses and end up in hell. (The original wager was set out in Pascal's posthumously published famous Pensées (Thoughts, in 1670, a collection of previously unpublished notes). Truth is that Pascal's wager is much more complicated and sophisticated then the above, but it captures in simple terms what he was trying to get at.
This theory has been heavily attacked and contains many problems, although it has had an enormous influence on many other disciplines. But in my case, it was the "business-like" attitude of this argument that I found most problematic. It appears that Pascal's argument depends on how much reward one would get when living as though God exists. This was not my problem. I did not care whether I would go to heaven or hell. I wanted to know whether there is a true way to live one's life. Is Judaism this way or not? Perhaps a different kind of Judaism, or even an entirely different religion, is closer to the truth? I also had to seriously consider the possibility that the secular way of life is more valid than the religious approach.
Sure, I agree with Pascal that there is no way one can ever know for sure whether God exists. Thus, it would be better to live life as though God exists if your greatest concern is the issue of reward and punishment. In that case, his wager is probably the most viable option to this unsolvable problem.
My dilemma, however, was not about the existence of God per se but the practical consequences of this question in terms of determining an appropriate lifestyle. This question is unrelated to the issue of reward and punishment. It is a profound philosophical issue, dealing with ultimate existential problems rather than a utilitarian business calculation designed to yield the greatest dividends. What is the correct way to live in case God exists? Conversely, what is the proper way to live in case He does not exist? Furthermore, even from a strictly "business" point of view, who is to say that one gets more reward when you live as though God exists. Perhaps you receive more reward when you live a life as though God does not exist and you still live a decent moral life without any hope of being rewarded after death.
Would that not be a much greater achievement?
(It should be noted that the earlier mentioned William James in discussing the pros and cons of Pascal's wager in his celebrated essay ‘The Will to Believe’ (1887) gives a much deeper meaning to Pascal's argument, see especially chapter 4.)
Anyway, this argument did not work for me.
To be continued.
Conversations with Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Chapter 2, A Return to the Beginning
Question: Rabbi Cardozo, you mentioned in the last chapter, that you felt that in your younger years you had fallen victim to a kind of simplistic Orthodox Judaism which you needed to investigate again. What made you feel this way?
Rabbi Cardozo: When I got older, I started to read much more widely about Judaism than I had done previously. As a result, I was exposed to a much broader perspective of Judaism than the mainstream Orthodox Judaism as we know it today. I realized that although I was very enthusiastic about Judaism before my conversion, my understanding of this great tradition at that time was too simplistic. There was so much I did not know and I started to feel an emptiness gnawing away at my very being. I came to the realization that although I longed for those early days of discovery before I converted, my enthusiasm at that time was not grounded in reality. I got too carried away with a highly idealized and romanticized version of Judaism. Subsequently I began to struggle, question, and rethink my understanding of Judaism. In fact, I discovered that my questioning was encouraged by the Jewish tradition itself. Nothing could be better than that!
This happened many years after my conversion. One day, I woke up and asked myself: where have you been all these years? Is the Judaism that you are living now really what you are looking for? Is it real Judaism? Are you sure you still want to be religious and Jewish? Yes, you discovered Judaism on your own, but over many years it became routine and dull, and perhaps it no longer works for you. Maybe you created for yourself a picture of a Judaism that was not completely realistic? Perhaps your knowledge was inadequate at the time of your conversion and you may have misread it. Were Spinoza and his cohorts right after all?
Thus, I had to start all over again. This was an excruciating decision to make, and it created a lot of unrest in my life, but I knew that I had two options. I could either continue the monotonous routine of going through the “religious motions” and live within the secure confines of my religious comfort zone. Or I could plunge into the sea of doubt and try to re-discover Judaism as I experienced it before I converted, but on a much deeper level, knowing that I would have to unlearn many things that I had previously taken for granted and accepted as self-evident truths.
Becoming Secular Again?
I also had the option of becoming secular again. This would mean that I would return to the spiritual home of my parents, which was totally secular. The problem was that this would mean that all the questions I had been asking during the days before my conversion, as described in Lonely but Not Alone, which ultimately led me to Judaism, would remain unanswered or would require a satisfactory response within a secular philosophical framework. From my previous experience, I greatly doubted that this would work.
Furthermore, this approach would only be justified once I had studied Judaism thoroughly, realized its problems, evaluated its pros and cons and did not fall victim to the illusion that all was well with Judaism and that it could be accepted at face value. Only then would I be capable of making an informed decision. After all, it is completely impossible to reject something when one does not have a thorough understanding of the thing being rejected. It was clear to me that I was not in a position to do so. My knowledge of Judaism was woefully inadequate to reject it honestly.
This matter was complicated by the fact, as indicated before, that I suspected that the Judaism of the last 2000 years no longer represented the authentic and original essence of Judaism. This may even be true of the Halacha. Perhaps the Jews had “to live a lie” during the past 2000 years from the time when our forebears were forced to live in foreign – and often hostile – countries, since it was no longer possible to live an authentic Jewish life in the present.
Perhaps Judaism was no longer entirely genuine and needed rethinking. I suspected that a thick scab had grown on the face of Judaism and that it needed to be scraped off. Judaism had become artificial and had been derailed. With the establishment of the State of Israel, we had to find a way to get it back on track. Perhaps a purifying process, a spiritual and halachic catharsis, was needed. The question was how to do this while at the same time making sure that we did not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Thus, I decided to embark on a thorough investigation of Judaism.
Moreover, I also read the works of various Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish thinkers which contained many interesting ideas. I also reflected on my encounters and discussions with Reform Rabbis which were thought-provoking, although they never satisfied me. I felt that they were not profound enough, that they were to a certain extent mistaken, too academic and lacked religious passion. I felt that they would not bring me to an encounter with the Divine (in case the Divine was a reality!) and the inner vitality of authentic Judaism. One day I hope to explain this in greater length. Nevertheless, I must emphasize that within the ranks of these movements, there are individuals who possess great religious authenticity and profound scholarship. This fact made my struggle more complicated.
Only a Pioneer Can Be an Heir
Consequently, I had to undergo radical surgery without the benefit of anaesthesia. After all, no one can inherit religion, neither from one’s parents nor one’s teachers. Only by embarking on a relentless quest for truth can one reap the rewards of personal discovery. As Abraham Joshua Heschel stated so eloquently, “in the realm of the spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir.” (See Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951), p. 164). It has to be an honest fight. Yes, I converted when I was 16 years old, but I now realized that my conversion turned into an obstacle. It blocked me since I believed that I had reached my goal. I did not realize that my conversion was only the beginning of a long journey and discovery. Thus, my conversion had become more or less meaningless.
So, there I was. I had to start all over again! This was very painful and full of risks, but it was also very exciting and full of promise.
To be continued.
Conversations with Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Chapter 1, The Problem of My Conversion, My Complacency and Mental Clichés
Question: Rabbi Cardozo, many of us have been deeply impressed by your short spiritual autobiography Lonely but Not Alone (published in 2013 and accessible online). Some of us have read it several times. You have opened a world for us, through which many of us are asking ourselves whether we are genuinely religious even when we live an observant lifestyle. Conversely, others among us wonder whether they can claim to be truly secular. You challenged our religious and secular attitudes and beliefs in a way that opened up new vistas, which are sometimes very painful and disturbing. So you can well imagine that we began reading your other books as well as your many “Thoughts to Ponder” essays. They’re all very intriguing and daring, and many of us surely have many questions. So… may I begin asking my questions?
Rabbi Cardozo: Of course you may! The purpose of this short autobiography was to make people think. I know that many people struggle with their Judaism. I felt that I could help them by showing an alternative way to deal with crucial and challenging issues based on my own experiences.
Let me explain. As you know, I converted to Judaism when I was 16 years old. I am a child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, who also converted many years later. Before my conversion I was extremely excited about Judaism. As you read in the short spiritual autobiography, I was deeply affected by secular thinkers and above all by Spinoza’s attack on Judaism, which was impressive and made much sense. But this was also the reason why I wanted to learn more about the very Judaism, they attacked. After all, I was half Jewish and felt personally challenged! What were these philosophers attacking? So I plunged into Judaism. I read every book I could get my hands on. Sometime later, I realized that Spinoza, who was no doubt a sublime philosopher, was simultaneously ignorant of Judaism and often misrepresented it. Sometimes this was due to wrong information (taught by his teachers); on other occasions, he attacked Judaism with the express intention of courting the good graces of his liberal Christian friends.
At that time, my readings of Judaism were extremely exciting. I was drawn to it and felt an enormous urge to live as an authentic Jew. These were perhaps the greatest days of my life.
But once I converted and became part of the religious community, things went downhill. Believing that I had to identify with that community, I bought into its ideas, lived its lifestyle and slowly lost my enthusiasm. It all turned into a “traditional” way of life, filled with complacency, mental clichés and adjustment to conventional notions. The fire in my soul got partially extinguished and my Judaism turned into a mechanical “going through the motions” mode.
The trouble was that I did not realize that I had fallen victim to this mentality. The Judaism that was practiced around me bore little resemblance to the Judaism I had discovered before my conversion. It was all very dogmatic and was taken for granted. Healthy doubt had given way to religious certainty, which was extremely comfortable.
The “Denial” of the Orthodox
I was deeply disturbed by the fact that many Orthodox Jews were not in the least spiritual, had no interest in a real encounter with the Divine and were digging themselves into a secular routine while keeping the commandments. They were secular Jews who happened to be observant. These were all very nice people, but they were guilty of religious plagiarism, copying others and even themselves. One religious day was identical to the previous day, without any new encounter with the Divine and the Torah. Everything was “under control,” to the point that any novel spiritual and intellectual struggle was completely absent.
But most disturbing was my realization that I myself had become guilty of this! It took years and years before this hit me. I went to synagogue every day, learned Torah and Talmud, ate kosher, observed the commandments (or at least so I believed!). I “talked the talk and walked the walk”, using the language of those who were totally convinced of the absolute truth of Judaism. All this went hand-in-hand with a lot of religious arrogance! I knew it all or so I thought.
The fact that it is specifically the most religious members of the Orthodox community who do not come to lectures that discuss the most crucial issues and problems facing Judaism continues to astonish me until this very day. There are many serious moral and religious challenges to Orthodox Judaism, but many, although not all, within this community, turn a deaf ear to these problems.
It appears as though they are expressing an attitude that seems to say: we do not need these lectures. We know everything, there are no problems, so what is the point in attending these lectures? They give the impression that they are set in their ways and that there is no need for religious growth. But when I speak with them, I realize that they often have no clue what they are actually professing and are somehow ignorant about a good part of the Jewish Tradition. They hide behind their observance as if this were all that is required of them. I suspect that there is a deeper reason for this, that is that they do not want to be confronted with difficult questions of faith or moral problems within Judaism. They are afraid of facing challenges that may undermine their belief system and complacent “religious” lifestyle. By convincing themselves that they know everything, they are hiding and escaping what should really bother them day and night.
I have discussed this with some of my colleagues, who tell me that many of their congregants share the same experience. This is most tragic. Not only for these observant people themselves but even more so for their children who often feel that the Judaism which their parents profess is so shallow and simplistic that they feel uninspired by it and “go off the derech”, (leave the fold). The fact that these children do not attempt to discover Judaism on their own despite their parents is another huge issue that needs to be addressed. But I am always astonished when these parents tell me that they cannot understand why their children left Judaism. When I sometimes suggest to some of them that perhaps it is their own fault, they are utterly astonished. When I tell others that I probably would have walked out myself if I would have had this kind of run-of-the-mill Jewish education at my parents’ home, they are completely shocked, as if they were suddenly hit by a thunderbolt.
“Emunah Peshuta” and Rudolf Otto’s “Das Heilige”
Still, I must confess that there is something beautiful about some people I have encountered who do not ask these questions or are not bothered by them. Unlike the people I just described, these people possess emunah peshuta, a simple but also very profound living faith in which they feel the overwhelming presence of God and are inspired by the Jewish tradition to the extent that it surpasses all challenges.
This usually goes hand-in-hand with a deeply authentic religiosity and piety combined with ecstatic prayer in a manner reminiscent of former Chassidic masters who prayed with great hitlahavut, (religious fervor and elation). This is far more than a just an emotional condition, but the result of an encounter with the Divine, which Rudolf Otto (1868-1937), the great protestant thinker, described in his famous work Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy) as the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, which is translated by the Encyclopaedia Britannica (s.v. study of religion) “as a mystery before which humanity both trembles and is fascinated, is both repelled and attracted.” Perhaps we can discuss this later at greater length.
I must admit that I am a little jealous of these people who have reached such a profound level of faith! I have still a long road to go to reach that level.
To be continued.