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. Rabbijn Lopes Cardozo publiceert regelmatig en neemt daarbij geen blad voor de mond.
Recently, I have been invited to respond to ten questions by Rav Ari Ze'ev Schwartz of Yerushalayim. I have agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.
It is a difficult career choice to become a teacher, rabbi or Jewish educator. Can you explain why you think it is important, despite the hardships, to dedicate one's life to Jewish education?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: For me it is a great privilege, and I wouldn't exchange it for anything else. But I have to admit that it's far from easy.
On a practical level, there is almost no money in it. There were times that I taught with no compensation, because the institutions where I lectured had no money, or could only pay meager salaries. Many of us continued to teach, since teaching Torah is a mission and not an occupation.
On several occasions I had to use my own private money, or take loans, or get help from our parents.
Even today, many of the projects – such as publishing my new books, translating my books and essays into Ivrit (for which there is a great demand) and other languages, and launching weekly podcasts – are hindered by the lack of funds. This is highly unfortunate.
But surely you are asking me concerning the very teaching itself. As with everything else, I feel that a Hand from Above, which I cannot escape, gives me no say in the matter. I have a strong awareness that I owe my unusual background and life to God who asks me to become a teacher with a very special mission. Sometimes I regret that I received Heter Hora'ah (rabbinical ordination) because today sadly enough it is no longer a title of absolute integrity; it carries a stigma and even closes doors.
I love teaching and sharing exciting concepts. This is closely related to my deep concern for the future of Judaism. I admit that Jewish education is much better today than it was in my younger days, but I am terribly worried that we will soon experience a backlash of huge proportions. Not much different from what happened in the days of the Aufklärung (The Enlightenment).
The reason is that we still don't deal seriously with the real existential questions, the meaning and the experience of religiosity, and what Judaism really stands for. There's a great amount of denial in religious circles about confronting serious questions. On top of that, since the establishment of the State of Israel, its enormous spiritual, moral and halachic challenges have not been dealt with on the level that is absolutely necessary. Often, religious communities and its leaders actually run away from them.
Many of the answers given are still embedded in a Galut (exile) mentality, as if we are still living under Galut conditions, and as if the establishment of the State of Israel has not created a radical change in the life of the Jewish people even though the Mashiach has not arrived. Ultimately, this will backfire and the price will be extremely high. One cannot fit "exile Judaism" into the modern State of Israel.
Only very few religious institutions really deal with these problems. In most places they are not taken seriously, and only lip service is offered. I taught in the introductory program of a ba'al teshuva yeshiva for many years, where "newcomers" would arrive. Some of my colleagues and I would discuss the great existential questions and the Jewish responses to them. Although I believe that the answers, including my own, were much too simplistic, at least we dealt with them in a serious way. This excited the students and they decided to stay and continue to learn more. But once they were out of the introductory program, these questions were not just ignored but actually looked down upon and sometimes even made fun of. All that counted was to fit in with the ultra-Orthodox community and to learn Talmud nearly all day long. Besides the fact that I believe it was taught the wrong way and nearly all matters of ideology were ignored, the biggest mistake was that these students never got the opportunity to give their own opinions, outside of the "yeshivisheh hashkofeh" (the ultra-Orthodox world view), which is often a complete re-writing of what authentic Judaism really is trying to convey. Instead of asking them to use their own talents, often learned at famous universities, they were told to keep silent and "just listen." This talking down to the students (After all, what did they know?) was detrimental and robbed them of being themselves and making a contribution to Jewish learning. I think that even I was guilty of this, although less than some other teachers. I often had to deal with students who were totally put off by this and wanted to leave. Others were clever enough to see the fallacies and superficiality in the answers that some teachers gave, and just left, since they saw Judaism as a simplistic and outdated tradition. This still happens today, as I know from personal experience when I meet yeshiva students.
The mistake of the ba'al teshuva movement was that they demanded of the students to ignore their past, forget about their secular studies, and often suppress their creative talents. They had to fit into the existing ultra-Orthodox world. As such, they could not create a new spirit within Orthodoxy and were often treated as uninformed beginners who had nothing to offer and were considered failures if they didn't become Talmudists. By making them feel inferior, Orthodoxy lost one of its great opportunities to re-create itself and bring in a new spirit, which was and is sorely needed and to which these young people could have greatly contributed.
Another huge mistake was that Judaism was taught as if it had ready-made answers to all questions and nothing was left in doubt, still to be dealt with. This is completely untrue. Judaism still has many issues to deal with and to answer. In my opinion, it is still in the making. It's an organic tradition that still has so much to discover. But it can only do so when it is prepared to change its mind and rethink its former teachings, and takes joy in the fact that it doesn't have all the answers but has powerful foundations and the courage to see new horizons.
Much money was wasted on the ba'al teshuva movement because it failed to live up to its potential and give Judaism a new spirit.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.” (God in Search of Man, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, NY, 1955, p. 3)
This is true to this very day. There is still too much of this malady, in which secularity is being blamed, while in truth it is commonplace Judaism that is at fault. This has done great damage. I feel, therefore, that it is my mission – probably because of my unusual background and my atypical studies – to try and turn the tide. This also explains why my teachings are unconventional and controversial. After all, I cannot fit into this kind of Judaism, which to me is obsolete and a misrepresentation. I am looking for ways to make Judaism exciting and novel.
Every generation has to do this in accordance with the times in which it lives. One cannot teach Judaism now as it was taught a few hundred years ago. When a new spirit has overtaken society and new ideas are promulgated, one needs to speak in that language. This is what Maimonides did in his days. Aristotle was the person who set the intellectual stage, and Maimonides wrote his masterpiece, the Guide for the Perplexed, accordingly. While its contents are still very powerful and worth studying, its style, use of language, and mode of argumentation are dated. And so it is true with all other great Jewish thinkers, from Saadia Gaon (882-942) to Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993). All of these works are dated – yes even Rabbi Soloveitchik's! – and were written in accordance with the spirit of their times.
And so it will happen with my own ideas. And that's the way it should be. God opens up new vistas that deepen our understanding, and we have to make full use of this, because it will give us more profound insight into what Judaism has to offer.
This is why I teach Judaism as a rebellion, because it is rebellion and autonomy that are now in the air. I strongly believe that when new ideas, ideologies and movements come about, these are God-given and have great religious meaning, even if most people see them as secular or downright atheistic. (I learned this from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook). This means that we are religiously obligated to incorporate them into Judaism – sometimes by just accepting them and other times by reworking them. The goal is to bring everything back to Judaism (or, for that matter, to other religions.)
It is important to remember not to fall victim to using just any argument as a means to ensure that people remain committed to Judaism or become religious, if these arguments are doubtful, cheap, and untrue. That would be dishonest. This is what some outreach programs often seem to do, especially with their often outdated so-called proofs for the existence of God or the divinity of the Torah. We must protest against that sort of dishonest approach.
But because there are truthful elements in each serious philosophy, which can help us understand and deepen our insights into Judaism, we must become familiar with them as long as we don't treat them as axiomatic.
When Maimonides used Aristotle's ideas to explain Judaism, he did so because he honestly believed it would enrich our understanding of Judaism. He clearly believed that Aristotle was sent from Heaven to give him ideas to explain Judaism. At the time, Aristotle's ideas were seen as representing truth. As such, it was intellectually honest for Maimonides to use his ideas to explain Judaism. Maimonides would not have used these ideas had he known that they are actually untrue.
I have no doubt that if Maimonides were alive today he would be writing a very different Guide for the Perplexed, using the latest discoveries in science and recent insights into modern philosophy.
In some way we can argue that all philosophic and scientific insights are a kind of indirect explanation and elaboration on Torah and Judaism. And so it is with all literature, even if the authors were unaware of it or had none of that in mind.
When I claim that Judaism is rebellion, as I have done in my latest book Jewish Law as Rebellion, A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage (Urim Publications), it is because I honestly believe it is really rebellious, and I emphasize that element within Judaism because it speaks to the generation in which I live. The next generation may see the need to use another truthful element that will speak for that generation.
For some people these ideas are sometimes considered to be fanciful, mind-boggling, implausible, and exaggerated. Occasionally, I am accused of wishful thinking and even of being superficial. There is a certain truth in this! After all, it is a thought in process! I know that I have touched on something much deeper, which I'm not yet able to verbalize on the level I would like.
Without comparing myself to Rav Kook, I have learned from him to let one's thoughts run wild and just write down anything that comes to mind, which may not yet be at all sophisticated or properly thought through. But we know there are seeds that are planted, and we need to wait until they start growing and make a great contribution.
Sure, not everyone is able to do that. Only when people have enough knowledge and have been playing around with some of these ideas for a long time can they do that. "Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep", said Shakespeare (Henry VI, Part 2, III, i, 53). So, I smile when people accuse me of superficiality. They're right but they don't understand the secret behind it. Superficial ideas are like straws that float on the surface, but the pearls are close by when one dives deeper. I risk expressing them at this moment in time, even if they are still immature, because others may develop them – as indeed sometimes happens. That I pay a certain price for that is the last thing I'm worried about. Rav Kook expressed ideas that were naive and underdeveloped, but some of these ideas were later expanded into major concepts, by him or by some of his students. I hope that the same will happen with my own ideas. Even naiveté, a kind of childish innocence, or crazy thought may one day become a major idea of great value.
I am reminded of the story about the famous scientist Wolfgang Pauli who gave a talk on elementary particle physics at Columbia University. Niels Bohr, one the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, was in the audience. After the lecture Pauli said to Bohr: “You probably think that these ideas are crazy.” “I do”, replied Bohr. “Unfortunately, they are not crazy enough.”
This is the secret to successful teaching, and why it is one of the greatest and most exiting missions a human being can be privileged to take on.
Recently, I have been invited to respond to ten questions by Rav Ari Ze'ev Schwartz of Yerushalayim. I have agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.
You are known for your incredibly controversial articles about religion and ethics. In one article, you write about the spiritual danger involved if wearing a kippah becomes robotic and meaningless; you discuss the possibility of taking off one's kippah from time to time in order to feel more spiritually connected to it. Even though you end up deciding against this possibility, the very raising of the question is highly thought provoking. In another article, you criticize Orthodox rabbis for being too afraid to speak at Limmud, a conference that includes Conservative and Reform rabbis. You write that if Orthodox rabbis were confident in their own beliefs, they wouldn't be afraid of speaking alongside leaders of other religious denominations. Rav Kook, after the founding of the State of Israel, showed enormous courage in supporting the secular Zionists even when he was severely criticized and rejected by the Chareidi world for doing so. Where do you get your courage to write these controversial articles? Do you ever worry about the consequences? Or is this something that you have learned to ignore over time?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: Somebody once remarked that to study Talmud properly one needs to be an apikores (a Jewish heretic). I fully agree with this. After all, the idea is not just to accept what the Talmud states but to question it, challenge it, and see whether or not it is still true in our days. The big question is: Would the Sages have commented and ruled today the same as they did in the days of the Talmud? Although one cannot compare religious insights to scientific investigation such as astronomy, we should still take an example from people like Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein who gave us new insights into our universe.
Sure, the mitzvot are divine and cannot be abolished (although the Talmud teaches us that sometimes the Sages "uprooted" a commandment, but that's a topic on its own, which I have discussed in my book Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage). But much of what the Talmud discusses deals with rabbinical laws that made sense at the time and were essential. Today, however, they may just stand in the way of protecting the mitzvot and moving Judaism forward. A famous example is the observation of the great Rabbi Menachem Meiri, who was one of the most outstanding Talmudic scholars of the 13th-14th centuries in France. He stated on many occasions that most of the laws related to non-Jews no longer apply, because the non-Jewish world has drastically changed and is no longer involved in idol worship. So, many of the Talmudic prohibitions that relate to them are irrelevant.
It doesn't make sense to argue, as a few poskim (decisors of Jewish law) have, that we shouldn't take Rabbi Meiri's insights into consideration, since his commentary on 36 tractates of the Talmud was unknown for so many generations. That's also true about many other manuscripts we have found, which we do make use of. Yes, one needs to have a lot of knowledge and have the Talmud at one's fingertips, but it's also essential to have a keen understanding of other (non-Jewish) areas of human knowledge in order to decide what should go and what should stay. Our generation is blessed by God with the availability of almost infinite Jewish and secular knowledge, and we should surely make use of it!
Most important is to remember that great controversies are also great emancipators. They give us new and fresh insights. We are in dire need of them. We should not only allow them but encourage our students to advance them!
But it is also important to remember that courage is resistance to fear, not absence of fear. "Courage is a kind of salvation," as Plato said in The Republic (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2019, p. 74).
There was a time when I was afraid of the repercussions of expressing my observations. But that was a long time ago. I have now thrown off this fear; although that may not be a good sign. After all, fear keeps us watchful. And there is a great advantage to achieving wisdom won through pain. I always keep this in mind when I speak or write. I hope it keeps me humble.
Much of the criticism I sometimes receive is nothing more than the result of people not reading carefully what I wrote. Sometimes I get the impression that people don't even read the essay at all, for fear that they may become biased and convinced! I often use unusual (controversial) titles so as to catch the reader's attention, but for some it seems to be enough of a reason to disapprove and not even read the article.
Personally, I read every serious article at least three or four times so that I (hopefully) understand entirely what the author is claiming. Often I realize that I got it wrong the first, second and third times!
It is symptomatic that through one small remark some of my critics make, I know immediately that they didn't have the slightest idea what I was trying to convey. If I'm in a discussion with them, I try to spare them the embarrassment. So I attempt to raise their comments up to a higher level so that they feel like they made a major point.
Still others may indeed make compelling observations and criticize me with very valid arguments. They do this with great erudition and integrity. I learn a lot from them and will frequently change my mind and thank them for that. I have no monopoly on truth. All I want is that people think about my ideas, not necessarily agree with them.
On several occasions I showed my opponents – including great rabbis who call me a heretic – that certain statements by the famous Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook are much graver, and more controversial, exceptionally daring, and "heretical" than what I wrote or said. They are totally dumbfounded and don't know what to say. (See, for example, Rav Kook's astonishing work titled L'Nevuchei HaDor, especially chapter 13.)
My wife and children also don't always agree with me and even object to my ideas. I delight in that, because I see it comes from a place of love, deep religiosity and halachic commitment.
This is the reason that I'm not always able to live by my own teachings. While I suggest that I would love to take off my kippah because it would enhance my religiosity, I decided not to do so because my younger grandchildren and great-grandchildren are not yet able to understand my motivation and would surely see it as my lack of dedication to a rich halachic life. I would then set a bad example, God forbid.
The same is true for some of my friends who would love to use my thoughts concerning the kippah and other matters as a way to allow themselves to be less committed, so as not to look overly religious when with their non-religious friends. Sometimes this is clearly spineless. On the other hand, in certain specific Sephardic communities it is actually the custom not to wear kippot except when one prays or eats.
It's what Jewish Russian-British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin said when dealing with moral problems: Often moral ideals clash. "…the idea of a perfect solution of human problems – of how to live – cannot be coherently conceived … there is no avoiding compromises; they are bound to be made: the very worst can be averted by trade-offs" (Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, London: Halban, 2007, 142-143).
If I were living on my own, I would no doubt take off my kippah without any problem, because I believe that this is the correct halachic/spiritual approach for me, as I explained in my essay. To be honest, when I'm on my own I sometimes take it off so that I can put it on again with the right elevated sensation I so much long for. But I must admit that most of the time it doesn't succeed and I don't gain anything from it. I have become numb to this, which greatly pains me.
Claiming that I don't dare to do so for religious reasons is really missing the point. It is educational reasons that motivate me. And so it is with many other suggestions I have made, some of which I actually implement. I drink kosher wine when it is touched by fine non-Jews, since I believe that the prohibition against drinking that wine when the non-Jews were idol worshippers no longer applies. It also doesn't stop assimilation, which was in the past another reason for this proscription. Similarly, there are numerous other halachic prohibitions that I believe are no longer applicable. One day I will publish a full article with many examples.
I also believe that we have to make some new rabbinical suggestions to prevent certain acts that are not in the spirit of Judaism, even if they are now permitted. I mention only one: Reading secular newspapers on Shabbat. Although the actual Halacha does not consider them muktzeh (forbidden to be handled on Shabbat), and one can read or touch them , for me they are muktzeh and prohibited. It is a violation of the spirit of Shabbat. Even worse is when people start speaking about finances. I cannot understand how people who are often busy with finances the whole week continue to speak about it on Shabbat. Would they not prefer to take their minds off from their work and concentrate on something else entirely? As the prophet says:
"If you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath, from doing as you please on my holy day, and you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD's holy day honorable, and you honor it by not going your own way, by not pursuing your affairs or speaking idle words, then you shall delight with the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land, and I will feed you the heritage of Yaakov your forefather, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken" (Yeshayahu 58:13-14).
Those people also don't seem to realize that they do great damage to their children who quickly realize that Shabbat is not their parents' priority and that money is more important!
It is always interesting to note that those who don't have the knowledge to criticize are the people who, out of frustration, sometimes use vulgar language and sporadically curse me. I laugh about it, because I'm blessed with a good sense of humor. But it's obviously very, very sad.
I sometimes wonder if the reason I don't get upset about it is nothing but arrogance. This is an old Portuguese-Jewish "malady," which I probably inherited from my ancestors when they were dukes and lords of nobility in the days before the Spanish Inquisition. They were also often immensely rich. Today, the wealth is gone but the arrogance is alive and well in the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam! I love that community dearly – not for its arrogance, but for its beautiful customs and "gravidade" (Portuguese dignity) with their top hats, style and allure. (It was this community that imposed a ban on Spinoza who, as anybody can read in his writings, possessed a great amount of superb arrogance!)
I also must admit that while I learn, work, read or write Torah, I sometimes listen to some former (political) humorists. Wim Kan (1911-1983) and Godfried Bomans (1913-1971), well known to all my Dutch readers, are superb examples. Wim Kan managed, as no one else did, on the last day of almost every December, in one hour, to ridicule and expose the entire Dutch government in such an unprecedented way that the minute he started his one-man show, there was nobody in the streets throughout the whole of Holland. Everyone was so glued to their televisions and radios that if the enemy would have come in with its infantry and heavy tanks, nobody would have noticed. All his masterly puns were clean and of high caliber satirically. While in those days other countries' humorists would mercilessly target the government and politicians in small private gatherings, in Holland this was a national event in front of millions of viewers, and those ministers whose names were not dragged through the mud felt insulted! I know entire segments of these brilliant monologues by heart and still burst into laughter when I hear them again. Godfried Bomans was right when he observed that there was (and is) a psychological need among the Dutch for this. Holland is a flat country, without mountains and valleys, and this has a great influence on the characteristics of its inhabitants. The Dutch cannot live with people who stand out. So ministers and other governmental officials need to be equalized. Calling them by their first names and joking about them makes the Dutch feel better. The motto was that "Big" and "Important" people need to behave like anyone else. And anybody who lifts their head above the others needs to be taken down a notch. This is also the reason why most of the time Dutch Jewry couldn't get along with their rabbis. The latter were (and still are) dealt with as employees who had to listen to their bosses, who often hadn't the slightest idea what the task of a rabbi was, or couldn't value a great sage among them. The rabbis' lives were often made so unpleasant that they left. The most famous example is that of the great Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, known worldwide as the Chacham Tzvi (1658-1718) who couldn't stay in Amsterdam more than four years.
So I am often almost hysterically laughing while busy writing the most serious stuff. It helps very much to keep me in a good mood in my rather isolated life. This is besides my deep love for classical music and occasional jazz, or even the Beatles who were in my younger days seen as outrageous while today their music sounds antiquated.
Some of my readers may see this as sacrilege when I'm writing Torah at the same time, but for me these humorists were a gift from God to give so much joy and laughter to the people that I consider it a religious moment of great magnitude.
No doubt this fact has helped me immensely not to get upset, because when I hear or read some of these curses, I recall Wim Kan's or Godfried Bomans' puns that would make such fun of these curses that they then become hilarious.
Regarding the Limmud Conference in England, several powerful rabbis tried to stop me from going, since Reform and Conservative rabbis were also teaching there. Many years ago, when the Beth Din of the United Synagogue in England told me, as well as the famous Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, that we were not allowed to go to Limmud, Rabbi Lamm and I wrote back that this "psak" (quasi halachic decision) did not make any sense. All it would do is deliver the entire Limmud conference into the hands of the Reform and Conservative movements. Nobody would hear an Orthodox point of view. This, we believed, would be a huge mistake – especially since nearly 3,000 people attended Limmud. We didn't want to carry this black stain on our souls. In addition, such an attitude clearly indicates that Orthodoxy is afraid of the Reform and Conservative; and we would have no part in that. Rabbi Lamm and I went and even taught together, which was a great success.
I try to go as often as possible to these conferences and have been to Limmud in England, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Holland and Los Angeles. It is a marvelous experience, a real happening, although it's true that there's a lot of hot air and foolishness in what's being taught there as well.
Many years ago, when Limmud invited an anti-Semitic British journalist to speak, I strongly disapproved and told them that I considered it completely unacceptable. In protest, I didn't go that year. As far as I know, it never happened again. There are also some problems with lecturers who occasionally attack Israel in ways that are unacceptable. What I normally do is go to these lectures and then try to debunk them.
I always sit on panels with Reform and Conservative rabbis, and sometimes with atheists, which is great fun and a wonderful opportunity to show the profundity of Orthodox Judaism. Occasionally, however, I agree with my fellow panelists because their critique of Orthodoxy is right on target. It would be a good idea for Orthodox rabbis and teachers to listen to these critiques. There's a lot to learn.
In any case, I have no problem with being controversial and although I'm an ignoramus compared to Rav Kook, I take an example from him. I just continue in my ways, as he did in his, despite the occasional outrage. Halevai (if only), may I be as religious as he was!
I am reminded of the famous quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt: "I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made"!
Recently, I have been invited to respond to ten questions by Rav Ari Ze'ev Schwartz of Yerushalayim. I have agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.
You are known for your incredibly controversial articles about religion and ethics. In one article, you write about the spiritual danger involved if wearing a kippah becomes robotic and meaningless; you discuss the possibility of taking of one's kippah from time to time in order to feel more spiritually connected to it. Even though you end up deciding against this possibility, the very raising of the question is highly thought provoking. In another article, you criticize Orthodox rabbis for being too afraid to speak at Limmud, a conference that includes Conservative and Reform rabbis. You write that if Orthodox rabbis were confident in their own beliefs, they wouldn't be afraid of speaking alongside leaders of other religious denominations. Rav Kook, after the founding of the State of Israel, showed enormous courage in supporting the secular Zionists even when he was severely criticized and rejected by the Chareidi world for doing so. Where do you get your courage to write these controversial articles? Do you ever worry about the consequences? Or is this something that you have learned to ignore over time?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: When I was about fourteen years old, I was drawn to Judaism for reasons I have discussed earlier. We lived at that time in a small town called Aerdenhout, 20 kilometers from Amsterdam, and I attended a non-Jewish high school, known as a gymnasium. The school, Het Jacques P. Thijsse Lyceum, was housed in a beautiful castle on magnificent grounds. It was known around the country as an exclusive school where, besides core subjects, we also studied Latin and Greek, and whoever wanted could learn classical Hebrew so as to ready themselves for studying the great classics at the best universities.
I was the official representative of our class, which meant that I was the go-between for the class and the rector, the headmaster, and the management of the school. This was a great privilege with many responsibilities.
All of my friends were non-Jews. We often had social evenings at the homes of some students. There was food, drinks and dancing with the girls. While "incidents" occurred, they were innocent compared to what happens today at such gatherings. The Netherlands has legalized soft drugs, which are very popular, and "getting high" is not a big problem. So the Dutch count among their citizens a large number of elevated people! You can buy all sorts of drugs at any corner "coffee shop". Coffee, however, is not served!
While I was a child with little courage, I now had to prove myself, to stand out and become a bit of a strange bird. I could no longer eat the non-kosher food and refused to dance with the girls. (Some were very beautiful!) To this day, I find dancing a strange pursuit. But this is, lehavdil, also true about Chassidic dancing with great religious fervor. So there is much more to it. Why do human beings constantly need to move and jump, unable to stay put? Why do we need to walk back and forth, even when we're in the middle of a thought? What is the religious meaning of this, and why are Chassidim very devoted to it? Is there a connection with sexuality, which clearly has a deep religious meaning, as Chassidic teachings have emphasized? An interesting topic that we need to discuss one day!
When I suggested to my fellow students that perhaps I should step down from my role of representative and not come to these evenings anymore, they didn't want to hear of it and insisted that I stay. They brought me fruit, and the girls understood and respected my request not to dance with them. This was a strange, uncomfortable experience because I was the only one sitting on a chair in the corner while everybody else was swaying! It made me feel like a stick-in-the-mud and a stranger. What I think kept me popular was the fact that I asked the most unusual questions and caused fierce debates that everyone loved. To have a strange and constantly challenging fellow student, who also happened to be Jewish and becoming religious, gave certain uniqueness to the class, which I think made them proud.
I felt a need to explain myself to my non-Jewish friends. I believe that this was the first time in my life that I had to have the courage to elucidate why I was trying to become religious and what it meant to be religious. But by doing so, I was turning myself into an outlandish fellow. This was a completely secular school in the extreme! Fierce debates often erupted with strong opposition to my religious inclinations, but it also elicited a lot of admiration for my willingness to explain and defend a highly unpopular view on life that was no doubt disturbing to them.
When I explained to them that I would no longer pick up the phone on Shabbat, I was attacked for wanting to return to the Middle Ages. I told them that the opposite is true and that I'm far ahead of our times. After all, we are becoming completely enslaved to all the devices we create – whether it is the phone, computer, car, or other items – with the disastrous consequences that we have no time any more for our own lives and those of our spouses, children and friends. When I unplug my phone Friday afternoon and don't drive or write, I liberate myself from all these items and create space for many more important and existential matters. So who is enslaved and still living in the Middle Ages – they, or I? This caught them totally off guard!
It strengthened my very being and gave me a lot of courage, which I've carried with me throughout my life. Since those days, fear has never stopped me from having courage. I do, however, remember serving in the Israeli army (I was already over 50 and a grandfather) and being taught how to shoot an Uzi submachine gun, which could kill another soldier or other innocent people, including children – the nightmare of any Israeli soldier, even if they are children of the enemy. The thought that I would make a mistake, or have no other option but to fire (collateral damage), made me quite anxious, but I persevered and pulled through. I never forget the quote attributed to Golda Meir: "When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."
But my time in the army turned out to be one of the most remarkable experiences in my life. The feeling that I was defending the Jewish people was worth the risk. It was a privilege, and there was a metaphysical dimension to it. And so the fear did not engulf me and ultimately was turned into pride!
At the beginning, I found army life difficult since nobody gave us, older people, any mental training. (I served with about 150 Gerrer Chassidim, many of them grandparents!) We were thrown into this with no mercy or consideration. And the age of about 50 is not the best phase in life to adapt to entirely new, often tough but necessary conditions, which I was not at all used to. I had grown up as a spoiled child, educated to behave properly and be refined and polite. I had never encountered or even contemplated war conditions, although I had heard and read a lot about it when studying the Holocaust. I understand that today this is handled much more sensitively by the Israeli army, and nobody gets called up after the age of 40. In my days, people were called up to do miluim (a month of reserve duty) until the age of 54.
I remember that once at 5:00 a.m. we had to appear in front of our officer, who was many years younger than most of us. When he started using foul language, I stepped forward and said in my broken Hebrew that we who were born outside of Israel were not used to this kind of language and would not accept it. I surprised myself for speaking up, and to my utter astonishment, after being stunned by my remark the officer apologized instead of reprimanding me.
I'm not afraid to die, something I learned from my mother, z"l, who risked her life to save all of my father's family in the Holocaust. I just hope that I won't become a burden to my family when I'm very old. I often see other families who suffer terribly when their parents are no longer able to look after themselves due to Alzheimer, cancer or other terrible illnesses. While one can often not prevent these situations, it's unfair to the children who have their own families and worries. I pray every day that my wife and I will die without any complications, hopefully in our own beds and with a divine kiss. (But let me be clear: I'm not planning to die, and when it happens it's not my fault! It's a waste of time and spoils the entire day!)
I am often attacked for my views, and I understand that. To get people, including ourselves, to think and to question our views with the implication that we may need to change our ways is not always pleasant. But if we want to make sure that Judaism has a big future, we have no option but to take that road. The new always carries a sense of violation, a kind of sacrilege. But we need to destroy the security of all conventional knowledge and undo the normalcy of all that is ordinary if we want to move forward. "All noble things are as difficult as they are rare", said Spinoza (last line in his Ethics).
But it's also important not to obscure the real idea of growth, which is not to leave things behind us but to leave things inside us.
At the same time, we are forced to question some components that are now seen as essential parts of Judaism but may, after all, not qualify as such. We must be careful not to embalm Judaism and claim that it is alive simply because it continues to maintain its external shape.
It is a great pity that most of the time those who attack me do so out of ignorance and perhaps jealousy. I have been busy studying the Jewish tradition for over 50 years and have discovered that it is much more profound than I imagined and much more "pluralistic", with many fascinating ideas that the average rabbi, yeshiva student or religious person doesn't know. (Neither did I when I was learning in yeshiva.) Some of them are surely much greater Talmudists than I am, but I know a lot about the Jewish tradition that they have never heard about. To say that a great Talmudist is by definition also a great Jewish religious scholar is somewhat misleading. There is much more at stake. The opposite is also true. Without proper Talmudic knowledge one cannot judge or appreciate Judaism. (Spinoza's huge mistake!)
My advice to my opponents is to go back to the drawing board. Start learning again; not just Talmud but also much of the literature that is post-Talmudic, which is nearly infinite. In fact, Talmudic study alone could stifle the mind and spirit if one doesn't know how to approach the text and how to read between the lines. (I have already written about this but will still write about it in a future essay.) Even until today, many Talmudic students have fallen victim to this.
Let's not forget that it's not even a text but a transliterated voice that one needs to learn how to hear. There is a very good reason why the Talmud was written in a kind of Aramaic telegram style, where words are deliberately left out to be filled in by the imagination of the student. It is made up of highly unconventional debates, most of which remain oral. There is nothing like this in all of world literature.
The wonderful philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, tr. by C.K. Ogden, Dover Pub., NY, 1999, p. 88). In other words: People's mental capacity is restricted by their command of language. This is very well described in George Orwell's novel 1984, in which the totalitarian state bans words so as to limit the intellectual capacity of its citizens, which limits their scope of creative thought. This happens in Talmudic circles as well. The less one reads between the lines, the less the capacity to increase Talmudic and halachic possibilities.
I must confess that my essays are often removed from the "parashat hashavua pamphlet desk" of the Modern Orthodox Zionist synagogue where I pray. At first, I found them torn up and dropped in the trash can; now they occasionally disappear altogether. I'm sure that it is a fanatic outsider who is guilty of this and not a member of the synagogue. But the fact that this is tolerated is most unfortunate. What's even sadder is that all of my 13 books, which I gave as gifts to the synagogue, have been removed (by whom?) and I am no longer invited to speak Friday night after Kabbalat Shabbat or after the Shabbat morning service when one of the synagogue members gives a short lecture. I can't say for sure that this is deliberate, but it is striking that this happened after I had given a short lecture on the views of the famous kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570), who suggested that one can read the Torah on a metaphysical level and that not all the stories in the Torah actually happened. (See Chesed L'Avraham by Rabbi Avraham Azulai [1570-1643].) In other words, there may be too much literal-mindedness in today's Orthodoxy, and literal meaning is only the minimal possibility and completely misses the boat on what the Torah tries to convey. It seems that several of my listeners became nervous, were perhaps irritated by these observations, and objected.
I don't mind that I am no longer allowed to give these short lectures, since it takes a lot of time to prepare them properly on the level I demand of myself. (Remember the famous words attributed to Winston Churchill who apologized for having written a long letter since he had no time to write a short one!) But what I do object to is that nobody has the courage to tell me to my face that I am no longer allowed to teach. This is cowardly and does not befit my good friends.
But again, it may be purely accidental. And my reaction may be the result of a misunderstanding on my side. I am, however, not prepared to get into a discussion about it with the hanhala (the lay-leadership, or the rabbi). It would probably embarrass them, and I consider them my best friends. It's strange, though, that nobody in the synagogue has asked me why I no longer speak. (Surely there must have been a discussion about it!)
I mentioned all this to some of my close friends who told me that I should leave the synagogue and pray somewhere else, since it's an insult. But I don't see it like that, and leaving this community would be a reflection of small-mindedness, which doesn't solve the problem. I'm not made of that stuff. Much of the objection to what I have to say is the result of ignorance and fear, not willful intent. What's needed is a different educational approach, which will remove this fear of anything that seems unconventional.
I am telling you and my readers all this, because it's very sad that a Modern Orthodox synagogue seems to fall victim to fundamentalism. I hope that my words are a warning and will serve as a call and plea that this has to come to an end before things get worse within the Modern Orthodox, so-called open-minded communities.
To be continued.
For someone who writes about Jewish spirituality and philosophy, your love of the Talmud is amazingly prominent in all your writings. What is your attraction to the Talmud?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: Let me tell you a story that happened to me when I was learning in Gateshead Yeshiva, England, which is the largest and most famous Talmudic College in Europe. (Later, I spent another four years in Mirrer Yeshiva, Yerushalayim, and in a rabbinical college where we studied Choshen Mishpat, the legal side of rabbinical law.)
It is in Gateshead Yeshiva that I spent my first eight years studying Talmud.
When I arrived there, they had to add another class – "Minus One" – since I had no experience at all in how to learn Talmud. To this day, it is puzzling to me that the hanhala (leadership) of the yeshiva was prepared to accept me as a student. I was completely unqualified, and it was only through the perseverance of some Dutch rabbis who were my devoted teachers and who kept begging to let me in and, surprisingly, succeeded.
As a side note, when I later entered the official lowest class, something unusual happened. All the Talmud classes were in Lithuanian Yiddish and nobody in my class knew any Yiddish, although they all came from Orthodox families. They were all British and spoke English. (Some of their parents spoke Yiddish.) But I had studied German in high school and it was not at all difficult for me to understand Yiddish, since most of the words are derived from medieval West German. This meant that I became the official translator in the classroom. So I translated the Yiddish into English, which I had also mastered at high school. But after that, my fellow students had to tell me what it all meant, because I lacked the Talmudic knowledge to understand what the Rabbi was saying! This was quite funny.
Although I'm a Sephardi, I love Yiddish! It's a soul language that basically defies all principles of what an official language should be. It's musical and can convey feelings no other language can. I remember that the Roshei Yeshiva called me Lapes Cardeizei, because Lithuanian Jews can't pronounce a long "o"! Interestingly enough, the Amsterdam Portuguese Spanish community to which my family belonged, never spoke Ladino, the typical Judeo-Spanish language. Instead, they spoke plain Spanish or Portuguese.
Back to the story: While in Gateshead, I got a letter from a non-Jewish friend from my former school days who asked whether he could visit me, since he wanted to know what this "Jewish monastery" was all about. I told him that he would be most welcome. When he came, I gave him a yarmulke (skullcap) to wear and took him to the bet midrash where about 300 young men were learning. I deliberately didn't give him any introduction, so he walked in totally unprepared for what he would encounter. To understand his shock, one has to realize that when one enters a study hall or library of any university, the first rule is Silence. People whisper so as not to disturb others.
When my friend walked in, he encountered a verbal storm of such magnitude that he could barely hear his own words. The noise was deafening. People shouting to each other, walking around nervously, pointing at a Talmudic text and sometimes telling their friends to go home because they had no clue what a certain passage was actually about, got it all wrong, and their situation was hopeless. And after all that, these students walked away as the best of friends and had a good laugh at their fierce dispute. There was a deep camaraderie among them and one could really call all these disputes a "holy war" – one of love for the Talmud and one's fellow man!
When my friend somehow recovered from the shock, he asked me what this was all about. Was it a demonstration against the Queen of England, or some other political protest that got out of hand? I replied, "No. What you witness here is a discussion about what God actually said at Sinai to Moshe and the Children of Israel a few thousand years ago." He stared at me with big eyes and said, "You still don't know?" And I said, "Indeed, we still don't know! May God be blessed for that!"
This, in a nutshell, explains my fascination with the Talmud. It is the ongoing discussion of what God wants from us while, for the most part, not giving us a final answer and leaving us in limbo. Why is this? Because it is only through discussion and disagreement that a tradition can stay alive and be relevant. Once it is finalized, it will die. (See the works of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.) This is the reason that I object so strongly to the codification of Jewish law.
For me, the main characteristic of the Talmud is deliberate chaos. Chaos is God's signature when He wants to stay out of the picture and asks His children to catch a glimpse of Him when they see an opening through the dark clouds. It's somewhat related to chaos theory in science. It reminds me of what Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science once said: "As a rule, I begin my lectures on Scientific Method by telling my students that scientific method does not exist" (Preface to Realism and the Aim of Science, London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 1992, p. 5).
When I study Talmud, I feel like I'm in the middle of an ocean in which anything and everything is being discussed, tested, and taken apart to be reconstructed, only to be demolished again. It is a magnificent painting full of colors, shadows and dazzling combinations, which perhaps only Rembrandt van Rijn, the great artist from Amsterdam, would have noticed. There is fantasy, art and music all around – from the classics to jazz and beyond – one great symphony.
For me, it is not so much about religious knowledge but about a way to see the world and the intricacies of human existence.
It reminds me of the famous comment by theoretical physicist David Bohm: "The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained" (as quoted in New Scientist February 1993, p. 42).
I feel like I'm being lifted out of intellectual confinement and walking into a landscape of real, spontaneous, ongoing, magnificent life.
The Talmud is a discussion among approximately 400 Sages who constantly and fiercely argued about nearly everything, while many of them did not even live in the same era or city. But everybody meets everybody, because the redactors of the Talmud completely ignored time and space. They deliberately put everyone against everyone so as to get the maximum amount of discussion going.
Nothing in the Talmud is in the right place. Discussions jump from one subject to another; everything is alive and kicking.
First, we hear a stirring argument about payment of damages, suddenly followed by how a woman should seduce her husband in the bedroom. (For a small fee, I'll tell you where it is!) Subsequently, we find out how to pray with deep kavana (intention).
And that is exactly its beauty: sex is related to prayer, and prayer is connected with damages.
At first, you can't make head or tail of it, until one day you "get" it and it becomes a revelation. A real delight.
Piercing logic combined with fables of tremendous depth, popular wisdom, and humor are all around. Huge storms with high waves that come down with enormous power and are then smashed to pieces.
It has nothing to do with Greek thinking, where everything needs to fit into an overall philosophical system, and where one proposition must logically follow from another.
The Talmud is wise enough not to go that way because, for the most part, life is not composed of logical propositions, but rather of emotional upheavals and deep feelings.
After all, life is a chaotic experience into which we human beings try to put some order. And that is what the Talmud tries to do – address the sum total of life and not just one dimension of it.
So, the wisdom of the Talmud is in many ways much greater than that of the philosophers. The latter often live in ivory towers, while the Talmudic Sages lived among the people. They were great scholars, but also farmers, business people, shopkeepers, and judges. So they knew life's experiences and challenges much better than the philosophers did.
Yes, the Sages had to put some order into the chaos and initiate some rules, especially when dealing with the community. There had to be some conformity to basic norms. Otherwise, the chaos would become impossibly unmanageable and very harmful. But even when they did "lay down the law" one way or the other, they never saw it as the only way to accomplish their goal. When they decided to go one way, they didn't deny that there was another way just as valid. But for practical reasons, a decision had to be made. So one of the most powerful Talmudic concepts came into being: Elu ve-elu divrei Elokim Chayim – "these and those are both the words of the living God" (Eruvin 13b). In other words, both views are correct even if they contradict each other, just as we have contradictions in science. They are built into our universe. But one must make a decision. To paraphrase William James: Not to make a decision is also a decision.
This is most fascinating and keeps me spellbound. There is no other literature that offers this. The Talmud is a kind of all-encompassing encyclopedia of Judaism and life, which deliberately lacks alphabetical order and for the most part refuses to give you end results and final information. But it takes you through all the ups and downs, showing you every option, and often leaving you in limbo, thus telling you that ultimately you need to work it out yourself.
There is little doubt that the Talmud was and is the most powerful vehicle for keeping our nation alive, because it formed its lifeblood and made Jewish life an unusual symphony with many cantatas in minor. But above all, it facilitated laughter and joy of life even in the ghettos, in the midst of poverty and misery. It took the Jews to a place far beyond the walls of the ghetto and allowed them to experience a different plateau of limitless spiritual opportunities. It was a marvelous way to escape the realities of life and already taste the messianic age, which was still far from coming.
But it did much more than that. Talmudic learning – with its often razor-sharp reasoning, or its suggestions, which for many people are impossible or farfetched and require a kind of intellectual creativity that no one would have thought about – seems to have had a highly unusual effect on the Jewish mind. To this day, Jews represent 22 percent of all Nobel Prize winners, which is completely out of proportion considering the fact that the total Jewish population comprises less than 0.2 percent of the world's population. This has nothing to do with genetic superiority, but rather with centuries of neurological adjustment brought about by Talmudic learning. This would also account for the fact that many great secular Jews such as Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, and famous composers or musicians, who never or almost never learned any Talmud, were blessed with unusual minds. They carried with them the neurological seeds that were passed down through the centuries, resulting from the Talmudic learning of their forefathers. It may sound strange, but I am convinced that the discovery of the theory of relativity was an indirect outcome of hundreds of years of Talmudic debate.
This, in fact, poses a huge problem. The more Jews secularize and no longer learn Talmud, the more their brains will no longer be able to produce exceptional ideas in all fields of human knowledge. The neurological imprint will weaken and ultimately disappear, which would be a tragedy for all of humankind. This is a challenge that the Jewish people are confronted with – especially those who live in Israel. But often they don't realize it.
While it is true that today there is a great amount of Talmud study in and outside of Israel, the question is whether the way it is studied will really prevent this tragedy. The main problem is that it is too much "read" and too little "listened to." It is studied as if it's a closed text and its debates cannot be surpassed and continued. What many students and rabbis don't understand is that the Talmud is the beginning of a discussion, not its completion. The text is open-ended and really asks us to continue the debate. In fact, the problem with the Talmud is that its discussions were written down, while in truth they all should have, paradoxically, remained oral. This is a huge topic, which I hope we can discuss another time.
One last word: I wonder about the fact that great Talmudists in the last few hundred years did nothing else but learn day and night: the Gaon of Vilna, the Rogatchover, the Chazon Ish, and many others. This is highly unusual. It is the jobs and professions of the Talmudic Sages that brought them much closer to real life. They interacted with people in the street and were really involved in day-to-day problems, which gave them a much better grasp on life. We consider them greater than any of the later Talmudists. And even in later days, many great Talmudists such as Maimonides – the major authority of the 11th century, who dominated the halachic world for hundreds of years – was a physician and worked for most of the day; as did Nachmanides (Ramban), who was the second formidable authority after Maimonides. He was also a physician.
And suddenly we have this radical shift in the last 200-300 years when the greatest rabbis are only those who learn day and night. What does this mean for Talmudic knowledge? Is it good and healthy to learn the whole day? Are these people really the greatest? Is it even possible to concentrate to the extent that is required for real Talmudic and halachic knowledge, without taking a break? Can one be really productive when there's no diversion? Is there no need to take one's mind off things so as to give the brain a rest?
When we compare this with the greatest of minds in the secular world, such as Einstein or Freud – who constantly took time off, long walks and vacations, and went to concerts and art exhibits – we wonder whether those great halachists could have been even greater had they done what the secular geniuses did. Would they have been more creative and solved many more halachic problems than they actually did? It's true that some of these later Talmudists produced most remarkable works of genius, but the question still remains. Would they have done even better had they not learned the whole day? Didn't they – and I write this with the greatest respect – somehow drown in their knowledge, no longer able to see opportunities that the Sages of the Talmud would have seen? Or, is it because the Talmud is not a text but a discussion with so many dimensions that these Talmudists found their relaxation in the Talmud itself besides the fact that their love for Torah and Talmud burned in them as an consuming fire ?
Still, I cannot deny that the majority of people who now learn day and night in a Kollel (advanced institution for Talmudic learning) don't seem to come up with really exciting ideas that boggle the mind, but instead produce mediocre insights that are often very dogmatic.
In fact, I believe that the way the Talmud was studied by later generations, and even more so today, has had disastrous consequences. The Talmud itself actually seems to state that there are some downsides to its study, and this may be the reason why these students of the Talmud are no longer successful.
But that's for another time.
Recently, I have been invited to respond to ten 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. Question 4 you can find here. I thank Rabbi Schwartz for posing these questions.
Your writings are filled with references to many great religious and philosophical thinkers. Two recurring names in your writings are the Kotzker Rebbe and Baruch Spinoza. Can you share a little about what these two thinkers mean to you? What have they, in their own ways, taught you about life?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: It would be too much to say that I was "raised on the knees" of Spinoza, but it's definitely true that my father was a great admirer of his and often spoke about him and his teachings. I'm not sure if he understood Spinoza or just used some of his ideas to justify his own secular life style. My father had all of his major works in Dutch and many other introductions to Spinoza's philosophy. I read them all as a youngster, although some were really over my head.
There are two reasons why as a child I was attracted to Spinoza. First of all, he was a member of the Portuguese Spanish Jewish Community in Amsterdam. This is the very community of which my father was a member, as were all my ancestors since my family came to Holland via Portugal and Italy about 150 years after the Spanish Inquisition (1492). My father always spoke about this community and was extremely proud of it, although he was not an active member. (Remember, my father was in a mixed marriage!)
Secondly, I was intrigued by the fact that Spinoza had been expelled by this community at a young age, when his ideas about God and Tenach became somewhat known (a long story, which I have spoken and written about in great length). This is the gravest and most notorious ban in all of Jewish history. In fact, it probably made Spinoza more famous than his actual philosophy did. While some people claim that Spinoza was the greatest of all philosophers in the seventeenth century, I greatly doubt it. But that's a discussion for another time. Three years ago, while participating in a forum of major international Spinoza experts at the University of Amsterdam, I pleaded to revoke the ban, but to no avail. (This, again, is a long story, which I have written and spoken about.)
I found it most painful that somebody was banned for speaking his mind. After all, a ban is an expression of fear and is in fact very un-Jewish.
I wondered what this story was all about, so I started reading about his life and philosophy. In no time, I was completely absorbed in this. I drew closer and closer to his personality and his thoughts; and so, paradoxically, I was indirectly introduced to Judaism. After all, Spinoza is probably the most severe critic of Judaism and often wrote about it. In short, I started to look into Judaism to discover why he so strongly objected to its beliefs and practices. While I became more and more convinced of his supreme mind, I realized that he was misrepresenting Judaism – sometimes due to ignorance, but also deliberately. While he was well-versed in Tenach, he had very little knowledge of Jewish Tradition! This was not a fair game, and it involved double standards, especially when you compare his observations on Judaism with those he made about (liberal) Christianity, which were much less critical and sometimes even flattering. (See Emil Fackenheim: To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought, Schocken Books, New York, 1982, chap. 2; and David Hartman, Joy and Responsibility, Ben-Zvi-Posner (Publishers) Ltd., Jerusalem, in cooperation with the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, 1978, chap. 5)
I believe something else was going on in me subconsciously. However much I realized that Spinoza was not as truthful as he wanted his readers to believe, I had a weak spot for him because of the way he was treated. Since my childhood, I abhor close-mindedness and attempts to use power in order to silence somebody. Clearly, it was my father who instilled this in me. But Dutch society at large, which has always been very liberal, also played a role. This is why in the seventeenth century, unlike almost any other country in Europe, it allowed Jews to come and live in the Dutch republic and practice their religion more or less openly. Many works of so-called heresy, which could not be published in any other country, were published in Amsterdam in the same and later centuries. The fact that today you can legally buy soft drugs and that (many kinds of) euthanasia and prostitution are legalized is the other side of the coin. While I will surely not compare my mind with Spinoza's intellectual genius (and there really is no comparison!), I do encounter a lot of opposition from people who try to silence me in ways that are not far removed from those used against Spinoza. (I indeed nearly had a ban imposed on me.) One thing I definitely learned from him and that is the way to react to this. He stayed calm, almost never lost his temper, and continued to live with an inner tranquility, although I am convinced that sometimes he must have been deeply hurt. I think you can find this in some of his harsher observations in his Tractatus Theologico Politicus.
But the greatest tragedy is that Spinoza was lost to the Jewish people and Judaism. The rabbis who dealt with him didn't know how to approach him and his as yet underdeveloped opinions. They reacted out of fear, which is the worst thing you can do when you're confronted with a young man who is struggling with his Jewish identity and Judaism. Instead of appreciating the struggle, they couldn't cope with doubt and challenge and took the easiest way by casting him out of the Jewish community.
Truth is that the City of Amsterdam also played a huge role in this. They had made a condition that the Jewish community could stay in the city only as long as it would not make any problems for Christianity. When Spinoza began to express his thoughts and challenge orthodox Christian beliefs, the city had the right to expel the entire Portuguese Spanish Jewish community, something that the leaders of that community wanted to prevent at all costs. They therefore decided to impose a harsh ban on Spinoza so as to show the City of Amsterdam that they no longer considered him one of theirs and could not take any responsibility for him. It seems that Spinoza was then forced to leave Amsterdam. The ban worked; otherwise I would have been born in another country!
To this day, any challenge to its tradition and beliefs is still one of the greatest fears of the Orthodox Jewish community, and I have no doubt that this has done, and still does, a lot of harm to Judaism in our own days. Lots of young people cannot live with this kind of dogmatic Judaism and therefore walk out.
I think it is this tragedy that moves me to show how real Judaism doesn’t have to be afraid of any challenge, and that struggle and doubt are part of its tradition. In many ways, its multifaceted and contradicting opinions are the proof of its strength. My unusual and often controversial essays and lectures are the outcome of this conviction. So I believe that the tragic story around Spinoza has greatly influenced me. In some way, Spinoza's image is always in front of me when I think about the topics I write and speak about. In fact, an actual portrait of him, painted by my father when he was hidden in Amsterdam during the Shoah (Holocaust), hangs in my study! A welcome reminder.
This brings me directly to the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859). I've always wondered what would have happened if Spinoza had met the Kotzker. They lived in different centuries, but I would love to write a play about this! Both were obsessed with truth, but each approached it from a different point of view. In Spinoza's pantheism, there is a strong Kabbalistic element but, simultaneously, a denial of a personal (biblical) God. However much some Spinoza scholars want to claim that all of his philosophy was based on ratio (pure reason), it is very clear that there are ambiguous elements in his philosophy that reveal aspects of mysticism!
Both were searching for God and knew no compromise.
What the Kotzker Rebbe could have shown Spinoza is that the Judaism he left behind and detested was terribly puritanical, dogmatic, and not authentic. It was deeply rooted in the experience of the Marranos, preferably called Conversos – Jews who were forced to become Catholics during the Inquisition. For hundreds of years, they were brought up in the Catholic Church and transplanted its ideas into the kind of Judaism that prevailed in the Portuguese Spanish Kehilla in Amsterdam. In many ways it was Christianity without the cross, combined with large doses of religious law and ritual, which was completely misunderstood. Faith was seen as obedience and bowing to a higher authority without any personal input, rooted in blind routine. Spinoza strongly objected to it but never took the time to investigate whether real Judaism would actually agree with this notion. The Kotzker would have taken Spinoza by the ear and shlepped him out of this kind of Judaism, showing him that the truth was very different, although Spinoza was probably more levelheaded than the Kotzker who was very eccentric.
For the Kotzker, it was rebellion that was the essence of Judaism, not spiritual capitulation. According to him, Judaism was against any kind of conformity and outward appearances, even those hallowed throughout the generations. He referred to a person as "worse than a scoundrel" if he offered a prayer today as he did yesterday. (How many religious Jews, including me, understand this?) Outside pressures didn't work for the Kotzker. Pleasing anybody – even oneself – was a tragedy, and learning Torah was seen as a danger if it turned into accepting its claims without tearing them apart so as to discover what it really says, however uncomfortable that may be. Anything else is Avodah Zarah (idol worship).
Both men worked to bring about a spiritual renewal, but Spinoza was so boxed in and limited by the Judaism he found in Amsterdam that he couldn't liberate himself from it without leaving and condemning it altogether. This is still a problem for many Spinoza experts today. Most do not manage to bypass him and have a fresh and honest look at Judaism. They are completely indoctrinated by Spinoza's misguided reading of Judaism. The Kotzker could have saved Spinoza and them from this very tragedy.
It is for this reason that my Judaism has been influenced by the Kotzker Rebbe and that I rebel against the commonplace Judaism I encounter today in most Orthodox communities. Not that my personal conduct lives up to the requirements of the Kotzker – they are sometimes too radical – but I make an honest effort. It is extremely hard, but I see it as the only authentic representation of Judaism. That some of my opponents call me an apikores (heretic) is very understandable. They want me to walk the walk and talk the talk, but this is completely impossible for me. I consider it a falsification of Judaism. My whole personality objects to it. I would rather walk out altogether than go for this kind of forged Judaism. Better to follow Spinoza, who was honestly looking for the truth, and then somehow (unlike him) find a genuine path to Judaism.
I believe that Spinoza's story was the greatest tragedy in modern Jewish spiritual history, second only to the tragic story around the false mashiach Shabbetai Zvi, which took place in the same century. With Spinoza's breaking away from Judaism, we entered the world of Jewish secularism, which over the years has become a major force that is still alive and well today.