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.
Ten Questions for Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze'ev Schwartz. For question 9 Part 2, see here.
Question 10, Part 1:
In your writings, you quote both rabbis and philosophers. On the one hand, you draw your insights from great rabbis such as the Rambam, the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Kook, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rav Eliezer Berkovits. On the other hand, you seem to equally find inspiration from great philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. Rabbis tend to focus on loyalty to tradition, while philosophers seem to feel freer to question and seek truth, regardless of tradition. Rav Cardozo, do you see yourself more as a rabbi, or as a philosopher? And part two of this question: Do you think that having the official title of "Rabbi Cardozo" suppresses your true thoughts, or does it rather help to express them?
Nathan Lopes Cardozo: In my younger days, I never contemplated becoming a rabbi or a philosopher, but a businessman. My father z"l ran a very successful business, Roco & Cardozo, selling sewing machine wholesale in Amsterdam. (Mr. Immanuel Roco, my father's partner, was also of Jewish Portuguese background and also married out.) They jointly owned one of the large "Herenhuizen" mansions, at the Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal) – one of the most famous canals in Amsterdam – where they employed about 60 people.
Later, the building caught fire and partially burned down. It was sold for pennies, which was a huge mistake. Today, it would be worth millions and all of our family would have been somewhat rich! Because of this and my father's heart condition we lost nearly all our money.
But before all that, we were well-to-do – though certainly not very rich – and my brother and I were raised in a small villa outside Amsterdam, in a village called Aerdenhout, with two large gardens. You can see it in the documentary about my life "Lonely but Not Alone".
The idea was that my brother and I would enter this business and take it over one day. I even went to a "handelsschool" (trade-school), where I learned about the business world, and still remember much of what was taught. But I despised the school, found it utterly boring, and decided that it was not for me.
Interestingly, my family believes that I am not at all business-orientated and therefore completely unsuitable for this; especially after I entered the realm of Jewish learning and became very soft in my dealings with others when it relates to interacting with people and the business world. But they are utterly mistaken. The truth is that I probably would have been a very good businessman. But they never saw me in that capacity.
Let me explain. Business largely depends on the power of persuasion and on making an object or deal attractive to a potential buyer. That's the way to make good money. But to do so, you yourself have to believe in the object or deal. If you don't, you will either be unable to sell it, or you'll be a charlatan. This is also true about making Judaism and its profundity appealing, to oneself as well as to others (only without the money)! It's all about persuasion!
During much of my life, I have tried to convince people of what I believe is the beauty of Judaism. In other words, I use my talents to influence people to "fall in love" with Judaism. (A terrible expression: Since when can one fall in love? One can fall in a pit, but not in love!) So in principle, it's not so different from business.
The difference is that I found convincing people to buy an object to be of little meaning, although it is surely a mitzva to help people live a more prosperous and comfortable life. This is no doubt a great thing to do, as long as it is done honestly. Let us not forget that in the old days many of our greatest sages were also businessmen, because they felt they should not receive any money for learning or teaching Torah (something we should make possible again). But for me, that wasn't enough. I had to find something more spiritual. So I left the business option.
But in both cases there is an element of selling or promoting something. And to do so successfully, for the most part people must have the talent to express themselves well and articulate their ideas. In other words, the method is the same. The difference is in what you are selling. I chose to sell Judaism, although the word "sell" is not very appropriate when speaking about religion. The other difference is that promoting (authentic) religion requires intellectual profundity. This doesn't mean that business people don't possess intellectual (philosophical) profundity, but it's not a requirement for business per se. Something I did learn in trade-school, as well as from my dear father, is that big business people are also extremely creative thinkers – sometimes more than certain philosophers – and some are clearly geniuses, far beyond the average.
As an aside, this goes hand in hand with something else as well. My family and others believe that I can be easily fooled and lied to, and that I'm a little naive. The truth is very different. I know exactly when people are fooling me and lying to me. I have a special ability for this, which I don't think is so good to have! The reason why I let people get away with it is because I'm a rabbi (perhaps against my will!), and a rabbi must have compassion and be "ma'avir al midotav" (See Rosh Hashana 17a), go beyond retribution and instead be tolerant, so as to make sure not to cause any strife, which will give the rabbinate and Judaism a bad name. Too many rabbis are already involved in cases of corruption, dishonesty, or just unnecessary discord. I do not wish to add to this.
But it certainly comes with a heavy price, which I paid many times when I became the victim of dishonest people. And I am fully aware that I still do. They think they manage to fool me, but I see straight through them and keep silent. That way, I can at least rest my head on my pillow at night and know that I have not been the cause of a chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).
Sure, there are cases where people hurt themselves or others without being aware of it, and then you must step in. But it means that at times you have to be unkind – sometimes even unforgiving – and then you get blamed for having hurt them because they don't realize why you did what you did. This happens to me repeatedly because of my special circumstances. It is extremely painful, particularly with one's loved ones. But there is no choice, and one has to carry this with a heavy heart. This is exactly what happened to Joseph and his brothers. (See TTP 621 – Parshat Mikeitz: The Pain of Being a Tzaddik) For me this is hell, but better hell than letting people get hurt or hurt others, which is so much worse.
But to come back to business: As I said, I have a talent for "selling" Judaism to many of my "clients", and I'm sure that I could have sold anything and could have easily become rich. But I decided against it.
To be honest, I find all this frightening. The power of persuasion can easily be used for the most evil ideologies or dishonest practices. Hitler is a typical example of that, in the extreme. He was an excellent speaker who turned into a demagogue. He could sell – to millions of people including academics and philosophers – the idea that the Jews had to be exterminated for the sake of a better future. So many other dictators throughout history were also very gifted speakers, and were thus able to bring great evil upon humankind.
The reason is obvious: Once you have convinced yourself of something you want to believe, you're able to sell anything if you're a good communicator.
So, while I feel blessed to have this talent, I am also most afraid of it. The truth is that I could have been not only a good businessman, but also a good priest, bishop or atheist. It all depends on what I could have convinced myself of as being the truth or worthwhile for me to pursue.
Although I don't have any affiliation with Catholicism or other Christian denominations, I have read many of their theologies and fully understand their religious beliefs. I'm sure I could sell them, because even ideas that are repulsive to me – such as the trinity and incarnation doctrines – would make perfect sense to me once I would accept certain basic Christian beliefs. These beliefs can never be proven or disproven. They belong to a different category and are not open to intellectual scrutiny. As with music and art, one cannot prove or disprove such matters. They just "are," and they depend on deep emotional needs or preferences. The same is true about secular or religious philosophy. So these Christian beliefs are true from within their own system and can therefore be "sold" as the truth. I could even bring some Jewish sources, if I just "bend" them a little. Christians are not dishonest, but truthful in what they believe. As long as one realizes that this is only true when seen from within the Christian perspective.
Still, to me as a Jew it is totally untrue. But I can never claim that it's a sham. Even nonsense is serious stuff and requires our attention, because it's the other side of the same coin that we can make sense of, especially because (common) sense is so limited. This is what most religious Jews don't understand when rejecting Christianity and other religions, as I do. The difference between them and me is that I take Christianity very seriously, even if I disagree.
This is also the case with Reform Judaism. Once you buy into its ideology, it makes perfect sense. Still, I cannot and will not opt for it because my intuition tells me there's something wrong about it. My neshama, my intellectual background, and reading about Judaism tell me that for me it is not authentic - although there are aspects of Reform Judaism that I believe are true and that Orthodox Judaism can learn a lot from. My reading of Conservative Judaism is a topic on its own, which we'll need to discuss another time.
It is because of my awareness that any religious belief can be sold that I have become so critical of mainstream Orthodox Judaism and skeptical about the way I promulgate my own Judaism, in the way I see it. Who says it's correct? I am fully aware that the kind of Judaism I believe in and seriously practice makes perfect sense from within its own system. As such, I am honestly promoting it. But I keep asking myself whether its claims of truth are any more valid than the claims of other religions, other Jewish denominations, or secular philosophies. Am I "in it" because it's something I have grown into and feel at home and comfortable with, or is there something more that makes my Judaism’s claim to truth stand out from all the others?
To be clear: I believe it stands out for many reasons, and one day we need to discuss them carefully. But I am aware that this conviction is at least partially bolstered by the fact that I was born into a secular, partly Jewish family and over the years became an Orthodox although rebellious Jew. Something inside tells me that Judaism has gotten it right. I also believe that my (Orthodox) Judaism is closer to the truth than other forms of Orthodox Judaism, with which I partially or sometimes completely disagree, although I have much in common with them in practice. But it may quite well be because I have a certain kind of Jewish neshome, a type of spiritual DNA that is perhaps different because of my unusual background, my vast knowledge, and my unique reading of this tradition. Still, I believe that for nearly all Jews Judaism is unparalleled because of some kind of language, feeling, and a certain way of thinking that is bound with the Jewish neshama. It's what Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim would call "root experiences" – historical experiences throughout nearly 4,000 years that made us different from others; the result of various archetypal experiences.
That is true for me and my fellow Jews, but not for the Christian who doesn't have the same "DNA" and is made up of different spiritual elements that I will never understand, identify with, or live by.
Therefore, I claim that Christianity is not inauthentic. It is authentic for the Christian, but I have no part in it. Perhaps it's another way to God, which is absolutely authentic but only meant for Christians. For me, claims that the Mashiach has already come, that Jesus is the son of God, and that he is the incarnation of God are completely unacceptable and blasphemous. But that's because all these claims make no sense from within traditional Judaism. It is clear to me, however, that Christianity reads them in a totally different way, and within that system they make perfect sense. But my neshama and Jewish way of thinking cannot make peace with that. What this means is: If Christianity had not spouted anti-Semitism for hundreds if not thousands of years, it could have worked together with Judaism on many matters that they have in common, such as promulgating monotheism, religiosity, moral responsibility, and the importance of Tanach.
I will end here, and we will continue our discussion next week!
In memory of Nechama Rivlin z.l., wife of President Reuven Rivlin.
One of the most challenging aspects in Judaism is how to relate to the concept of revelation. The uncompromising claim by (Orthodox) Judaism that the Torah is not a book written by human beings, but the result of a revelation of God's will, requires a formidable amount of faith in the face of today's widespread skepticism and secularity (1).
Over the last few hundred years, a major argument has erupted concerning the divinity of the Torah's text. Since the days of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico Politicus (17th century), we have witnessed numerous Bible scholars dissecting the Torah in every way possible, concluding that the traditional Jewish claim of its divinity is unfounded and farfetched.
Throughout the many years, religious scholars have unsurprisingly responded with heavy artillery. They have written profound papers showing that the arguments of Spinoza and others were mistaken and often lacked intellectual objectivity (2). In our days, a sincere but problematic attempt has been made by some mathematicians and Jewish outreach programs to prove the Torah's divinity through "Torah codes”, which presumably are found within the biblical text.
But, is this the right approach? If the Torah is indeed the ultimate divine word, as Judaism maintains, is it at all possible or even advisable to take an academic approach to verify its divinity? Wouldn't the fact that it is divine make it totally unreceptive to academic scrutiny and proof? Isn't this similar to studying organic matter by applying accepted criteria used by scientists when studying inorganic phenomena? Moreover, scholars, as well as teachers in outreach programs, should ask themselves if they are not violating the prohibition "You shall not test the Lord, your God, as you tested Him in Massah" when they look for definite proofs. (See Devarim 6:16 and Shemot 17:7)
On the other hand, if we don't want to use the academic approach, what approach are we able to take? Or, are we asked to just believe this claim without any verification? A kind of Credo quia absurdum ("I believe because it is absurd / impossible”), originally attributed to Tertullian in his De Carne Christi (c. 203-206). The possible meaning of this statement is that what is sometimes foolish to a human being may be true to God. (See NT: Corinthians 1:17-31)The phrase inspired a celebrated bon mot by H.L. Mencken: "Tertullian is credited with the motto Credo quia absurdum - 'I believe because it is impossible.' Needless to say, he began life as a lawyer."
This kind of approach seems to contradict Judaism's fundamental belief that one should make use of one's God-given intelligence and reason even when it comes to matters of belief. To believe because it is absurd is not an option.
What then are the means by which to grasp or reject the Torah's divinity? Why are we not as convinced as our forefathers who did believe in its divinity? Is this due to the fact that we are more intellectually sophisticated than they were? Or that our studies have now proven beyond doubt the absurdity of this belief? Many of us may be of this opinion, but we should ask ourselves if we are not guilty of self-deception.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), in his monumental work HaKetav ve-HaKabbalah, seems to touch on this problem and shows us a way that is neither academic nor the result of blind faith.
Commenting on the quality of the revelation at Sinai and quoting the verse: "And the appearance of God's glory was like a consuming fire (aish ochelet) on the mountain top, before the eyes of the Israelites" (Shemot 24:17), the venerable rabbi asks what is meant by the expression "a consuming fire". Doesn't this indicate a destructive force? Why not just say that God is like fire?
Reminding us of the fact that at Sinai the entire nation of Israel had risen to the level of prophecy immediately following a life of misery and spiritual slavery in Egypt, he continues:
“The truth is that the people of Israel were not all equal in their spiritual level. And they did not all see or perceive the same kind of revelation at Sinai. Rather, each one was able to receive this revelational experience only in accordance with the spiritual condition of their soul. Every Jew saw something, but what they experienced was directly proportional to the preparation they had put into it. When a person was less prepared, they experienced only a minimal level of revelation at Sinai; and the one who prepared more received more. This is the meaning of ‘a consuming fire’. The perception of God's greatness is exactly the same as the way fire takes hold of various objects. There are materials that are intrinsically combustible, so that when you touch them with a flame an enormous fire erupts. But, there are other items that are fire-resistant, and when you put a flame to them nothing happens. Just as nature has made certain materials receptive to fire, so it is with the Sinai revelation.”
A flame grows or diminishes depending on the combustibility of the material it comes in contact with. So it is with the Jew, and with all people. Their receptivity to the divinity of Torah is proportionate to the condition of their soul.
I would suggest that the reason we are nowadays confronted with so much skepticism concerning the Torah's divinity is not only because of intellectual sophistication and academic biblical studies (which are often very subjective), but also because of lack of spiritual receptivity, which is developed through labor of the soul. This may seem like a convenient escape when dealing with the issue at hand. But in truth, it touches on the very essence of people's spiritual condition. As with music and art, the Torah cannot be approached from the perspective of academic learning. It is the soul's language that is at stake. Fire cannot penetrate where no spark burns. Or, as the common expression goes, "Like attracts like."
Aristotle once said, "The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things" (3).
It would be wise for all parties concerned to stop trying to affirm or deny the Torah's divinity and first ask: are we or are we not made of material that is combustible with the inner world of the Torah which could possibly open the way for us to recognize the divinity of Torah? Only when we have transformed ourselves and our souls into spiritual fire can we ask questions concerning the Torah's divinity and come up with honest answers. As long as our souls are not open to the possibility that we could recognize its divinity, we cannot reject or accept this claim. This is the fundamental question we need to ask ourselves on Shavuot.
(1) To understand whether original Orthodoxy really claims that all of the Torah was given at Sinai, see Dr. Marc Shapiro in his The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004) Chapter 7. Dr. Shapiro shows clearly that many earlier and later Orthodox sages were of the opinion that parts of the Torah text as we know it today were added or even removed with Divine permission. See also Sanhedrin 21b and Bamidbar Rabba 3:13 where it says that Ezra the Scribe edited the Torah.
(2) For a comprehensive treatment of the academic approach toward the Torah, see my books Between Silence and Speech, 1995, chap.10, and The Written and Oral Torah, 1997, pp. 201-233, both published by Jason Aronson. Both essays are by now outdated and need to be partially revised.
(3) Quoted by Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (1:1:5 AD 1).
In honor of The Bar Mitzva Our Grandson, Avichai Nissim, son of Mordechai and Elisheva Yehudit Nissim Lopes Cardozo.
Few matters are as misunderstood as Judaism’s “obsession with the law.” In the life of a religious Jew, not a moment goes by that he is not reminded of his obligations as stated in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). While later authorities have sometimes disagreed with certain decisions laid out in this legal code, and have even ruled differently, Halacha is still at the center of Jewish life and is relentless in its demands. Nearly every moment in the life of a Jew is codified, sometimes touching on seemingly absurd details, such as the way he has to tie his shoe, or how many grams of matza he must eat on the first night of Pesach. (1)
Judaism has never had a finalized or dogmatic belief system like we find in the Church. Not even Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith were fully accepted by later thinkers. Throughout the centuries and to this very day, there has been an ongoing debate about what the Jew is obligated to believe. Halacha, on the other hand, is far more normative and standardized. Moses Mendelssohn’s famous observation, “The spirit of Judaism is freedom in doctrine and conformity in action”, is most illuminating. Judaism is basically a religion, without an authorized theology, in which the correct deed is much more valued than any of its beliefs.
Since the earliest days, this “obsession with law” has often been attacked, even ridiculed, by Christian thinkers as well as by some of the most sophisticated philosophers in modern times. Benedictus Spinoza, Emanuel Kant and many others have accused Judaism of extreme behaviorism, in which man loses his freedom and is imprisoned in a web of laws that make his life miserable and devoid of any simcha (joy). How, after all, could such a system be conducive to the kind of life we all long to live? Where is its spirituality?
Even more surprising is the fact that Jews throw a party every time another member of their community is literally coerced to comply with all these laws. The bat mitzvah girl and the bar-mitzvah boy are both forced into this covenant-of-the-law when they respectively turn twelve and thirteen years old. While up to that moment they are not obligated by any of these laws – except for educational reasons – and are therefore able to still enjoy their freedom, all of this changes overnight when they reach the age of twelve or thirteen. Instead of a party, one would expect a gathering of heavy-hearted people where these children mourn and are offered consolation, similar to when people have just lost a dear one. After all, losing one’s freedom is not much different from losing life itself.
Yet, religious Jews throw a party, dance and sing and are as happy as they can be when one of its members reaches the age of twelve or thirteen. Nothing better can happen to them then when their children enter this covenant of duties. Jews have an inborn love for the law. Anyone who has ever studied in a yeshiva cannot forget the joy that permeates the study hall when a student manages to discover a new law, or even invent one when no law was known to exist. While Orthodox Jews sometimes seem to be more in love with the law than with God, demonstrating that they do not see the forest for the trees, one cannot help but be flabbergasted by the fact that they would almost give up their lives for one little law that seems, in the eyes of others, to be of no importance, and even ridiculous.
What is the mystery behind this devotion?
Religious Jews carry a secret that few people have understood. For them, freedom can be earned only by great discipline. One needs to conquer it every moment of one’s life and work hard to maintain it. Freedom is the will to be responsible. It is a mental state, not just a physical condition. Its primary requirement is to live for something that is worth dying for. A life without a mission is not worth being born into. In the words of Avraham Joshua Heschel, “the dignity of man stands in proportion to his obligations.”
There is no greater injustice than bringing children into the world without giving them a mission to live for. While most people today believe that one should not burden children with obligations, but rather allow them to make their own choices, Judaism teaches us that giving a child the feeling that he has a moral task to fulfill is giving him the option to experience immense joy. “Joy”, says Spinoza, “is man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection. Sorrow is man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.” (Ethics, 3, defs. 2, 3)
Most employees will complain when asked by the manager to take on a difficult task and will try to free themselves of the assignment. What they don’t realize is that by doing so they miss out on exactly what they are looking for – a compliment. A wise manager will know the art of assessing his employee’s abilities properly. By giving him a difficult task, he sends the strong message, “I believe in you.” Every challenge presented is, in fact, a vote of confidence: “I know you can do it.”
It is for the above reasons that religious Jews revel in their many obligations. They do not see these as a yoke, but rather as a tribute and praise to their greatness and unlimited potential. For them, they are not just 613 obligations (2) but above all else, they are 613 compliments. To them, the question is not why we have so many obligations; the question is why so few compliments. Only 613? It is this feeling that prompts them to look for many more, and they will sometimes use the most farfetched arguments to discover yet another law. They will debate back and forth just to discover one more compliment, as if searching for a diamond. And nothing motivates them more than enjoying this.
When their children reach the age of twelve or thirteen, parents are elated at the prospect that they too will now enter into the covenant of compliments. For that they will certainly throw a party, whatever the cost. It is their ultimate moment of joy. And even if the non-religious (Israeli or Diaspora) Jew no longer understands this truth, but still insists that his daughter celebrate her bat-mitzvah, or that his son celebrate his bar mitzvah, that insistence indicates that deep down he still knows what it really means to be a Jew.
One of the greatest tragedies in the Jewish community today is that even many Orthodox Jews no longer realize the significance of what they celebrate or what they are committed to. A covenant of compliments: no greater freedom exists.
(1) For an in-depth explanation see my Thoughts to Ponder No. 140.
(2) This is the official number of commandments mentioned in the Torah. Obviously, not all these commandments apply to the average Jew.
My name is Nathan Lopes Cardozo. I was born in Holland in 1946 and was raised in a half-Jewish, totally secular family, which for decades watched the European Song Festival with great joy. We were always very proud when our country, Holland, won the contest, as it did last Saturday night. Today, I live in Jerusalem with my family.
After many years, I discovered Judaism and threw in my lot with this unusual nation. Although I observe Shabbat and many other Jewish precepts, I'm not sure I have the right to call myself fully religious. I still have a long way to go.
Many of my readers know that I cannot be accused of falling in line with the religious establishment. I have suggested that moving this beautiful country forward sometimes requires the violation of Jewish law, including some Shabbat laws when the problem is of national urgency and clearly insurmountable and that Jewish Law would actually encourage us to do so.
This brings me to you and last Saturday night's Song Festival. I heard on Israel radio, and have read in newspapers, that you observe Shabbat and that you refused to rehearse last Saturday in honor of this holy day. I hope it's true; if so, more honor to you!
In fact, I am also very proud of the extraordinary Shalva Band, which I have been told would probably have won the contest but refused to come to the rehearsal last Shabbat because its members believe that one needs to live a principle-centered life. For them, as for me, that includes the need to preserve the holiness of Shabbat.
The same is true of South African born businessman Kivi Bernhard, who has become a world-famous, sought-after speaker and was invited by Microsoft some years ago to deliver the opening address at an international conference, which was to take place on a Saturday. Mr. Bernhard refused, as it would require him to violate Shabbat. Microsoft offered him enormous sums of money, but Mr. Bernhard did not budge. He told them that no money in the world would entice him to violate Shabbat. Finally, Microsoft gave up and moved the conference to Sunday. When Bill Gates heard about this, he remarked: I can buy any airplane, yacht, or building that I want. I can even buy outstandingly talented people. But I cannot buy one Shabbat of an observant Jew.
It is for this reason, Madonna, that I turn to you with a request.
As history has proven over and over again, we Jews are not a conventional people. Our long history is by definition one of existential oddity. We are nearly 4,000 years old and have outlived all of our enemies, from the Egyptians to the Nazis. Even today, our enemies have no way to destroy us. As sociologist Milton Himmelfarb stated, "The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers" (Jews and Gentiles, 2007, p. 141).
No other nation has overturned the destiny of all humanity as much as the Jewish people have. It gave them the Bible and the greatest prophets. Its spiritual and moral laws still hold sway over all of humankind, influencing entire civilizations. It gave birth to Christianity, Islam and many secular moral teachings. It provided humankind with a messianic hope for the future and endowed human beings with dignity and responsibility. In his book The Gifts of the Jews, non-Jewish author Thomas Cahill said: "We [gentiles] can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews" (1999, p. 241).
After 2,000 years of exile, and after the inconceivable cruelty of the Holocaust, we returned to our homeland. This is sui generis, without precedent.
The Jew must pay a high price just to remain a Jew. And history has constantly asked us why we are still prepared to do so. After all, being a Jew seems to be an utterly heart-rending experience. The only answer is expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel: "Our existence is either superfluous or indispensable to the world" (God In Search of Man, 1976, p. 421). And we need to decide on which side we want to be.
Since the days when God called on Avraham, the first Jew, it became clear that we took on ourselves a holy mission to be a "light to the nations" and to promote a way of living through which all of humankind would be blessed. And so we became indispensable and God's stake in history.
That gave us the power to overcome all our suffering. We believed in ourselves and, against all odds, considered ourselves privileged to serve mankind.
We should therefore never forget that we finally came home to our country, not as Israelis but as Jews. Otherwise, there is no land to return to.
There's little doubt that one of the main reasons we became an eternal people was the institution of Shabbat. The oft-quoted statement "More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews" remains as true as ever. Once we give up on its holiness, we are guilty of self-destruction. Modern Jewish history has proven this over and over again. Jewish assimilation began the same day that Jews forgot their Shabbat.
Shabbat is the day on which we are asked to put aside all the profanity of clattering commerce and the fury of greed; of trying to convince ourselves that we are the absolute owners of this world. It is a day of protest against all the external pomp, glitter, and power. Its purpose is to turn the world into an island of tranquility in the stormy sea of worldliness, for one day each week.
But it is not only Jews who need Shabbat. All of humankind should have the merit to celebrate this holy day. Without it, the world collapses under its own weight. And it is the task of all, Jews and non-Jews, to ensure that this doesn't happen.
The secular renowned Jewish thinker and psychologist Eric Fromm (1900-1980) wrote: “The modern Sunday is a day of fun, consumption and running away from oneself. One might ask if it is not time to re-establish the (traditional) Shabbat as a universal day of harmony and peace, as the human day that anticipates the human future.” (To Have or To Be, 1976, p. 58)
What happened last Saturday is very tragic. I'm happy for my people to have all the fun in the world, but never at the expense of their Shabbat, their mission, integrity and pride. It worries me terribly when a large number of our citizens, who are otherwise fine and proud people – some of them even religious – seem to be so mesmerized by so much dazzle and glitz, which sometimes lack the basics of all modesty and inner human beauty.
True, every Jew has the right to decide for her or himself, whether or not to observe Shabbat, but on a national level we cannot afford to openly desecrate its holiness, even for rehearsals or other work to make the event succeed. There was no urgency or unsurmountable need for this. Israel should have refused to stage this event unless it would have complied with the holiness of Shabbat. Jewish pride is more important than the Eurovision Song Festival, especially when it could have sent a message to the world that there are values in life which are more important than fame and dazzling performances.
And although I wish with all of my heart that there soon will be peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, why allow this event to turn into a political affair by waving the Palestinian flag? This was an Israeli event, not a Palestinian.
What is perhaps even more tragic is the fact that there wasn't even the slightest manifestation of anything Jewish. How great it would have been if a special Havdalah ceremony and prayer to say farewell to Shabbat, had been sung in front of millions and millions of viewers throughout the entire world. It would have embodied such Jewish pride!
So here is my request to you. Perhaps you, together with Shalva Band, Kivi Bernhard and Bill Gates could do what we traditional and religious Jews and our rabbis are seemingly unable to do: convince our fellow Jews and non-Jews of the privilege of observing Shabbat; of how unique it is to be Jewish.
After all, the road to the sacred often runs through the secular.
So many people fail to appreciate the profound and positive impact that nature’s beauty can have on the lives of those who take the time to marvel at it. Even many devout individuals, while impressive in their commitment to Torah and mitzvot, do not instill in their children a sense of wonderment at the elegance and grace found in God’s world: majestic mountains, lakes, forests, flowers, colorful birds, and so much more. Parallel to this phenomenon, we also witness a widespread lack of appreciation for art and music. Religious school systems give little if any consideration to these matters, and they are not emphasized in most observant homes. This is a worrisome development, as this apathy toward aesthetics contradicts, in many ways, the very spirit of authentic Judaism.
Natural beauty, art, and music exist to disturb our complacency. Their purpose is to awaken in us a sense of wonder. And while beauty, art, and music facilitate that wonder, the role of religion is to provide us with the means to respond to it.
Artistic expression and religious observance are both forms of protest against taking the world for granted. The perception of objects as beautiful is an inexplicable phenomenon, and any attempts to rationalize the concept of beauty will be doomed to fail. The same is true for musings on the definition of art, which belongs to a world beyond words. Real art does not reproduce the visible but rather reveals the invisible. Consequently, not even artists are able to explain the beauty that resides within their creations. In fact, good artists are usually shocked by the work they produce. In general, they cannot explain their art any more than a plant can explain horticulture. This failure of the rational mind to categorize and define puts man in direct confrontation with the ineffable, and warns him not to fall victim to the simplistic belief that science can give him any insight into the mystery of our existence. Thus, natural beauty and art can be conducive to religious awakening.
Music, too, in its most exalted forms, is a means of giving structure to our inner feelings, and can therefore help us get in touch with the mysteries of our internal worlds. Man is charged with the duty to stand in awe of God’s creation. Beauty, then, is one of God's incredible kindnesses to us, as it renders our task both easy and immensely pleasurable.
A student once asked the great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch why in his old age he suddenly decided to spend some time in Switzerland. In his humble way, Rabbi Hirsch responded, “As an old man, I am afraid that when I will have to appear in front of the Lord of the Universe in the world to come, He will ask me, ‘Samson Raphael! Did you see My mountains in Switzerland?’ And I will not know what to answer.” (1)
The Talmud adds another dimension to our understanding of the role and importance of aesthetics: “Three things grant a man serenity of mind: a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful furnishings.” (2) Probably this statement relates to another remark by the sages: “The world cannot exist without perfumers and tanners; happy is he who deals in perfumes, and woe to him whose trade is tanning [because of the unpleasant odors produced in the tanning process].” (3)
Concerning music, we are told that “David would take the harp and play it with his hand, and Shaul [the first King of Israel] would be relieved and feel well, and the bad spirit would depart from him.” (4) Furthermore, the Sages must have had good reason to inform us that the Temple service involved a choir of Levites who filled God’s House with otherworldly music and song. Many chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) begin with the phrase lamnatze'ach binginot, which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch translates as, “To Him who grants spiritual victory through the art of music.” (5)
The Sages made a number of remarkable observations concerning beauty. The Torah commands the urban planners in Israel to leave 1000 amot (cubits) of untilled land around each of the cities to be given to the Levites (6), allowing nature to manifest its beauty. The Sages further mandate that one must remove all unseemly objects, and even not plant trees in the immediate vicinity of a city, to ensure that the landscape will always be pleasing (7).
Beauty – whether in nature, art, or music – can calm us when we are stressed, or inspire our creativity and spur us on to great accomplishments (8). Jewish educators should encourage our children to study and appreciate natural beauty, art, and music. This should be done within the framework of the school and home, with emphasis on the religious significance of the aesthetic experience. With the proper perspective, visiting an art museum, or taking a walk in the woods, can effect real spiritual growth.
It is revealing that the Talmud calls on us to have beautiful furnishings in our homes. While many people do not have the financial means to spend on interior design, many are able, with less money, to make their homes warm and inviting. Few can afford to adorn their walls with original oil paintings, or to walk on expensive Persian rugs. Still, technology enables us to enjoy quality reproductions of even the greatest masterpieces. With an inexpensive frame and some light, we can create a heavenly “museum experience” in our own living rooms. Using simple flower decorations, one can revitalize an otherwise drab and dreary room. There are infinite possibilities available to people, according to their individual tastes and emotional needs. All that is required is a bit of thought and creativity.
To look at a Rembrandt and allow its beauty to wash over one’s mind is not just a sensory delight, but a religious experience that God, in His kindness and wisdom, has granted His creatures. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the famous mystic and philosopher who became the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, was stranded in London during the First World War. As often as he could, he would visit the National Gallery and look at its Rembrandts. On one such occasion, Rav Kook made a striking observation. The Torah states that God created light on the first day, while He created the sun and the moon only on the fourth day! What, then, was the source of light on day one? To this, the Sages reply that the first light was a special Divine radiance that God set aside as a gift for the righteous in the world to come (9). Rabbi Kook commented that he was certain God granted some of that light to Rembrandt (10).
Of course, we know that some music, paintings, and photographs implicitly conflict with our sense of decency and good taste, and convey messages that directly oppose the Jewish conception of holiness. But at their apex, classical art and music have the capacity to make us look beyond the mundane world and perceive the miracle of all existence frozen in an eternal moment, or in a heavenly combination of musical notes. Today we are confronted with many artists and musicians whose only goal – motivated largely by a lack of real talent – is to shock. Consequently, their popularity will fade away, since each of their pieces can only shock us once. This does not excuse us, however, from completely ignoring the beauty that does exist within the world of art and music. To refuse to listen to a refined piece of music is to close oneself off from one of the most sublime experiences our world has to offer.
The following suggestion is attributed to American author and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water bath is to the body.”
It is time for the religious community to put this matter back on its agenda. (11)
(1) Eliyahu Meir Klugman, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: Architect of Torah Judaism for the Modern World, ArtScroll History Series (NY: Mesorah Publications Ltd., 1996) p. 320.
(2) Berachot 57b.
(3) Pesachim 65a.
(4) I Shmuel 16:23.
(5) Tehillim 4:1.
(6) Bamidbar 35:4.
(7) Bava Batra 24b-25a.
(8) See: Rabbi J.L. Bloch, Shiurei Da'at, p. 194. See also: Rabbi Dov Katz, Tenuat HaMussar (Tel Aviv, 5723) vol. 5, p. 76 ff.
(9) See Rashi on Bereishit 1:4.
(10) Jonathan Sacks, From Optimism to Hope (London: Continuum, 2004) pp. 29-30.
(11) This essay is inspired by Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel z”l.