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Nathan Lopes Cardozo

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.

vrijdag 22 juni 2018

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them. (Bamidbar 20:12)

ויאמר י-ה-ו-ה אל משה ואל אהרן יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל לכן לא תביאו את הקהל הזה אל הארץ אשר נתתי להם


For centuries, commentators have struggled with and argued about the incident of the Me-Meriva (the waters of strife). After the Children of Israel complained about the lack of water in the desert, God ordered Moshe to speak to a rock and draw forth water, but, as is well known, he hit the rock instead. (1)

Moshe was punished harshly for his failure to adhere strictly to the details of this command. Indeed, his ultimate dream to enter and live in the Land of Israel was shattered because of this one seemingly small mistake, and in spite of all his pleas for forgiveness, God did not allow him to lead the Israelites across the Jordan.

God’s severity in this narrative is unprecedented. Four times the Torah refers to this divine expression of “anger,” and five times God condemns Moshe for this sin: 1) “Because you did not have faith in Me” (2); 2) “You defied My word” (3); 3) “You disobeyed My command” (4;) 4) “You betrayed Me” (5); 5) “You did not sanctify Me in the midst of the Children of Israel.” (6)

The sin is even more perplexing when one considers that causing water to gush forth from a rock by hitting it is no less miraculous than producing the same effect via speech. Only one slight blow produced enough water to quench the thirst of millions of people. No scientific explanation could ever account for this! What was it in Moshe’s actions that reflected such flagrant disbelief and rebellion as to warrant that harsh response? What changed as a result of Moshe’s decision to hit the rock rather than speak to it? And why did God insist that water be produced miraculously by speech and nothing else? Why not leave this seemingly small decision in Moshe’s hands? After all, Torah “lo bashamayim he”. (7) The Torah is no longer in Heaven, and its rulings are up to humans to decide.

To Paraphrase Sophocles in his Philoctetes: I see that everywhere among the race of men, it is the tongue that wins and not the coercive act. Hitting implies coercion – a brute force that leaves the other no option but to follow the orders of the attacker. Obedience, therefore, does not demonstrate any real willingness, or agreement with the resulting action. Even the threat of physical coercion casts suspicion on one’s deeds, and usually implies a complete lack of authenticity.

Speech, on the other hand, is a means of persuasion that does not bypass or disable the listener’s decision-making process. Any response to speech will therefore be genuine. This is actually alluded to in Meshech Chochma. (8)

In many ways, the revelation at Sinai was an intensely coercive event. This position is borne out by the Talmud’s famous remark that God threatened to drop the mountain on the Israelites if they chose not to accept the Torah. (9) Rabbi Acha ben Yaakov protests this divine intimidation, saying that God indeed threatened to kill the Jews if they refused to be party to the covenant, and therefore the legality of the agreement, which was reached under coercion, is called into question. This implies that perhaps the Jewish people are not really obligated to keep the commandments in the Torah! Some Chassidic masters even suggest that it was this threat and this feeling of having been forced that led to the sin of the golden calf. (10) If so, it would seem that the harsh coercion was too much for the Israelites to bear and at a certain level became counterproductive.

That said, it was of utmost importance that the Jewish people accept the Torah. Sometimes coercion can be beneficial to people, serving as an essential ingredient for their education. Homines enim civiles non nascuntur, sed fiunt (Civil men are not born, but made), said Spinoza, (11) reflecting an old Jewish truth. But Law must ultimately lead to moral freedom.

This means that liberty is primarily an issue of education. To be an agent of freedom, and not constraint, lawful coercion must lead to awareness in people that had they understood the values inherent in the laws, they would have accepted them with even the gentlest forms of persuasion.

King David expressed this concept when he said: “I will walk in freedom, for I have sought out Your laws.” (12) Using a beautiful exegetical wordplay, the Sages read the description of the tablets, on which God wrote the Ten Commandments, not as “the writing of God engraved (charut) on the tablets,” but as “freedom (cheirut) on the tablets.” (13) Only when we engrave the laws into our hearts do we experience absolute freedom – self-expression in the deepest and truest sense. (14)

When standing at the border of the Land of Israel, the Jewish people underwent a radical change of “weltanschauung.” At Sinai, and during their years of wandering in the desert, God used coercion as a necessary device to prepare them for lives as Jews. Suddenly, as they entered the land and became more spiritually independent, they began to understand that the survival of Judaism would depend upon the effectiveness of gentle persuasion. While bound by the Law, they realized that to build a deeply religious society, Jewish educators would need to use the power of the word – gentle and inspiring – and not the rod, if they hoped to foster conditions in which Jews would be willing and feel privileged to live their lives according to the Torah’s mandate.

Had this not become clear at the inception of the first Jewish Commonwealth, the nation’s government could have become a tyrannical and fundamentalist dictatorship. This mode of leadership would have been a sign of weakness: Do the Jews have to be beaten into observing God’s law? It would have called into question the inherent truth and persuasive powers of the Torah, thereby profaning God’s name.

This, then, was at the core of Moshe’s sin. For the sake of later generations – who would need to know that the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness, of the gentle word and not the hard strike – God denied Moshe the merit of living in the land. In this way, He made it clear to all that leaders who seek to turn Israel into a holy nation by way of threat or by force may very well bring disaster to themselves and their people.


(1) Bamidbar 20:1-11.

(2) Bamidbar 20:12.

(3) Ibid. 20:24.

(4) Ibid. 27:14.

(5) Devarim 32: 51.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Devarim 30:12.

(8) ad loc. See also Maharal.

(9) Commentary on Bamidbar 20:11.

(10) See, for example, Chiddushei HaRim on Parshat Yitro.

(11) Thomas Hill Green, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1895) p. 53.

(12) Tehillim 119:45.

(13) Pirkei Avot 6:2.

(14) This is not what the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin calls “negative liberty” (i.e., freedom from…), but rather a constitutional freedom in which one’s own freedom automatically respects that of the other, and for which one is prepared to make sacrifices. Otherwise, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnow.” Berlin explains this at great length in “Two Concepts of Liberty”, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969) pp. 118–173.

Delen |

vrijdag 15 juni 2018

In nagedachtenis van Jaffa Baruch Sznaj z.l. en Elisjewa Yent Moskovits- Schijveschuurder z.l.


Renowned British Philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), a proud secular Jew, warns us that our need for ideal solutions is often beyond our reach and in fact dangerous.

“I believe (. . .) that some of the ultimate values by which men live cannot be reconciled or combined, not just for practical reasons, but in principle, conceptually (. . .) . You cannot combine full liberty with full equality – full liberty for the wolves cannot be combined with full liberty for the sheep. Justice and mercy, knowledge and happiness can collide (. . .) 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. So much for this, so much for that (. . .) . How much justice, how much mercy? How much kindness, how much truth? The idea of some ultimate solution of all our problems is incoherent (. . .) . All fanatical belief in the possibility of a final solution, reached no matter how, cannot but lead to suffering, misery, blood, terrible oppression (R. Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin).

Anybody who deals with the crisis of conversion in the State of Israel had better take these words to heart.

If we do not act quickly, growing assimilation will not only overwhelm the Jewish character of the State of Israel, but actually undermine its very existence and security. Nearly 400,000 Russian legal residents of Jewish descent, but who are halachically not Jewish, could unwittingly bring an end to the Jewish State within the next fifty to a hundred years, once their non-Jewish children marry into Jewish families. While it is true that if their sons marry Jewish women their children will be Jewish, this is far from a healthy option. The conversion issue is not just a halachic problem, but also a sociological one. It is highly undesirable for so many people of Jewish descent to ultimately remain non-Jews, especially in Israel. It will create serious social difficulties, including discrimination and feelings of rejection, which can easily undermine a society that is already dealing with enough problems.

Unresolved issues accumulate and inevitably create catastrophes. Many people see them coming, but like sleepers in the midst of a nightmare, they do nothing because the nightmare paralyzes them.

While much more must be done to inspire people to become Jewish and observe Halacha – through a welcoming atmosphere, exciting and convincing seminars, invitations to our homes, and other means –, demanding of people to observe all of the commandments is too much for many of them.

Here is where we need to take notice of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s warning. There are no perfect solutions. A far-reaching compromise and an ideological trade-off will be necessary. We must choose between a priori halachic standards – only converting people who are prepared to live according to Halacha, consequently causing a flood of assimilation in the State of Israel and endangering its existence as well as the security of millions of Jews – or using every lenient halachic view, expressed by major halachic authorities of the past and present, to prevent that (See my book: Jewish Law as Rebellion, chapters 41 and 46).

It will be necessary to establish a halachic ruling and to admit that the survival of the State of Israel overrules the need for such a halachic commitment on an individual level. However painful, we are not permitted to apply the conventional strict standards of conversion, without using many lenient rabbinical opinions as stated in our traditional sources. The strict opinions never imagined a modern Jewish State that would absorb nearly 400,000 non-Jews of Jewish descent.

It would be a colossal mistake to apply the strict halachic ruling, constituting a transgression of the very Halacha to which we are committed. The halachic need to convert these people, no matter what, is not the lenient ruling, but in fact the stricter one.

Instead of waiting until the candidates are ready to take on Jewish Law and only then converting them, we should first convert them, make them feel comfortable, invite them to our homes and synagogues, and slowly introduce them to Jewish religious values and Halacha. This should be done by way of gentle persuasion and love, with no coercion whatsoever. We must give them the option of making their own choices, introducing them to a “ladder of observance” that they can climb at their own pace and within their own abilities. This will be much more effective than making all sorts of preconditions, which for the most part are counterproductive.

Let’s tell them that it would be great if they would start observing some biblical laws and that there’s no need (yet) for them to observe all rabbinical laws. Let it be optional. We can inform them about the many minority opinions in the Talmud that may be more applicable to them and will speak more to their hearts. When they are ready for it, they may introduce alternative laws and practices and decide how to observe Shabbat while making use of tradition. Let us suggest that saying Shema Yisrael in the morning and evening is a major accomplishment; putting on tefillin once in a while is a most meaningful undertaking; and wearing a kippa all the time is not even a halacha, but can be a beautiful and pious act (See: Biur ha-Gra, Orach Chaim 8:2). Let them make their own berachot if they want, or just say “Wow” before they eat and “Thanks” after they are satisfied (See: Berachot 40b). Let them use their creative imagination and feel that they are gradually building their own Judaism and seeing its wonders. Slowly, some of them will discern the wisdom of the sages and introduce more of rabbinical law into their lives. They will do it willingly, out of a sincere desire to be part of this great tradition.

It is high time the rabbis realize that the very standing of Halacha is at stake. If it cannot find a realistic solution to the conversion problem, it will become less and less significant in the eyes of Jews the world over. In fact, it will prove that contemporary Halacha has run its course. Ultimately, it will lose its influence on our young people. It is not only the survival of Jews that is at stake, but also the survival of Halacha itself.

Most important to remember is that kabbalat mitzvot is not the only issue as far as conversion is concerned. Judaism is much more than just Halacha. The first convert and Jew, Avraham, was only asked to observe a few of the commandments, such as circumcision. An incubation period was required to allow for an embryonic form of Judaism which was to develop slowly and be solidified at Sinai with the giving of the Torah. In this time frame, the great moral-religious foundations of Judaism and the conditions for creating the Jewish nation were shaped. Only afterward was it possible to introduce the world of mitzvot and Halacha. We should allow potential converts this option to slowly work their way up to Sinai. And if they will not arrive at this destination, we should be pleased that they have cast their fate with our people. Every mitzva the convert does is done as a Jew, and that in itself is a great accomplishment (See: R. Ben Zion Uziel, Mishpatei Uziel Yore De’eah, 2:58). We can then hope that the convert’s child will observe many more commandments.

At the same time, we should not forget that strict adherence to the law only can actually do great harm. Every legal system works in categories of right and wrong, lawful and unlawful. But life itself is much more than any law can ever sustain or cover – even divine law. There is a narrative that slips through the net of the law and rises above it. A nation with a mission must be constantly aware that sometimes it has to break the strict law so as to allow the spirit of the law and its ultimate goal to have the upper hand.

While far from ideal from a religious or conventional halachic point of view, it may be necessary to introduce mass conversion as the only option to overcome the impending danger of countless mixed marriages in Israel, which will otherwise break the backbone of the Jewish State. Inclusiveness is now the order of the day. (See: R. Yoel ben Nun, Eretz Acheret, 17)

We must remind ourselves that since the State of Israel was established, our future is in our own hands. Never have we had such freedom to do whatever we wanted when it comes to our own destiny. No one can stop us from doing what needs to be done. This is unprecedented in the last two thousand years of Jewish history. All that is required is courage.

This is true about Halacha as well. It is up to the leading Orthodox rabbis to realize this and show us the way. Whether they like it or not, ultimately they will be forced to take drastic steps and change their attitude toward the issue of conversion in the State of Israel. The only question is how many casualties will there be before they come around. They should be most careful not to extend their imprimatur after the fact.

“The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it”, said English author G.K. Chesterton (The Methuselahite).


Deze open brief werd zondag 10 juni geplaatst in The Jerusalem Post.

Delen |

vrijdag 1 juni 2018

The Chanuka menora, sometimes called the chanukiah, has its roots in the menora-candelabra of the Temple. While there are many halachot regarding the appearance and structure of the biblical menora, Rashi, the great French commentator, points to a most remarkable halachic feature that commands our attention. Regarding the Torah’s instruction to arrange the lamps in a way that they will shine “toward the menora”, (1) Rashi explains this to mean that all the flames in the lamps should point toward the middle light.

The Italian sage and physician Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, in his masterful commentary on the Torah, elaborates on Rashi’s comments and explains that the extremists on both ends of the spectrum need to focus on the middle road, which is symbolized by the central light of the menora. While both groups are completely dedicated to Torah and its tradition, the right-wingers need to know that without those who occupy themselves with the affairs of the mundane world, Judaism will not succeed. At the same time, the left-wingers must understand that without those who occupy themselves with the study and implementation of Torah, their worldly occupations would lack the opportunity for sanctification.

Only in a combined effort, symbolized by the middle light, will there be the degree of balance required by the Torah and Judaism. This is based on the Talmudic principle: “If not for the leaves, the grapes could not exist.” (2)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), known for his philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz (the study of Torah combined with worldly occupation), comments on Ya’akov’s final blessings to his children:
“The nation that will descend from you is to be one single unit outwardly oriented, and a multiplicity of elements united into one – inwardly oriented. Each tribe is to represent a special national quality; is to be, as it were, a nation in miniature. The people of Ya’akov is to become “Yisrael,” is to reveal to the nations God’s power, which controls and masters all earthly human affairs, shaping everything in accordance with His Will. Hence, this people should not present a one-sided image. As a model nation, it should reflect diverse national characteristics. Through its tribes, it should represent the warrior nation, the merchant nation, the agricultural nation, the nation of scholars, and so forth. In this manner it will become clear to all that the sanctification of human life in the Divine covenant of the Torah does not depend on a particular way of life or national characteristic. Rather, all of mankind, with all its diversity, is called upon to accept the uniform spirit of the God of Israel. From the diversity of human and national characteristics will emerge one united kingdom of God.” (3)

Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, the Chatam Sofer (1762–1839), offers a slightly different explanation for the halachic requirement as to which direction the lights should face. He warns his readers not to deviate from the middle road. As long as Jewish Law is fully observed, one should not be too much of a right-winger or too much of a left-winger. (4) In other words, the call is not for the extremists to find a modus vivendi, but rather for each individual to live a life in which both extremes are avoided. The ways of God testify to religious balance. This is not to suggest a mediocre attitude toward observance or the maintaining of a religious status quo in which people no longer strive for higher spiritual dimensions. On the contrary, it advises one to understand that the ultimate goal is not to become religiously obese, but to become spiritually elevated. To become extreme is to grow plump, with the result that one topples over; to become elevated is to keep growing in smooth and continuous stages.

To walk the middle path is an art, and is much more difficult than adopting an extreme position. Those who live by extremes often do so because it is more convenient. Things are black or white, clearly identifiable. Those who love the middle road have learned to perform the balancing act, which is much closer to the truth, but a great deal more challenging. Extremism reflects a simple diagnosis of the world’s problems and the conviction that everybody who disagrees is either an ignoramus or a dangerous villain.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the question whether the State should be governed by Jewish or by democratic values remains at the center of our national debate. Both values seem almost irreconcilable. Judaism represents a theocentric worldview in which God is placed at the center. He is the focus and absolute authority, while the democratic worldview places the people at the center.

In some of the most remarkable discourses by Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (14th century Spain), also called Ran, this great Talmudist and thinker launched a theory in which he argued that Judaism does not subscribe to the idea of a full-fledged theocracy, but in fact favors a halachic democracy. (5) He framed a daring and highly intriguing political theory that created a separation between the law of the Torah and “the law of the king”, societal law. Since Ran, like English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), saw the major problem of any society to be the destructive nature of humanity, he believed it necessary for the state to establish laws that deal with the reality of day-to-day life, which often does not live up to the spiritual requirements of the Torah. This theory, claims Ran, follows from the fact that the Torah demands, or at least allows, for the appointment of a king. The judges of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical High Court of Israel, judge the people by the law of the Torah only. The king or the political establishment, however, is permitted – and even required – to judge citizens by different criteria in accordance with the needs of the time, and sometimes even against the standard ruling of the Torah.

According to this model, Halacha seeks to create a certain duality within the Jewish polity and allows space for a democratic model in which human beings decide the law, not only God. This is with the full permission, nay, on the initiative of God Himself as reflected in the Torah. In other words, the Torah itself gives its imprimatur to state law: “Appoint yourselves shoftim [judges sitting in the Sanhedrin] and shotrim [magistrates who judge according to ‘the law of the king,’ civil law].” (6)

Likewise, the Torah writes: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (Pursue perfect justice). (7) The repetition of the word tzedek (justice) can be understood as referring to justice according to Torah Law as well as justice according to “the law of the king.”

We see here a fascinating balance between divine law and human law. Both are represented and together allow society to function, while the law of the Torah is seen as the ultimate spiritual and moral objective. (8)

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook (1865–1935), Chief Rabbi of Palestine before the State of Israel was established, takes this even further and points out that although we can no longer appoint a king in Israel – since only a prophet may anoint him – we see that there were Jewish kings during the Hasmonean period of the Second Commonwealth when prophecy had already ceased. Therefore, he claims, it is possible for a secular Jewish government to be appointed, like a king, once the electorate, by means of a democratic election, decides to give it authority. (9) This he believed would be permitted and even be sanctified by Halacha.

This, I believe, is yet another aspect of what the menora’s design with the focus upon the middle light signifies.

  • This essay appears in my latest book: Jewish Law as Rebellion, Urim Publications, 2018.



(1) Bamidbar 8:2.

(2) Chullin 92a.

(3) R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, trans. Daniel Haberman, vol. 1. (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2002), 693 [Bereshit 35:11–12].

(4) R. Moshe Sofer, Torat Moshe on Bamidbar 8:2.

(5) Derashot ha-Ran, nos. 8 and 11.

(6) Devarim 16:18.

(7) Devarim 16:20.

(8) See Derashot ha-Ran nos. 8 and 11. This differs from the view of Rambam and some other important halachists. See, for example, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim, 4:10. For other opinions, see Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437–1508), commentary on Devarim 16:18 and on 1 Shmuel 8:4–6. R. Yosef Hayyun (15th century), commentary on Pirke Avot, Mili de-Avot 3:2; R. Yeshaya Horowitz (c. 1565–1630 – the Shelah ha-Kadosh), Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, part 2, Torah Ohr on Parashat Shoftim. For a thorough study and additional sources on this topic, see Aviezer Ravitzky, Religion and State in Jewish Philosophy: Models of Unity, Division, Collision and Subordination, trans. Rachel Yarden (Jerusalem: Israel Democracy Institute, 2002).
Also related to this issue is the fascinating disagreement between Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863–1940), leading member of the Council of Sages of Agudat Yisrael prior to the Holocaust, and Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac ha-Levi Herzog (1888–1959), former Chief Rabbi of Israel, concerning the question of whether or not to establish a halachic state in modern Israel. Rabbi Grodzinski, who was not a Zionist, was of the opinion that the State of Israel should adopt the approach of Ran and allow for a secular government and legal system, while Rabbi Herzog, a fervent Zionist, wanted to implement a fully halachic state, not based on Ran’s position, but on Rambam’s legal theory! Remarkable is the fact that Rabbi Grodzinski was one of the greatest halachic authorities and had minimum interaction with secular studies, yet he was prepared to give secular law much power in the Jewish State, while Rabbi Herzog, who was as halachically brilliant as Rabbi Grodzinski and held several advanced degrees including a PhD, would not hear of it! Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski’s letter was published in Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac ha-Levi Herzog, Techuka le-Yisrael al pi ha-Torah, ed. I. Warhaftig (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1989), 2:75. For more information about this debate, see ibid. 65–89; Ravitzky, Religion and State in Jewish Philosophy, 11–14.

(9) Mishpat Kohen, no. 144, section 14.1.

Delen |

vrijdag 25 mei 2018

One of the most puzzling laws in Halacha (Jewish Law) is the requirement to observe a second day Yom Tov (festival) in all Jewish communities outside of Israel.

Before the establishment of a set calendar of the Jewish year, there was doubt concerning the day on which Yom Tov should be celebrated outside of Israel. The Sanhedrin (Jewish High Court) in Jerusalem would declare the first day of a new month on the basis of eyewitness testimony given by people who had just seen the first appearance of the new moon. The court would then immediately send out messengers to inform the nearby communities as to which day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month), so that they could observe the festivals at the proper time. Jewish communities that were located outside the land, and too far from Jerusalem to be informed of the precise day of Rosh Chodesh, were told to keep two consecutive days of Yom Tov, since they could not, in time, know which day the new month had started in Israel. Since a Jewish month can consist of 29 or 30 days, there could be a difference of one day. And since biblical festivals always have a fixed and specific date in the month (as stated by the Torah), a two-day celebration became necessary. (1)

This law is still applicable today. Consequently, any Jew living outside of Israel is required to observe two days on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

The difficulty with this rabbinical decree today is that since the days of Hillel HaNasi (4th century CE), an official and fixed calendar (independent of eye witnesses) is in operation and, consequently, there is no longer any doubt about which day is the correct day of Yom Tov. It is therefore quite surprising that the Sages did not annul the second day Yom Tov, but insisted on its continuation.

The classical reason given is that since this had become the official minhag (custom) for so many years, and was so well established, an annulment would no longer be possible.

The renowned Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin – also known as Netziv (1817-1893) – the last Rosh Yeshiva of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, suggests in his Ha’amek Davar a completely different approach, which will be an important eye-opener to many.

In Parashat Emor (2), we are introduced to the festivals of the Jewish year with the following seemingly superfluous words: “And you shall keep My commandments and you shall perform them. I am the Lord.” After offering an interesting approach to this problem, Netziv continues and states that the reason for this “superfluous” verse is to instruct the Sages to make a fence around these festivals and strengthen them by requiring a second day Yom Tov outside the Land of Israel.

In his notes (3), called Harchev Davar, Netziv quotes a statement in the teshuvot (responsa) of Rabbi Hai Gaon – one of the greatest halachic authorities of the 10th century – in which he says that the requirement of keeping a second day Yom Tov outside of Israel was already alluded to by the prophets. He concludes with the following words: “And perhaps this was done since the days of Yehoshua ben Nun (Joshua) for those who lived outside [the Land of Israel.]”

Netziv then comments that in principle there is absolutely no reason to keep a second day Yom Tov outside of Israel, even when one is not sure of which day is the correct one (see above). His argument is that Jewish Law always follows the majority in all matters of halachic doubt, and since in most cases the Jewish months have 29 days and not 30, there is no reason to keep a second day Yom Tov.

Netziv continues and proves this point by stating that we would otherwise encounter a serious contradiction in Judaism. Why don't we keep two days Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)? And we could no doubt ask why, when counting the Omer (49 days between Pesach and Shavuot) outside of Israel, we only count one date and not two. After all, if Pesach would have started one day later, there should have been the need to begin counting the Omer one day later as well. In that case we should, for example, say (outside of Israel), “Today is the 31st or the 32nd day of the Omer.” This, however, is not done and is in fact forbidden.

Netziv therefore concludes that the above verse: “And you shall keep My commandments, and you shall perform them” comes to teach us that we should be extremely careful to observe these festivals for two days; we should not rely on the fact that most months have only 29 days and consequently keep the festivals for only one day. The meaning of the verse, then, would be: And you shall surely keep them in the best way possible and not allow for any doubt.

We may wonder, however, to what specific matter our verse is alluding, according to Netziv. Why should one observe two days Yom Tov outside of Israel so as to make sure that we definitely celebrate them properly? Why not following the majority of months with only 29 days?

The answer may be found in an observation made by Rabbi Menachem Recanati, one of the great kabbalists of the 13th-14th century. He tells us that it is impossible for people outside the Land of Israel to be as inspired by a particular festival as it is for people in the Land of Israel. Israel carries its own spirituality into any festival, and in only one day people are able to accomplish great spiritual achievements.

Outside of Israel, however, where the spiritual environment is not conducive to this kind of soul state, one needs two days to achieve the same goal. We may now understand why there is no requirement to observe two days of Yom Kippur. This is not only due to the fact that people will not be able to fast for such a long time, but also because Yom Kippur, due to its extraordinary nature, is able to offer us the opportunity to achieve almost the same spiritual religious experience outside of Israel as that of someone living in the Land of Israel. On this day, the soul of a Jew should and could feel as if it dwells in the Holy Land, and no second day is required. (4)

In that case, we should state that it is erroneous to argue in favor of a one-day Yom Tov outside of Israel. Modern interpretations of Judaism, with their emphasis on greater spiritual quality, should only welcome such a rabbinical enactment instead of condemning it, since the quality of life in the modern-day Diaspora (even with all of its beauty) has definitely not been conducive to greater spiritual opportunities.

As anyone can testify, celebrating the Jewish festivals in Israel is an act of supreme delight. The festivals are invested with a very special spirit that cannot be experienced anywhere else.

No other land can compete with the Land of Israel!

This, it seems, is the secret behind the second day Yom Tov and why the sages did not abolish it.


(1) For a short overview of this complicated issue, see: Rabbi Yerachmiel David Fried, Yom Tov Sheni Kehilchato:the Second Day of Yom Tov in Israel and Abroad, adapted into English by Moshe Dombey, 1990; and Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, "Rosh Chodesh," in The Book of Our Heritage (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1979) vol. 1, pp. 213-232.

(2) Vayikra 22:31.

(3) ad loc.

(4) The reverse is true regarding the counting of the Omer. While Yom Kippur is able to offer us great spirituality, even to the point that outside of Israel there's no need for a second day, the counting of the Omer would be no more spiritually uplifting if a second counting were added each time the mitzvah was done.

Delen |

vrijdag 18 mei 2018

Whenever I meet self-declared atheists, which happens on a regular basis, I am always dumbfounded by their capacity to believe the unbelievable – a true tour de force. It moves me deeply, and I stand in awe, feeling highly uncomfortable at not being able to sustain a similar level of belief.

By now, I have read many books by famous atheists: books such as The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins; God Is Not Great (2007) by Christopher Hitchens; Stephen Hawking's Black Holes and Baby Universes (1993); and Dick Swaab's We Are Our Brains (Dutch edition, 2010). While these books are well written, and their authors often display great erudition in many important fields, I am fascinated by their capacity for a level of belief that seems so boundless as to make me deeply jealous of them.

The trouble is that while I am intrigued by these books, they also strangle me, and I feel the urge to run outside in desperate need of air.

They are telling me that our universe, with all that it includes, is the result of some accident that took place millions and millions of years ago. That somehow, existence came into being by chance and left us with a mindboggling world that is totally mysterious and astonishing. It is a universe in which the most wondrous things exist and happen, but I am informed that there is really no purpose to it all and that it's purely the result of some unfortunate coincidence.

I am asked to believe that the development of our universe is nothing but the result of evolutionary accidents and other cosmological incidents. I have a hard time believing this. My limited mind just can't grasp it. I keep on asking: If it's all an accident, then why does the universe bother to exist? And I feel terribly immature, compared to these great minds, when I ask that question.

Yes, I have studied the cosmological, teleological, ontological, and so many other arguments for the existence of God. And I agree that, philosophically and scientifically, they can be refuted, and that probably not even one of them is valid. But after all is said and done, I am still left with a strong inner notion of wonder: How can all this be accidental?

And how is it possible that my atheistic friends don't seem to have a problem with this? It worries me, because it seems that I'm missing something very important… But what? It keeps me awake at night and gives me no rest during the day. I want to be a rational human being, but I'm being told that as long as I don't believe in this huge accident, my faculties are underdeveloped and I cannot lay claim to reason.

And yet: I keep asking myself where all these natural and cosmic laws come from, and when I'm told that they too are accidental, I again have a hard time grasping this. It just doesn't sit well with me and I feel ashamed at my ignorance. It overwhelms me.

When I carry one my great-grandchildren – not more than a few hours old – in my arms, and I look at her or his face and small body, with tiny hands and feet, and I see that everything is there when only nine months earlier it was nothing more than a miraculous sperm that met an egg, I feel ashamed that I can't believe all of this is accidental. I just cannot make this leap of faith. It's too much, and I feel embarrassed that I can't join my atheistic friends.

But what am I to do? I cannot get rid of this sense of wonder that permeates my life. Yes, I admit it's terrible that I still live with this primitive and outdated notion of amazement, which I think was with me since the day I was born.

I must tell you that I've tried very hard. I have read countless books on the philosophy of science, on evolution, and God knows what else (pun intended!). But instead of helping me to see the truth, they have only increased my levels of wonder and amazement about this strange world in which I live. Accident? Really??

I am reminded of the great scientist Max Planck, who seems to have been as simplistic as I am when he wrote:
“What, then, does the child think as he makes these discoveries? First of all, he wonders. This feeling of wonderment is the source and inexhaustible fountain-head of his desire for knowledge. It drives the child irresistibly on to solve the mystery, and if in his attempt he encounters a causal relationship, he will not tire of repeating the same experiment ten times, a hundred times, in order to taste the thrill of discovery over and over again… The reason why the adult no longer wonders is not because he has solved the riddle of life, but because he has grown accustomed to the laws governing his world picture. But the problem of why these particular laws and no others hold remains for him just as amazing and inexplicable as for the child. He who does not comprehend this situation misconstrues its profound significance, and he who has reached the stage where he no longer wonders about anything, merely demonstrates that he has lost the art of reflective reasoning.” (1)

You see, Max Planck and I are in the same boat. We just don't get it: It's all an accident. When will we be mature enough and stop standing in wonder and amazement when we see the sun rising; or that a small amount of soft tissue in our skull produces ideas and allows us to make strange sounds, which others seem to understand as words, or that – most incomprehensible of all – we are able to comprehend? When will we come to our senses and stop being awestruck at the fact that we can enjoy music because we're able to bring all the different sounds together and make them into one, which deeply affects us, and elevates us to such a level of emotional upheaval that our hearts nearly burst from excitement?

After all, my atheistic friends tell me that everything has already been explained. And when they offer me books and essays that clarify why all of this is obvious, and then I very carefully read them all, I am left with more questions than answers (2).

Yes, I know that the notion of a God is full of problems and contradictions. I fully agree that our thoughts about this God are far too simplistic and underdeveloped and that most religions, including different forms of one-dimensional Judaism, are guilty of creating this often naive image.

But does that mean that I have to start believing the unbelievable and convince myself that everything is a coincidence and all is explained, or can be explained, by the human brain, which itself is the greatest mystery? Should I actually start believing that my notion of wonder must be reduced to some physical brain activity, which no brain has ever sufficiently explained to me?

So who is more of a believer, the atheist or I? Surely the atheist is. And I am jealous of atheists because they are able to believe the unbelievable. And I, in my simplicity, cannot reach that state of belief. I'm just too skeptical. And of course I'm terribly embarrassed! After all, it is a huge personal fiasco! Shame on me.

Anyway, I still can't sleep.


(1) Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography (NY: Philosophical Library, 1949) pp. 91-93.

(2) For some more reading to explain my questions, see: E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, Harper Colophon Books vol. 611 (NY/Hagerstown/San Francisco/London: Harper and Row Publishers, 1977); A. van den Beukel, More Things in Heaven and Earth: God and the Scientists (London: SCM Press, 1991); and Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).

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